8. Senate change - divisional representation


The Australian Senate comprises 76 Senators. Twelve Senators are elected by each of the six original States, with two elected from the both the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Section 7 of the Constitution states that:
The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.1
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) received proposals to alter the method of electing Senators, aimed at addressing a perception that Senators are largely based in state capitals, to the detriment of electors living in regional, rural and remote areas of the State.
This chapter looks at those proposals, and considers the number of Senators and Members of the House of Representatives and whether this impacts on representation.

The election of Senators

Each original State elects 12 Senators, regardless of geographic size or population. In addition, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) each elect two Senators.
In contrast, the electorates of Members of the House of Representatives are based on the number of electors. Electorate boundaries are redistributed to ensure that, as far as practicable, the number of electors in each electorate remains within 96.5% to 103.5% of the average divisional enrolment in that State or Territory.2
The equal representation from the original states reinforces the role of Senate as a ‘States House’ and ‘is vital to the architecture of Australian federalism.3
Senators serve for a term of six years, with half the number of Senators, and those elected in the Territories, retiring and standing for election every three years.

Proportional representation

Since 1949, Senators have been elected using proportional representation, which ‘is designed to ensure that representatives are elected in proportion to their support among the electors’.4
Proportional representation:
… provides parliamentary representation for individuals and parties with significant voter support, which would be otherwise unrecognised in parliamentary terms except where such support is geographically concentrated.5
Due to proportional representation, there is a closer relationship to the number of seats won to votes cast in Senate elections than the House of Representatives.6
Although in some cases Senators may be elected on small primary votes, ‘it is usually the case that the share of places secured by minor parties is less than their share of the vote’.7

Each state votes as one electorate

Section 7 of the Constitution made provision for Queensland to divide the state into divisions for the elections of their Senators:
But until the Parliament of the Commonwealth otherwise provides, the Parliament of the State of Queensland, if that State be an Original State, may make laws dividing the State into divisions and determining the number of senators to be chosen for each division, and in the absence of such provision the State shall be one electorate.8
Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice states that ‘the principle of each state voting as one electorate is now essential to the Senate’s, and the Parliament’s, effectiveness and should be retained:
This principle is a protection against “localism” in the election of senators. It also strengthens the bicameral quality of the Commonwealth Parliament by giving each House a distinctive system of election. The representational value of the Senate would be diminished not only if the representative base were to be subject to artificial manipulation, but, even more so, if single-member electorates were to be introduced, for it is in addressing the inadequacies of an electoral system on the single-member basis as used for the House of Representatives that the Senate is able to strengthen the representativeness of the Parliament as a whole.9
The ability of the Queensland Parliament to divide the state into divisions was removed in 1983 with the addition of Section 39 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Odgers’ states that this decision by the Parliament affirmed ‘state-wide electorates for the purpose of electing the Senate’.10

Location of Senators’ offices

The Hon Barnaby Joyce MP was critical of the number of Senators based in State capitals:
A small geographical area, which is a capital city, is graced with both the House of Representatives Members and nearly all the Senators to lobby on its behalf.11
Mr Mark Yore referred to the distribution of Senators as:
… a symptom of Australia’s growth – the underlying cause is the expansion of existing cities, lack of opportunity given to regional centres and the inability to create new cities.12
The JSCEM analysed the locations of offices of all 76 Senators13, categorised according to the AEC’s demographic classification of electoral divisions. Under this classification, electorates are described as being either inner metropolitan, outer metropolitan, provincial or rural.
The AEC’s demographic classifications of divisions is based on the following criteria:
Inner Metropolitan – situated in capital cities and consisting of well-established built-up suburbs.
Outer Metropolitan – situated in capital cities and containing large areas of recent suburban expansion.
Provincial – outside capital cities, but with a majority of enrolment in major provincial cities.
Rural – outside capital cities and without majority of enrolment in major provincial cities.14
The JSCEM found that the listed office of 55 Senators (72.4%) were in State capital cities, compared to 21 (27.6%) in provincial or rural areas outside the State capitals.
Table 8.1:  Location of Senator's Offices
Inner Metro
Outer Metro
Sources: Parliament of Australia, ‘List of Senators as at 5 October 2020’, viewed 14 October 2020, <https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Guidelines_for_Contacting_Senators_and_Members/los>; Australian Electoral Commission, ‘Australia – demographic classification of electoral divisions’, viewed 14 October 2020, <https://www.aec.gov.au/Electorates/files/demographic-classification-as-at-1-january-2019.xlsx>
It should be noted that the location of a Senator’s office does not prevent that Senator from engaging with, and advocating for, constituents throughout the State.
Mr Yore proposed the establishment of Senate offices across a State which would be allocated to Senators in order of election. The Senator elected first would receive first choice of location.15

