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What’s the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

We’re stripping it back to #auspol basics today. We’re going to explain the House of Representatives and Senate at a Federal level. What we are referring to today is Parliament House in Canberra, and we’ll be taking you through the differences between the two houses.  

The House of Representatives: Fast facts  

  • It’s one of two houses in the Australian Federal Parliament (in Canberra) 
  • There are 151 members, all who represent an electoral division 
  • The Chamber (room) is green 
  • When the Prime Minister is ‘sitting’ in Parliament, he sits in this room 
  • The House of Representatives is also known as the lower house, and ‘the House’ for short

The House of Representatives: The details 

There are a variety of roles the House of Representatives takes care of, with its central function being law making. Any member can introduce a bill (law), however most are introduced by the government in power at the time (using now as an example, that would be the Coalition). In order for the bill to become a law, it has to be passed through both houses — the House of Representatives and the Senate (we’ll get to the Senate later). 

Usually, the members in the House come from the Liberal Party, Labor Party or National Party, however there have been a growing number of independents and minor party members in the House over the years.  

The party (or parties) that hold Government generally tend to hold a majority in the House of Representatives (we say generally because of the exception of a minority government). 

Taking from the name, the House of Representatives serves as a representation of the Australian people and their electorates. The House is where members raise concerns from citizens. Plenty of debate occurs in the House, over legislation and policy, and anything of public importance. 

One thing from the House you might be familiar with is Question Time. Otherwise known as “who can yell louder”, Question Time is an opportunity for Members of Parliament to interrogate issues and ask questions. It goes for around an hour (sometimes more), at 2pm whenever Parliament is sitting, and you can usually watch it live. During Question Time, we often see something called a “Dorothy Dixer” which is a rehearsed or planted question asked of a government Minister by a backbencher of their own political party. Many see these types of questions as a bit of a waste of time, but more on that here

Moving on to the Senate.

The Senate: Fast facts

  • It’s the other house in the Australian Federal Parliament (in Canberra) 
  • There are 76 senators, 12 from each of the six states, and 2 from each territory, no matter the population of the state/territory 
  • The Chamber (room) is red 
  • The Senate is also known as the upper house

The Senate: The details 

The primary role of the Senate is checks and balances. It’s a house of review, meaning that its role is to review and scrutinise legislation and hold the government to account. There’s Senate Committees that investigate a range of issues in further detail. For example, there are legislation committees that are responsible for scrutinising bills. All the proposed laws that are introduced in the House of Representatives must be passed in the Senate as well in order to become law. 

Similar to the House, the Senate Chamber is in a U-shape, with the President (Senate version of the Speaker) at the top. On the right side of the President is the government in power, on the left side is the opposition, and in the middle on the ‘cross bench’ is where the minor parties and independents sit.

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