Elections in Australia

The most important elections in which most Australians will participate are those for representatives in national, state or territory and local governments.

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. The 2019 federal election will include a half-Senate election. 

Double dissolution elections

The 2016 Senate election was not a half-Senate election. Instead, it was a full Senate election as part of a ‘double dissolution’ election, so-called because the Governor General dissolved both houses of Parliament at once. In double dissolution elections, 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. An exception to this occurred in October 2018, when the Liberal Party lost the Wentworth by-election caused by the resignation from Parliament of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps won the seat, reducing the Liberal-National government to a minority of 74 seats.

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.

State and territory elections

Elections for state and territory parliaments are diverse. Lower houses and single house parliaments are elected every three or four years. Almost all the states and both territories now have a fixed term between elections, with the election date specified by legislation. In the other states, the Premier has some control over when elections are held. In each jurisdiction, all lower house representatives are elected simultaneously.

Upper house (Legislative Council) representatives are elected on a rotating basis, except in Victoria and Western Australia. Except in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, lower house members are the sole representatives of their electorates. Except in Tasmania, upper house members share the representation of their electorates with at least one other member. In New South Wales and South Australia, the upper house electorate is the whole state.

 

State and Territory elections
State or Territory House Maximum time between elections Number of members Number of electorates
New South Wales Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 93 93
  Legislative Council Half (21) elected every 4 years for 8 year terms 42 1
Queensland Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 93 93
Victoria Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 88 88
  Legislative Council 4 years (fixed term) 40 8
Tasmania Legislative Assembly 4 years 25 5
  Legislative Council 2 or 3 elected every year for 6 year terms 15 15
South Australia House of Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 47 47
  Legislative Council Half (11) elected every 4 years for 8 year terms 22 1
Western Australia Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 59 59
  Legislative Council 4 years (fixed term) 36 6
Northern Territory Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 25 25
Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly 4 years (fixed term) 17 3

Local government elections

Australia has around 537 local governments, often called councils or shires. These use a range of electoral systems, which vary even within a particular state or territory. One of the most distinctive features of some council elections is that as well as voting for council representatives, electors vote directly for a mayor to lead the council. This is different from Commonwealth, state and territory elections, in which the Prime Minister, Premier or Chief Minister is not chosen directly by the people.