The 2016 federal election will be held on July 2. If it’s your first time voting, it could be a daunting prospect, but don’t fret – The Newsroom is here to help.
Today we launch our election guide, starting with a primer on how Parliament works.
Federal Parliament – Structure
In most Australian states (except Queensland), parliament runs on a bicameral system – that is, divided into an Upper House and a Lower House. The same is true of Federal Parliament: the federal Lower House is the House of Representatives (furnished in green), and the Upper House is the Senate (furnished in red).
At an election (which are generally held every three years), the party or coalition that wins the most seats and gains control of the House of Representatives forms government, and the leader of that government is the Prime Minister. Members of the House of Representatives are called Members of Parliament (Members or MPs).
As the House of Representatives has 150 seats, a simple majority of 76 is needed to form a government; if no party wins 76 seats (as happened in 2010), the result is a hung parliament, and major parties must secure the cooperation of independent and minor-party MPs (the cross-bench) to form a government.
Australia is divided into 150 constituencies of roughly equal population, usually named after geographical zones or prominent Australians, and each elects an MP to the House of Representatives; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, for example, represents the seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The Senate consists of 76 seats, which are elected on a statewide basis: each state supplies 12 senators, and each territory supplies two. Every voter has the opportunity to vote for any senator from their state – the candidates are not limited by electorate as they are in the Lower House.
Winning a majority in the Senate (39 seats) does not entitle a party to form government – it is possible for one party to hold a majority in the House of Representatives and another party to hold a majority in the Senate. As of the most recent election in 2013, neither party held a majority in the senate, meaning the Coalition government had to negotiate with cross-bench senators to pass legislation.
Ordinarily, senators serve six-year terms, with half the Senate being elected at each federal election. However, this year’s election is different – a double dissolution.
What is a double dissolution?
A double dissolution election occurs when the entirety of both houses of Parliament – the House of Representatives and the full Senate – are elected at the same time (as opposed to a normal election, in which only half the Senate is voted in). Double dissolutions are usually requested by a prime minister to break a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate, in the hope that the new Senate will vote in the Government’s favour.
In order for a double dissolution to take place, a bill introduced in the House must be twice rejected by the Senate, with a span of at least three months between each rejection. When that happens, the government has a trigger for a double dissolution, which can be used when it feels it necessary. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used (among other things) the Senate’s rejection of the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Constriction Commission (ABCC) as his trigger for this year’s double dissolution; before that, the last double dissolution was called by Bob Hawke in 1987.
A double dissolution makes it easier for minor parties to win a seat in the Senate, as the number of votes needed is lower when divided among 76 seats than among 38. In a double dissolution, a candidate needs a little over seven per cent of the vote to be elected, compared to 14 per cent in a normal election, due to the way Senate voting works. This could mean that the incoming government will face even more “microparty” senators than the outgoing government.
In the leadup to the election, The Newsroom will examine the parties and their policies, and let you know how to make your voice heard on the big day. It’s your vote – make it count! – Jake Nelson
Photo of Parliament House by JJ Harrison from Wikimedia Commons.