Alternative methods for electing Senators

Division of States into electorates

The Hon Mr Joyce MP proposed an alternate method to elect Senators to be directly representative of specific geographical areas within a State rather than the State as a whole. This proposal involves dividing States into six regions, with each electing two Senators. The regions would be no larger than 30% of a State and a capital city would be a single region.16
Under this proposal, three regions would elect their two Senators every three years to maintain the rotation of Senators. Senators elected in these regions would ‘have to transition to a concentration on direct constituent advocacy’17 to attract the number of votes to be elected.
The Hon Mr Joyce MP manifested his proposal in legislative form, introducing a private Members’ bill into the House of Representatives on 24 February 2020. The Representation Amendment (6 Regions per State, 2 Senators per Region) Bill 2020 was intended to ‘provide greater representation of the geographical diversity of Australia’.18
In his second reading speech to the House, the Hon Mr Joyce MP reiterated his concern at the lack of Senators’ offices located in regional areas and his belief that competent candidates could secure a quota with effective representation of a geographic area.19
The bill was not further proceeded with and lapsed on 10 November 2020.
This idea, and others of a similar nature, have been contemplated previously. During a 1999 debate on an urgency motion in the Senate, then Senator Faulkner referred to a quote by then federal Director of the Liberal Party, Mr Andrew Robb in an article printed in the Financial Review on 12 June 1997:
A simple act of parliament altering the system of voting for senators would allow anyone of three options: a Labor majority, a coalition majority or a minor party controlled Senate. This could be achieved by splitting each state into six regions with each region electing two senators, one senator elected at each election. 20
The urgency motion debated at that time, which expressed ‘opposition to any attempt to manipulate the Senate voting system in order to advantage the government of the day’, was agreed to by the Senate.21
In an address to the Sydney Institute in 1999, then Senator Helen Coonan suggested an arrangement, with three regions electing four Senators each, two of whom would retire every three years.22
Analysis of Senator Coonan’s proposal by the Parliamentary Library concluded that the:
… arrangement would virtually guarantee that the seats would be shared by the major players, to the exclusion of all other parties and candidates.23
The proposal by the Hon Mr Joyce MP to divide states into Senate electorates was referred to by few submitters and only obliquely during public hearings.24 Philip and Kay Campbell supported the dispersion of Senators office locations throughout the states,25 however most other inquiry participants who referred to this proposal did so to express their opposition.
Mr Chris Curtis stated that dividing states into six electorates ‘would distort people’s votes by weighting a country vote at several times more than a city vote and make the Senate highly unrepresentative’.26
Mr Yore stated that the workload of Senators is generally ‘dependent on the population within their geographic region’:27
The proposal to split states into six regions would produce precisely the result found when applied to the Territory seats – one Coalition Senator and one ALP Senator from each region. Not only would it create a marked voter imbalance between states, but it would produce a substantial imbalance within states.28
Mr Malcolm Baalman was critical of electoral regions as it ‘would fundamentally reduce the representational quality of the Senate’29 and resemble ‘the pre-2003 Victorian Legislative Council, wisely reformed to improve its very poor representational outcomes’.30
Mr Jack Jacovou was concerned about the effect the proposal would have on the representation of urban voters, the principle of one-vote-one-value and parliamentary democracy.31

Seats apportioned to urban and rural areas

Mr Jacovou cited a 2016 report commissioned by the British Columbia electoral reform referendum that suggested multiple forms of proportional representation. This includes urban areas elected by single transferable vote and rural areas by mixed-member proportional (MMP).32
Under this proposal, a number of Senators would be elected by rural electors, in proportion to the population of rural areas. In NSW the 28% of electors in designated rural lower house seats would equate to 3-4 Senators.33
Options for the method of election for these rural Senators included awarding two seats ‘as if they were lower house seats’ and the other 2 would be normal Senate seats’, or electing all 4 under the current method using single transferable vote. Mr Jacovou was hesitant to recommend this option, as it would result in different quota for the election of urban and rural Senators.34

