Federal elections

House of Representatives elections

Elections for the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Commonwealth Parliament) decide which elected representatives will form the national government.

Usually either the Labor Party or the Liberal and National Coalition wins a majority of the 150 House of Representatives seats and forms a government. The 2010 election was unusual in that Labor and the Coalition each won 72 seats. Labor gained the support of enough of the minor party and Independent Members of the House of Representatives to form a minority government.

The Australian Constitution requires that House of Representatives elections be held at least every three years. They may be held sooner if the Governor General ‘dissolves’ the House of Representatives (usually at the request of the Prime Minister). In such elections, each member of the House is elected from a different geographical region called an ‘electorate’.

Hot Tip: Coalition

The Coalition is an agreement between the Liberal Party and the National Party that means that they share government ministries and often develop policies together. This arrangement has been in place for most of the period since 1923.

Senate elections

Elections for the Senate decide who sits in the upper house in the Commonwealth Parliament. Since bills must pass through both houses of Parliament to become law, elections for the Senate are almost as important as those for the House of Representatives. As with the United States Senate, the senators represent states or territories. Each state has twelve senators and each territory two senators, making 76 senators in total.

The Constitution provides for the rotation of senators, so that usually not all face election at once. Instead six of the twelve senators for each state are elected at a normal ‘half-Senate’ election. They are elected for six year terms. The four territory senators are elected every three years. Half-Senate elections do not have to coincide with House of Representatives elections, although they usually do. The last half-Senate election that did not coincide with a House election was held in 1970.

Double dissolution elections

The 2016 Senate election will not be a half-Senate election. Instead, it will be a full Senate election as part of a ‘double dissolution’ election, so-called because the Governor General dissolves both houses of Parliament at once. In this case, all senators and Members of the House of Representatives must retire or recontest their positions. The Constitution provides for double dissolution elections to resolve deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate; that is, lengthy disagreements between the two houses about whether a bill should become law. Interestingly, bills that trigger double dissolutions in this way often do not feature heavily in the election campaigns that follow the parliamentary deadlock. Including 2016, only seven federal elections since 1901 have been double dissolution elections.

House of Representatives By-elections

When a Member of the House of Representatives resigns, dies or is no longer eligible to sit in Parliament, his or her seat can be filled through a by-election. Only voters in the former Member’s electorate vote for a replacement Member.

A by-election is often contested by a larger number of candidates than would normally contest the electorate at a federal election. By-elections are generally seen as a test of a government’s popularity; however, they rarely have an impact on who governs. Most governments can afford to lose the few by-elections that occur between federal elections without this affecting their majorities in the House of Representatives.

Casual senate vacancies

When a senator resigns or dies, he or she is replaced without a by-election. The parliament of the state represented by the former senator appoints another person in his or her place, thus filling the ‘casual vacancy’. After controversial Senate appointments in the 1970s, the Constitution was amended in 1977 to ensure that senators chosen to fill casual vacancies were from the same party as those they replaced.