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The Senate majority

What on earth is the Senate? And what is its majority?

Submitted 4/19/2006 By doreen Views 26370 Comments 1 Updated 4/20/2006

What’s this about?

Every three years, you number a box on a piece of paper the size of a tablecloth and struggle to fit the tablecloth into an impossibly small cardboard box. What you’re doing is casting a vote for the Federal Senate, and for most of us, our interest in the Senate starts and ends there. But it shouldn’t.

How does the Senate affect you?

While the Senate can seem distant and irrelevant, it is actually the exact opposite. The Senate can affect the phone calls you receive, the place where you might be studying, the job you’ve just been offered. In other words, the Senate has a direct and significant impact on your everyday life. For this reason, knowing about the Senate is essential to making a decision based on your interests at each election.

What does the Senate do?

The Senate can make almost any kind of national law. It also acts as a ‘house of review’, or a check on the government. It does this in three main ways.

1. The majority in the Senate is usually made up of the parties that are not the ruling party in the House of Representatives (the government party). This means that the Senate tends to look at the government’s proposed laws more critically and will either reject or amend them.

2. The Senate is made up of an equal number of senators from each state, with territories receive a slightly lesser number. This ensures that the interests of larger states do not overwhelm the interests of the smaller states. This also differs from the House of Representatives, where the number of seats is based on electorates within states and territories. These are geographic areas made up of about 15,000 people.

3. The Senate has a committee system that investigates in-depth policy decisions made by the government.

What’s all this talk about a ‘Senate majority’?

In July 2005, for the first time since the early 1980s and for only the third time in history, the government parties secured a majority of seats in both houses of Commonwealth Parliament: the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the media this is commonly referred to as the ‘Senate majority’.

There are a number of claims made about the effects of a Senate majority

Some claim that democracy is reduced by a Senate majority because the government party is able to pass any laws it chooses with little opposition or consideration. For example, in December 2005, the Senate passed a Bill to establish voluntary student unionism called the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill. It is argued that this Bill would not have passed without significant amendment had it not been for the government’s majority in the Senate. This is because there was significant opposition from other parties about the Bill.

Others claim that a Senate majority will not necessarily reduce democratic processes. This is because there may still be opposition within the government party over proposed laws. It is argued that since Senators in the government party know their vote is crucial to the passing or rejecting a proposed law, they may not necessarily automatically agree with their party’s view and will carefully consider the interests of their constituents and their state. Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce has been particularly influential in the current Senate.

What should you consider before you vote?

Before you vote, it is worth thinking about how you would most like the Senate to function. The modern history of the Senate suggests that Australians want to check on the activities of the government party by filling the Senate with a non-government party majority. You should consider whether you agree with this or not. You should also have a look at the main policies of the major political parties and consider how they will affect you. At the end of the day, you get to determine this in folding up that tablecloth-sized piece of paper.

How do I know this?

Brissenden M 2005, ‘Senate majority makes for tumultuous time’, The 7.30 Report , 8 August,

Henderson G 2005, ‘Minority may yet tax majority’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January,

Parliament of Australia, The Senate: a short description,

Prime Minister John Howard 2005, Transcript of address at Liberal Party Federal Council Prime Minister’s Breakfast, 25 June,

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funnelweb 22-Apr-2007

The content here is great, however, some may argue that elected Governments should be able to introduce legislation in line with their mandate and not be hindered by minor parties colluding or "doing deals" for political gain. Perhaps that may be viewed as "undemocratic". The Democrats blocked the original GST and instead forced a ridiculous system that has resulted in thousands of pages of legislation and enormous compliance costs on business. Now, contrary to common view, Governments CANNOT impose any legislation they want. It must be constitutional, and since federal elections are every 3yrs if the legislation is unpopular they risk being voted out. Also, the Governor-General is given the job of sacking parliament or not approving legislation if it isn't in the interests of Australia or puts our democratic system at risk. So, how different would life be without the Senate?