How well do Australians know their Senate? According to a 2020 survey by the Australia Institute (AI), not very well at all. The nationally representative sample of 1600 people revealed a lot of confusion about key features of the Senate, including its composition, voting system and the length of senators’ terms.
Next Friday 25 February Bill Browne and Ben Oquist from the Australia Institute will present a Senate Lecture on the findings of this study, detailed in their report, ‘Representative, still: The Role of the Senate in our democracy’. For now, let’s recap some of the basics.
How many senators are there?
The Senate consists of 76 senators. Twelve senators represent each state and two senators represent each territory. The Constitution allows the Parliament to change the size of the Houses by legislation. The first Senate in 1901 only had 36 senators. The Constitution also provides that the number of members of the House of Representatives (currently 151) should always be as near as possible to twice the number of senators.
How long are senators’ terms?
State senators are elected for six-year terms. Territory senators serve the same term as members of the House of Representatives, which is three years. Only 15% of respondents in the AI survey were aware of this.
Membership of the Senate is ‘continuing but rotating’. In practice, this means that voters elect only half of all state senators at each ordinary federal election. Senate Brief No. 1 – Electing Australia’s Senators explains how this rotation system helps to strengthen the Senate’s role as a house of review and what happens to senators’ terms following a double dissolution election.
How are senators elected?
Senators are elected using a system of proportional representation. Unlike the system used in the House of Representatives, each state or territory counts as one electorate. For a senator to be elected they must receive more than a minimum proportion (quota) of the total number of votes in their state or territory. Proportional representation creates more opportunities for smaller parties and independents to be elected. It also reduces the likelihood of a government majority in the Senate.
Where can I find out more?
The Parliamentary Education Office (PEO) website is a great place to start to learn more about the Australian Parliament, including the Senate. The PEO’s introductory video below looks at the role and work of the Senate. Senate Briefs provide more detailed information on topics specific to the Senate.
In the meantime, please join us virtually at 12:15 pm on 25 February 2022 for the next Senate Lecture presented by Bill Browne and Ben Oquist on ‘The Senate’s new role in protecting our democracy’. More information available ataph.gov.au/senate/lectures.