Number of Senators and Members

The number of Senators and Members of the House of Representatives are linked, due to s.24 of the Constitution. This nexus states that the number of members of the House ‘shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators’.35
The nexus between the size of each house:
… not only ensures an appropriate balance between the Houses in terms of their representational roles; it also places limits on the extent to which the House of Representatives can prevail over the Senate in the event of a joint sitting following a simultaneous dissolution: essentially, a proposed law must be supported by something more than a bare majority in the House if it is to have a prospect of securing a majority in a joint sitting.36
A proposal to alter the Constitution to break this nexus, i.e. allow the House to expand without increasing the size of the Senate, was rejected by electors in 1967.
The number of Senators, and subsequently the number of Members, has been increased twice since Federation. In 1949, the number of Senators from each original State was increased from six to ten37, and from ten to twelve in 1984.38 These changes resulted in the number of Members of the House of Representatives increasing from 75 to 123 in 1949, and to 148 in 1984. The current Membership of the House is 151; there are 76 Senators.
Mr Geoffrey Robin referred to the increase in voters between 1984 and 2019 without a commensurate increase in the number of Members,39 and was concerned that this was having a detrimental effect on the work of Members:
… as Australia’s population grows, the work-load on conscientious Members of Parliament can only increase, matched by a distancing of constituents and further decline of the respect and trust which should be due to the people’s representatives.40
Table 8.2 displays the average number of electors per Member of the House of Representatives for the 1984 and 2019 federal elections, as well as comparisons between other Westminster parliaments at recent elections.
Table 8.2:  Ratio of electors to Members
Average no. of electors per Member
United Kingdom
New Zealand
Sources: Australian Electoral Commission, ‘2019 federal election enrolment statistics’, viewed 18 November 2020, <https://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/federal_elections/2019/enrolment-statistics.htm>; Office for National Statistics [United Kingdom], ‘Electoral statistics, UK: 2019’, viewed 18 November 2020, <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/elections/electoralregistration/bulletins/electoralstatisticsforuk/2019>; Elections Canada, ‘Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums’, viewed 18 November 2020, <https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=ele&dir=turn&document=index&lang=e>
The above table demonstrates that the number of electors per Member has increased by approximately 50% since 1984.
Mr Robin was concerned that continued population increases, without an increase in the number of Members, would lead to a doubling of the average number of electors per Member by 2066:
It should be self-evident that, while the deterioration of trust in our political system may not be solely due to the nexus, acquiescing to the whittling of constituents’ power while ignoring the impact of a bloating electorate on MPs is damaging our democracy.41

Committee comment

Location of Senator’s offices

The JSCEM notes that the location of a Senators’ office is the prerogative of each individual Senator. The decision to place an office in a particular location is based on a number of factors. The necessity to be as near to as many constituents as possible would no doubt be a factor in this decision.
The JSCEM is hesitant to compel Senators to relocate their offices out of capital cities and is well aware of the service city-based Senators give to regions within their State. Those Senators who do base themselves outside of State capitals, however, should not be expected to carry the weight of regional representation themselves.
It is inconceivable that an individual Senator would restrict themselves to only representing their State capital, however the JSCEM acknowledges that covering the width and breadth of the larger States would be time-consuming and at times logistically difficult.
Some additional support for Senators would assist them in consulting and representing their State. This could include increasing the electorate allowance and the communication budgets of Senators.
Some temporary support for Senators is available through the Commonwealth Parliament Offices (CPO). These are available for the use of Parliamentarians on a short-term basis and are located in the capital city of each State and the Northern Territory.42 Some Senators have their own offices at these locations.

Senate electorates

Due to the limited evidence to hand, the JSCEM would need further information on the proposals to divide States into electorates or divisions before it would make an informed comment on the proposal.

Number of Parliamentarians

The JSCEM acknowledges the rising number of electors and the increasing workload of Members and Senators alike to service their electorates. This, in part, is the basis for the above proposal to secure regional representation from Senators.
An increase in the number of Senators may increase the availability of Senators to electors outside the capital cities.
The JSCEM is also aware of community sentiment that, in some quarters, would be resistant to increasing the number of parliamentarians without adequate justification.
This increase in the number of Senators would no doubt have an effect on the number of Senators based outside the State capitals. It would also substantially reduce the quota needed to gain election to the Senate. This would provide an opportunity for candidates from minor parties to gain election to the Senate.
As Australia’s population increases, the number of electors represented by each Member and the demands placed on Members and Senators alike will also continue to increase.
The JSCEM is not prepared to make any recommendations on the size of the Houses at this time, however a conversation to determine the appropriate number of Members and Senators to sufficiently satisfy the representational demands of the electorate would be welcome.
The number of voters per Member of Parliament is growing to an extent where it is challenging for members to service constituent workloads. Accordingly, at an appropriate time, there will need to be an increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives.
The number of office suites in the Parliamentary building and the space for seating on the floor of the House Chamber are suitable for accommodating future growth in the number of MPs.
However, there is no equivalent case to expand the number of Senators, as their primary duties pertain to legislative work rather than constituent work. Australia’s population has now reached the juncture where the House needs to grow further it keep pace. But the Senate does not to enlarge, and doing so could make it more fragmented and thereby complicate the ability to achieve compromise in the chamber on legislation.
The nexus between the number of MPs and Senators is a consequence of wording in the Australian Constitution; accordingly a referendum will be required to allow the two chambers to move to separate arrangements, that better suit their respective optimal working sizes.

