Bills Digest No. 57 1999-2000 Constitution Alteration (Proportional Representation in the Senate) 1999

Numerical Index | Alphabetical Index

This Digest was prepared for debate. It reflects the legislation as introduced and does not canvass subsequent amendments. This Digest does not have any official legal status. Other sources should be consulted to determine the subsequent official status of the Bill.


Passage History
Main Provisions
Concluding Comments
Contact Officer & Copyright Details

Passage History

Constitution Alteration (Proportional Representation in the Senate) 1999

Date Introduced: 24 August 1999

House: Senate

Portfolio: Private senator's Bill


The purpose of the Constitution Alteration (Proportional Representation in the Senate) 1999 is to amend the Constitution so as to ensure the continuance of proportional representation as the method of election for all State and Territory Senators.


Senate election voting methods

Despite calls at the time of Federation for the use of proportional representation, Australia has in fact had three voting methods for the Senate:

  • First-past-the-post (until 1919)
  • Preferential voting (until 1948)
  • Proportional representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first two methods often gave absurd majorities, such as the 1919 election which saw the Nationalist Party (46.4%) win 18 of 19 seats, whereas the ALP (42.8%) secured just a single seat. There was a clear need for some voting method which would more accurately reflect voters' wishes.

Proportional representation was introduced to achieve greater proportionality, and has worked as designed, giving representation to parties in broad reflection of their popular support-in 1998, the Coalition and the Labor Party each gained 37% of the vote and 17/40 Senate seats.

The difficulty of gaining a majority

In the first three proportional representation elections, the Coalition and the Labor Party shared all seats, something they have failed to achieve in the seventeen elections since. This has been a consequence of the emergence of significant minor parties and a number of popular independents, and the use of proportional representation has reflected their emergence by their winning of seats in the upper house. In fact, the major party vote has steadily declined, and the number of non-major party Senate seats has increased-12 of 40 (30%) in 1998, for instance.(1)

The ability of non-major party candidates to win Senate seats was reinforced in 1984 when the Senate was increased in size. This lowered the electoral quota of votes needed to win seats in State election contests from 16.7% to 14.3%.

When these developments are added to the fact that the normal Senate election is for only half of the State seats, it can be understood why it has become almost impossible for the Coalition or the Labor Party to gain a Senate majority. Labor won five House of Representatives elections in 1983-93, but could not secure a majority, and even though the Howard Government won the last two House of Representatives elections, it is still two seats short of controlling the upper house.

Party responses

The party responses to this position have been diametrically opposed. A number of suggestions have come from the Liberal and Labor parties for altering the Senate's electoral arrangements. The proposals have varied, but have had one aim in common-the reduction of the number of seats won by non-major party candidates.(2) The minor parties, by contrast, have spoken strongly in favour of the retention of proportional representation for Senate elections. The Australian Democrats, for example, made a pledge during the 1998 election to 'oppose any attempt to change the Senate voting system as an attack on the very basis of the Senate's role as a House of Review and as an attack on representative democracy'.(3)

The Constitutional provisions

The significance of threats to alter the voting method can be seen in the fact that such a change only needs parliamentary approval. The relevant sections of the Constitution are as follows:

  • s.7 states that the Senate shall be 'directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate'.
  • s.9 states that the Parliament 'may make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators, but so that the method shall be uniform for all the States'. This means that there is no need to amend the Constitution to alter the voting method.

The history of Senate electoral arrangements indicates how easily Parliament can replace proportional representation with another method, just as it did in 1919 and 1948.

Main Provisions

This is a proposal to amend the Constitution by 'entrenching proportional representation as the method of electing the Senate'.(4) The amendments are contained in Schedule 1 of the Bill.

The Constitution (s.7)

This section of the Constitution contains basic provisions concerning Senators, including provisions concerning their election.

Item 1 of the Bill amends this section to stipulate proportional representation as the method to be used in all elections for the Senate. It also removes Parliament's power to alter this method except by constitutional amendment.

Item 1 also removes the special (and redundant) provisions governing the election of Senators for the State of Queensland.

The Constitution (s.122)

This section of the Constitution enables the Commonwealth Parliament to provide for the representation in the Commonwealth Parliament of any territory surrendered to it by a State, or by authority of the Queen.

Items 3 and 4 amends this section so as to ensure that territory Senators would also be chosen by proportional representation.

Concluding Comments

This Bill appears to be quite straightforward in its proposal to entrench proportional representation as the method of election for Senate elections. Were it to be passed, however, the fact that it does not specify any particular variant of proportional representation, might mean that its impact would be less than hoped for by the proponent of the Bill. Such an amendment would not prohibit alterations to the actual system of proportional representation, such as electoral thresholds or making some votes non-transferable.


  1. For the decline in major party support, see Scott Bennett, 'The Decline in Support for the Major Parties and the Prospect of Minority Government', Research Paper No. 10, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Information and Research Services, 1998-99.

  2. Scott Bennett, 'Should the Australian Electoral System be Changed?', Current Issues Brief No. 10 1998-99, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Information and Research Services, 1998-99, pp. 4-6.

  3. See e.g. Australian Democrats, The Choice 1998. A Stronger Senate, A Better Government, p. 6.

  4. Senator Harris, Second Reading Speech, Senate, Debates, 24 August 1999.

Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Scott Bennett
9 September 1999
Bills Digest Service
Information and Research Services

This paper has been prepared for general distribution to Senators and Members of the Australian Parliament. While great care is taken to ensure that the paper is accurate and balanced, the paper is written using information publicly available at the time of production. The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Information and Research Services (IRS). Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion. Readers are reminded that the paper is not an official parliamentary or Australian government document.

IRS staff are available to discuss the paper's contents with Senators and Members
and their staff but not with members of the public.

ISSN 1328-8091
© Commonwealth of Australia 1999

Except to the extent of the uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the prior written consent of the Parliamentary Library, other than by Members of the Australian Parliament in the course of their official duties.

Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1999.

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