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Parliament House, Canberra

General Information

Definitions of Parliament and other key terms, explanations of the workings of the parliamentary system, some history of the Australian Parliament, statistics on members and factsheets.

Functions of Parliament

Like all Westminster parliamentary democracies, the Australian Parliament performs a number of important functions. Foremost among these are the ability to make and break governments, to represent the electorate, to represent the States, to legislate, to monitor and scrutinise government activities and the expenditure of public money, and to be a forum for debate and the expresssion of grievances.

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the lower house of the Australian Parliament. Currently composed of 150 representatives elected from single-member constituencies, the House decides which party shall govern and is the focal point of political debate and conflict.


The Australian Senate is one of the most powerful upper houses of any parliament in the world. With equal representation of the States, a proportional voting system that allows minority parties to win seats, the Senate is rarely controlled by the Government or the Opposition.

Parliament In Action

Parliamentary procedure is often a mystery to the casual observer. Many arcane rituals and processes are followed every day. Curiously-named people officiate. The rules seem to be constantly under challenge from members.


How is legislation passed through Parliament? Looking for some examples of parliamentary legislation?

Parliamentary Questions

The daily Question Time is the most well-known of parliamentary procedures, but there are also Questions on Notice.

Parliamentary Committees

Much of the work of the Parliament is done in its Committees. These committees are composed of government backbenchers and members of the Opposition and other parties. Committees are either permanent (Standing), or temporary (Select). Some Committees are derived from the House or Senate alone, whilst others have members from both houses (Joint).


Hansard is the official verbatim record of everything that is said in Parliament. It is now available on the Internet.

The Opposition

The Opposition is the party or parties with the second largest number of seats in the House of Representatives. The Opposition Leader is the nation’s alternative prime minister. The Opposition’s responsibilities include highlighting government mistakes and proposing alternative policies.

Backbench Members

The backbench members of parliament are those MPs who are neither ministers nor shadow ministers. Their main task is to represent their electorates and support their party in parliamentary debates and votes. Often dismissed as of lesser importance than frontbenchers, the ordinary private member is also at the electoral frontline.

The Speaker & Other Parliamentary People

The Speaker is the presiding office of the House of Representatives, chosen by the governing party. The current Speaker is Neil Andrew, the Liberal member for Wakefield in South Australia. There is much debate about the role, powers and independence of the Speaker.


A feature of any bicameral parliamentary system is the possibility of an impasse between the two houses. In Australia, whilst the government is formed in the House of Representatives, the Senate has equal power in the passage of all legislation, except for its inability to initiate money bills. The question of the relationship between the houses, in particular the right of the Senate to block or amend legislation, is a perennial issue in Australian politics.

Parliamentary Reform

Parliamentary behaviour, politicians’ perks and the exercise of parliamentary power are often criticised. Myriad proposals for reform exist, including an independent Speaker, longer terms, fixed terms, removing ministers from the Senate, and curtailing Senate powers.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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