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About Parliament | History | Commonwealth symbols | Chartist checkbox | Did you know?

About Parliament

Commonwealth Parliament

Under the Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to make laws for all Australians. The Parliament consists of the British monarch, represented by the Governor-General, and two Houses: the Upper House and the Lower House. The Upper House is called the Senate. The Lower House is the House of Representatives. Proposed laws, known as bills, have to be passed by both Houses and assented to by the Governor-General before they can become laws, or acts of Parliament. Both Houses of Parliament have to agree to all terms of a bill before it can become law. The Senate has almost the same power to make laws as the House of Representatives, except that it cannot initiate or amend money bills – the laws that allow the government to collect taxes and spend money on policies and programs.

The House of Representatives currently has 150 members who are each elected for a term of up to three years. Each member represents a single electoral division with roughly the same number of voters. This means that all voters are represented equally. The party or coalition of parties that holds the most seats in this House forms the government.

The Senate has 76 Senators – 12 elected from each of the six States and two each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. State Senators are elected for a fixed six-year term; Territory Senators for three-year terms. Half the membership of the Senate is replaced on 1 July every three years. Historically, the Senate has been regarded as the States' House and State matters continue to be important to Senators. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate allows the states equal representation regardless of their population.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate use the preferential system of voting. For the Senate, this is combined with a proportional representation system because, unlike the single member House of Representatives electorates, the Senate electorates (the States and Territories) constitute multimember electorates.

Federal elections are held at least every three years. All Australian citizens aged 18 years or older are eligible to enrol as voters. There are a few groups who are not eligible to enrol, such as persons of &nprime;an unsound mind&nprime; or people serving prison sentences for serious crimes. According to the law, all people who are eligible to enrol must do so and voting is compulsory. People who are enrolled to vote but do not may be fined.


Australia did not always exist as a united nation. From 1788 until the 1850s, Australia's six colonies were ruled by British governors. These governors had far-reaching powers and were responsible only to the British government.

From the 1820s, colonists began to speak out against the power of the governors and campaigned for the introduction of representative government. In the 1850s, the British Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Government Act and began granting the Australian colonies independent government with separate colonial parliaments elected by the people.

During the late 1800s, many leading political figures began to argue for federation. They wanted the colonial governments to be united by a national government to form a single nation. The idea of creating a single national parliament was spurred on by issues such as immigration, defence and a growing sense of national identity.

During the 1890s, a number of conventions were held to work out the details of the new system of government. In 1901, the six separate colonies were finally federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

Commonwealth symbols

Australia has no official bird or animal emblem. However, because of their association with the Coat of Arms, the emu and the kangaroo are traditionally seen as national symbols. The kangaroo and emu are especially symbolic of an ´advancing´ Australia, as it is said that neither animal is able to take a backward step.

The Commonwealth Coat of Arms was granted in 1912 by King George V. It shows a kangaroo and an emu holding a shield displaying the badges of the six Australian States. The shield has an ermine border, which represents federation bringing the States together. The crest of the Coat of Arms is a blue and gold wreath topped by the seven-pointed Commonwealth star, one point for each of the six original States and one for both the territories. The Coat of Arms is usually decorated with wattle branches and a scroll bearing the word ´Australia´, although these are not an official part of the Arms.
The Australian flag consists of the British Union Flag and six stars on a blue background. The five stars to the right of the Union Flag represent the Southern Cross, a constellation visible in the southern hemisphere. The Commonwealth star appears on the left, beneath the Union Flag. The original flag design was chosen in a nationwide competition in 1901. It was changed in 1903 to give all but the smallest star in the Southern Cross seven points. In 1908 the number of points on the Commonwealth star was increased to seven after Australia´s acquisition of Papua. It did not become the official national flag until the Flags Act was passed by Parliament in 1953 and was given the personal assent of Queen Elizabeth II on 15 April 1954.


The federal Parliament House, Canberra, was opened in 1989. It was built of materials from all over Australia, and its design, from the Aboriginal mosaic in the forecourt to the eucalypt colours inside, represents the Australian landscape and culture.
Green and gold has been worn by Australian Olympic teams since 1912. Australia officially adopted these as its national colours in 1984.
The Wattle became the national Floral Emblem in August 1988.

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Chartist checklist

The Chartist checklist was a series of demands for responsible and representative government that spread throughout the Australian colonies from the mid-19th century.

Commonwealth of Australia (formed 1901)

Democratic right Date right achieved for Assembly
Universal adult male suffrage 1901
Secret ballot 1901
Annual parliament Not implemented
No property qualifications for Members of Parliament 1901
Payment of Members of Parliament 1901
Equal electorates 1974 Electorates can vary by 10%
Adult female suffrage 1902
Voting rights for Indigenous Australians In most States Indigenous men have been entitled to vote since the 1850s. After federation Indigenous people were denied the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, which also saw many excluded illegally from State elections. In 1949 the Commonwealth Parliament passed legislation allowing all Indigenous people entitled to vote in their State to participate in Commonwealth elections. In 1962, all Indigenous people, regardless of their voting rights in the States, were granted the vote for the Commonwealth Parliament. It was not, however, compulsory for Indigenous people to enrol to vote in Commonwealth elections until 1984.

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Did you know?

  • The House of Representatives is sometimes known as ´the People´s House´. This refers to its role as a place where the views and wishes of the Australian people can be heard. Electoral divisions for the House of Representatives differ greatly in area. The smallest electorate, at only around 30 square kilometres, is Wentworth in New South Wales. The largest electorate is Durack in Western Australia, which covers almost 1.6 million square kilometres.
  • While the number of representatives that each State and Territory is allowed in the House of Representatives is determined by its population, States are guaranteed a minimum of five members in the House of Representatives.
  • When the Senate and the House of Representatives cannot reach agreement on the terms of a bill, a double dissolution of Parliament may result. This means that the Prime Minister calls upon the Governor-General to disband, or dissolve, both Houses of Parliament at the same time. The Australian Head of State is the British monarch who appoints the Governor-General as his or her representative on advice from the Prime Minister.

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