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Topic 1: Federal representation

Student handout 5: Political parties and representation in the Senate

Focus questions

What is the nature of representation in the Senate?
What voting system is used in the Senate?
How democratic is representation in the Senate?

The Senate is called the States' house because under the Australian Constitution it represents the States. Each State, regardless of its population, has an equal number of Senators. Equal representation of the States was intended by the framers of the Constitution to protect the less populous States – Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland – against the possible domination of the more prosperous and more populous States of Victoria and New South Wales. The boundaries of each State and Territory form electorate boundaries. There are 12 representatives for each State and two representatives for each Territory. This means that there are 76 Senators in the Australian Parliament.

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Senate voting

As well as a preferential voting system, the Senate also uses a proportional system of representation. When voting for the Senate, each State or Territory votes as one electorate and parties offer groups of candidates. Each State or Territory votes for a group of Senators to represent them and each candidate must gain a proportion of the vote, called a quota.

The quota is worked out by dividing the total number of ballot papers by one more than the number of vacancies to be filled and adding one to the result.

Once a candidate gains a quota of the votes, the surplus votes he or she gains are transferred according to second preferences on the ballot paper.

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Voters may choose one of two methods of voting for the Senate. They may either vote for a party and its preferences as expressed on a 'How to Vote' card by putting a 1 in any box above the line, or they may number their preferences below the line.

Student activity

Election results

The following table shows the composition of the Senate after the 2001 Federal election.

Representation after the 2001 Federal election

Senate 2001 results: state of the full Senate from 1 July 2002

* Includes Country Labor Party in NSW

Key to parties:

ALP Australian Labor Party
LP Liberal Party
NP National Party
DEM Australian Democrats
HAN Pauline Hanson's One Nation
CLP Country Liberal Party
GRN Australian Greens
HAR Tasmanian Independent Brian Harradine Group
IND Independent

Source: AEC:

Group and class discussion

  • What do you notice about party support in the Senate compared with party support in the House of Representatives?
  • How many seats does the Coalition have in the Senate (remembering that the CLP, the NP and the LP would be in coalition)?
  • While the Coalition has no problems having its legislation passed in the House of Representatives, it has problems in the Senate. Why? What might it do to address this?
  • What might be the advantages of having a range of parties represented in the Senate? How might it add to the points of view that are heard in the Australian Parliament? How is this good for democracy?
  • Is it good or bad for democracy that governments usually do not control the Senate?

Previous handout

Overview | Notes for teachers | Introductory activities 1 | Introductory activities 2 | Topic 1.1 | Topic 1.2 | Topic 1.3 | Topic 1.4 | Topic 1.5 | Topic 2 | Topic 3 | Topic 4 | Extension activities