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Australian Bicameralism Essay, Research Paper

Australian Bicameralism.

Bicameralism in Australia has a long history dating back to the pre-Federation colonial parliaments. These structures, in turn, evolved from their British forbear, the parliament at Westminster. At federal and state levels there has been considerable debate and controversy over the continuing efficacy and efficiency of the two-house model. Is it necessary or desirable to maintain two houses of parliament for state and federal governments in Australia? Did the Queensland government do the right thing in abolishing its upper house? What is the future of bicameralism in Australia? These are some of the questions that this essay will seek to address.

Parliaments in Australia originally consisted of councils of colonial landowners, the members of which were appointed by the respective Governors of the individual colonies. The purpose of these councils was simply to advise the Governor of the day and to assist him in his duties in administering the colony. No popular mandate was sought or recognised.

Concurrent with the growth of democratic sentiment in the 19th century, was the development of popularly elected houses in Australia, along the lines of the British House of Commons. These houses originally had a very limited franchise, which was expanded, over time, to include all of the adult population. The Upper Houses of the newly formed states continued to limit or distort their franchise, and indeed, still do so in a variety of ways.

The newly formed Senate was prescribed along different lines. This institution was to be a house of review, a house designed specifically to empower and protect the states from the dangers of domination by the federal government. The Senators were elected in equal number from all the states regardless of population and the Senate was given equal powers to that of the House of Representatives in all areas excepting the introduction and amendment of fiscal legislation. In this way it was hoped that States rights and prerogatives would remain paramount. However the result today is quite different from the Founding Fathers intent.

The most often stated function of an Australian upper house is to act as a house of review. That the Legislative Councils and the Senate perform the vital role of double checking legislation from the lower houses is a central tenant of bicameralism as an ideal. Unfortunately in many ways this function has been severely undermined by the ubiquitousness of party politics and discipline. For an upper house to be an effective house of review it must be, by definition, an independent body. Party politics precluded this for many years as the state and federal upper houses were dominated by the conservative parties. When a conservative government held power these upper houses acted as little more than very expensive rubber stamps for cabinet drafted legislation. And with the accession of Labor governments they became obstacles to mandated legislation.

It was only with the introduction of proportional representation at the federal level that the Senate, at least, became something other than a boys club.

The advent of minor parties changed the nature of the Senate review function. Due to the fact that minor parties such as the Australian Democrats tend to hold the balance of power, it might now be said that genuine review does take place, albeit of a fairly limited and opportunistic nature. The Democrats seek to modify and, they would say, ameliorate items of legislation delivered to the Senate from the lower house and to some extent, imprint their values on each bill that requires Democrat votes.

The idea that members of the Legislative Councils and the Senate act as representatives of their respective regions is also oft touted. Whether, it is a state or a region of a state, this function is largely negated by the party system. Having to vote along party lines, as most parliamentarians do, makes it very difficult for a regional member to effectively represent the interests of his region over loyalties to his party.

As a check on democracy the upper houses have proven to be quite effective. The introduction of radical or rapidly drafted legislation into law becomes difficult for a government that doesn’t hold a majority in both houses. In such a case the upper houses can block the bill or return it to the Lower House for review. It could be argued that having to go through this two-tiered process prevents the knee-jerk reactions of incumbent governments from becoming unwelcome and/or unwieldy laws.

A case of the Senate’s power being a real impediment to the functioning of Australia’s liberal democracy was encountered during the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in 1975. As a result of hostile control of the Senate by conservative forces the duly elected government of the day was forced out office in what could be seen as an illegitimate use of the Senates powers. The anti-democratic nature of the house at the time due to the dubious nature of some appointments made to fill casual vacancies calls into question whether the Senate had the right to pursue such a course of action. It even calls into question the necessity and desirability of having such an institution.

The Theodore Labor government of Queensland chose to abolish its Legislative Council in 1922 as a response to ongoing and entrenched conservative opposition in that house. It remains the only state to have done so and further cases of this kind of action are unlikely as Upper Houses positions have since been entrenched in most state constitutions, usually by conservative governments.

The reforms in Queensland were a start but did not go far enough. To simply rid government of one of its pillars and replace it with nothing is not in the best interests of a modern liberal democracy. A more beneficial approach would involve more sweeping changes:

1. The executive should be separated completely from the legislature so as to prevent the total executive dominance in the remaining house.

2. Constitutionally entrenched and powerful regional governments could provide more immediate local representation and a check on the powers of parliament.

3. Proportional representation should be instituted across the board to give a parliamentary voice to all members of the community, not just those people who choose to follow the major parties.

4. A strong Bill of Rights written in to the constitution to protect individual freedoms from governmental incursion.

These are just some of the changes that could be made to parliaments in Australia in order to provide a more equitable, democratic and stable framework in which to govern.

Australian bicameralism is an outmoded and obsolete system that impedes the exercise of democratic freedoms and is adverse to change. As such a move towards a very different system of government would be advisable. The dynamism inherent in the unicameral system, with the appropriate curbs as outlined above, would provide Australia with a more modern and adaptable parliament. A parliament better equipped to confront the challenges of modern governance.


Fenna, A. (2000) Essentials of Australian Government, Draft Version, Tertiary Press

Henderson, P. (1987) Parliament and Politics in Australia. Heinemann, Richmond.

Jaensch, D. (1992) The Politics Of Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne.

Kilcullen, R.J. (1995) “Democracy in Australia.” http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/politics/y67xa.html, Macquarie University.

Madison, J or Hamilton, A. (1787-88) Federalist, numbers 62 and 63.

Minnesota House of Representatives, Research Department (1999) “Unicameral or Bicameral Legislatures: The Policy Debate.” St.Paul, Minnesota.

Odgers, J.R. (1999) Australian Senate Practise, 9th edn., Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Singleton, Aitken, D., Jinks, B., Warhurst, J., (2000) Australian Political Institutions, 6th edn., Longman, Canberra.


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