Australian House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is one of the two houses (chambers) of the Parliament of Australia; it is the lower house; the upper house is the Senate. Members of Parliament (MPs) serve for terms of approximately three years.


Origins and role

The House is presided over by the Speaker.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (Imp.) of 1900 established the House of Representatives as part of the new system of dominion government in newly federated Australia. The 150 members of the House are elected from single member electorates (geographic districts, commonly referred to as "seats" but officially known as "Divisions of the Australian House of Representatives"). One vote one value legislation requires all electorates to have the same number of voters with a maximum 10 per cent variation. However the baseline quota for the amount of voters in an electorate is determined by the amount of voters in the state in which that electorate is found. Subsequently, the electorates of the smallest states and territories have more variation in the amount of voters in their electorates, with the smallest holding around 60,000 voters and the largest holding around 120,000 voters. Meanwhile the largest states have electorates with more equal voter numbers, with most electorates holding 85,000 to 100,000 voters. Voting is by the 'preferential system', also known as instant-runoff voting. A full allocation of preferences is required for a vote to be considered formal. This allows for a calculation of the two-party-preferred vote.

The number of electorates in each state and territory is determined by population. The parliamentary entitlement of a state or territory is established by the Electoral Commissioner dividing the number of the people of the Commonwealth by twice the number of Senators. The population of each state and territory is then divided by this quota to determine the number of members to which each state and territory is entitled. Under the Australian Constitution all original states are guaranteed at least five members. The Federal Parliament itself has decided that the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory should have at least one member each.

According to the Constitution, the powers of both houses are nearly equal, with the consent of both houses needed to pass legislation. The difference mostly relates to taxation legislation. In practice, by convention, the leader of the party (or coalition of parties) with a majority of members in the lower house is invited by the Governor-General to form the Government. Thus the leader becomes the Prime Minister and some of the other elected members of the government party in both the House and the Senate become ministers responsible for various portfolios and administer government departments. Bills appropriating money (supply bills) can only be introduced in the lower house and thus only the party with a majority in the lower house can govern. In the current Australian party system, this ensures that virtually all contentious votes are along party lines, and the Government always has a majority in those votes.

The Opposition party's main role in the House is to present arguments against the Government's policies and legislation, and attempt to hold the Government accountable as much as possible by asking questions of importance during Question Time and during debates on legislation. By contrast, the only period in recent times during which the government of the day has had a majority in the Senate was from July 2005 (following the 2004 election) to July 2008 (following the 2007 election). Hence, votes in the Senate are usually more meaningful. The House's well-established committee system is not always as prominent as the Senate committee system because of the frequent lack of Senate majority.

In a reflection of the United Kingdom House of Commons, the predominant colour of the furnishings in the House of Representatives is green. However, the colour was tinted slightly in the new Parliament House (opened 1988) to suggest the colour of eucalyptus trees.

The composition of the House

The 2010 election resulted in the first hung parliament since the 1940 election. Four of six crossbenchers have given confidence and supply to the incumbent Labor Party headed by Julia Gillard to continue as a minority government.

House of Representatives (IRV) — Turnout 93.21% (CV) — Informal 5.55%
! ! !
  Australian Labor Party 4,711,363 37.99 −5.40 72 −11
  Liberal Party of Australia 3,777,383 30.46 +0.76 44 −11
  Liberal National Party (QLD) 1,130,525 9.12 +0.60 21 +21
  National Party of Australia 419,286 3.43 −0.04 6 −4
  Country Liberal Party (NT) 38,335 0.31 −0.01 1 +1
  Australian Greens 1,458,998 11.76 +3.97 1 +1
  National Party (WA) 43,101 0.34 +0.20 1 +1
  Independents 312,496 2.52 +0.30 4 +2
  Other 510,876 4.11 −0.38 0 0
  Total 12,402,363     150
  Australian Labor Party 6,216,445 50.12 −2.58 72 −11
  Liberal/National Coalition 6,185,918 49.88 +2.58 72 +7

*All results are final.[1][2][3][4]

Current distribution of seats

Party Seats held Percentage of House
  Australian Labor Party
  Liberal/National Coalition
  Nationals WA
  Australian Greens

Seats won by party at Australian elections, 1946 – 2010

Seats Won
Election ]] ]] ]] Other Total
1946 43 15 11 5 74
1949 47 55 19   121
1951 52 52 17   121
1954 57 47 17   121
1955 47 57 18   122
1958 45 58 19   122
1961 60 45 17   122
1963 50 52 20   122
1966 41 61 21 1 124
1969 59 46 20   125
1972 67 38 20   125
1974 66 40 21   127
1975 36 68 23   127
1977 38 67 19   124
1980 51 54 20   125
1983 75 33 17   125
1984 82 45 21   148
1987 86 43 19   148
1990 78 55 14 1 148
1993 80 49 16 2 147
1996 49 75 19 5 148
1998 67 64 16 1 148
2001 65 69 13 3 150
2004 60 75 12 3 150
2007 83 55 10 2 150
2010 72 61 11 6 150

Main Committee

A feature of the Australian House is its Main Committee, designed to be an alternative debating chamber; it is modelled after the Committee of the Whole that exists in several different legislatures, particularly the United States House of Representatives and the United Kingdom House of Commons. Matters considered to be relatively uncontroversial can be referred by the entire House to the Main Committee, where substantive debate can take place. The Main Committee cannot, however, initiate nor make a final decision on any parliamentary business, although it can perform all tasks in between.[5]

The Main Committee was created in 1994, to relieve some of the burden of the entire House: different matters can be processed in the House at large and in the Main Committee, as they sit simultaneously. It is designed to be less formal, with a quorum of only three members: the Deputy Speaker of the House, one government member, and one non-government member. Decisions must be unanimous: any divided decision sends the question back to the House at large.

The Main Committee was created through the House's Standing Orders:[6] it is thus a subordinate body of the House, and can only be in session while the House itself is in session. When a division vote in the House occurs, members in the Main Committee must return to the House to vote.

The Main Committee is housed in one of the House's committee rooms: the room is customised for this purpose and is laid out to resemble the House chamber.[7]

Due to the unique role of the Main Committee, proposals have been made to rename the body to avoid confusion with other parliamentary committees. Proposals include "Second Chamber"[8] and "Federation Chamber".[9]

The concept of a parallel body to expedite Parliamentary business, based on the Australian Main Committee, was mentioned in a 1998 British House of Commons report.[10]

See also