Recommendation 24

The Committee recommends that consideration be given to a future constitutional referendum to break the nexus between the number of Senators for the States and the number of Members of the House of Representatives.

Recommendation 25

The Committee recommends that the Government consider asking the Committee to inquire into the size of the House of Representatives, with consideration to the growing average size of electorates and growing demands of the electorate.

Recommendation 26

The Committee recommends that the Government consider asking the Committee to inquire into the length of Parliamentary terms with a view to introducing non-fixed four year terms for the House of Representatives (and consequently eight year terms for the Senate) to bring the Commonwealth Parliament into line with State Parliaments.

Recommendation 27

The Committee recommends that the Government consider asking the Committee to inquire into:
The viability of replacing by-elections for the House of Representatives with alternative methods of selecting the replacement MP; and
The viability and ramification of determining a seat to be declared vacant when the sitting MP resigns from or leaves the Party under which they were elected.
Senator the Hon James McGrath

  • 1
    Constitution, s. 7.
  • 2
    House of Representatives Practice, 7th Edition, 2018, p. 91.
  • 3
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 114.
  • 4
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 10.
  • 5
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 11.
  • 6
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 11.
  • 7
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 12.
  • 8
    Constitution, s. 7.
  • 9
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, pp. 21-22.
  • 10
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 116.
  • 11
    Hon. Barnaby Joyce MP, Submission 35, p. 2.
  • 12
    Mr Mark Yore, Private capacity, Submission 86, p. 3.
  • 13
    Parliament of Australia, ‘List of Senators as at 5 October 2020’, viewed 14 October 2020, <https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Guidelines_for_Contacting_Senators_and_Members/los>
  • 14
    Australian Electoral Commission, ‘Political party name abbreviations & codes, demographic ratings and seat status’, viewed 14 October 2020, <https://www.aec.gov.au/Electorates/party-codes.htm>
  • 15
    Mr Mark Yore, Private capacity, Submission 86, p. 3.
  • 16
    Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, Submission 35, p. 1.
  • 17
    Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, Submission 35, p. 5.
  • 18
    Explanatory memorandum, Representation Amendment (6 Regions Per State, 2 Senators Per Region) Bill 2020, p. 2.
  • 19
    The Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, House of Representatives Hansard, 24 February 2020, pp. 1343-1344.
  • 20
    Senator John Faulkner, Senate Hansard, 15 February 1999, p. 1876.
  • 21
    Journals of the Senate, No. 16, Monday 15 February 1999, pp. 428-429.
  • 22
    Coonan, Helen, ‘The Senate, Safeguard or Handbrake on Democracy’, address to Sydney Institute, February 1999, p. 23.
  • 23
    Parliamentary Library, Current Issues Brief No. 10 1998-99, p. 5.
  • 24
    Mr Mark Yore, private capacity, Transcript, 9 September 2020, p. 24.
  • 25
    Philip and Kay Campbell, Private capacity, Submission 107, p. 1.
  • 26
    Mr Chris Curtis, Private capacity, Submission 62, p. 13.
  • 27
    Mr Mark Yore, Private capacity, Submission 86, p. 3.
  • 28
    Mr Mark Yore, Private capacity, Submission 86, p. 3.
  • 29
    Mr Malcolm Baalman, Private capacity, Submission 113, p. 11.
  • 30
    Mr Malcolm Baalman, Private capacity, Submission 113, p. 11.
  • 31
    Mr Jack Jacovou, Private capacity, Submission 29, p. 1.
  • 32
    Mr Jack Jacovou, Private capacity, Submission 29, p. 1.
  • 33
    Mr Jack Jacovou, Private capacity, Submission 29, p. 1.
  • 34
    Mr Jack Jacovou, Private capacity, Submission 29, p. 1.
  • 35
    Constitution, s.24.
  • 36
    Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 36.
  • 37
    Representation Act 1948.
  • 38
    Representation Act 1983.
  • 39
    Mr Geoffrey Robin, Private capacity, Submission 15, p. 1.
  • 40
    Mr Geoffrey Robin, Private capacity, Submission 15, p. 2.
  • 41
    Mr Geoffrey Robin, Private capacity, Submission 15, p. 2.
  • 42
    Department of Finance, ‘Commonwealth Parliament Offices (CPO) visiting suites’, viewed 13 November 2020, < https://maps.finance.gov.au/guidance/office-accommodation-and-resources/office-accommodation/commonwealth-parliament-offices-cpo-visiting-suites>

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