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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 21/01/2005   
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Contents >> Government >> The Commonwealth Parliament

Commonwealth legislative power is vested in the Commonwealth Parliament, comprising the House of Representatives (currently 150 members) and the Senate (76 members).

The powers of Parliament

Apart from the constitutional requirement that all financial legislation must originate in the House of Representatives, and that the Senate cannot amend such legislation, the two houses have similar powers. The fact that the Senate can reject financial legislation makes it one of the most powerful upper houses in the world.

Australia having a federal system means that the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament are limited to areas of national importance. Among the powers granted by the Constitution are trade and commerce, taxation, postal services, foreign relations, defence, immigration, naturalisation, quarantine, currency and coinage, weights and measures, copyright, patents and trade marks. High Court decisions and Commonwealth-state agreements have seen the Commonwealth gain influence in regard to various other matters including industrial relations, financial regulation, companies and securities, health and welfare, and education.

The functions of Parliament

Parliament has five primary functions:

  • to provide for the formation of a government
  • to make the law
  • to provide a forum for popular representation
  • to scrutinise the actions of government
  • to provide a forum for the alternative government.

The formation of a government is the most important outcome of a general election. Either the government is returned, by virtue of retaining a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, or the opposition party or a coalition of parties wins a majority of seats, resulting in the formation of a new government. The Prime Minister is always a member of the House of Representatives.

The Hon. JW Howard, MP (Liberal Party of Australia) has been Prime Minister since 11 March 1996.

More than half of Parliament's time is taken up with the consideration of proposed legislation. Between 150 and 250 Bills are passed each year. Most Bills are not contentious, either being 'machinery' legislation necessary for the orderly processes of government, or Bills that propose alterations to existing legislation. Most of the Bills are government Bills; private members' legislation is rare.

The representation of the people is an important role of members of the House of Representatives and senators. Looking after their constituents occupies a great deal of their time. The relative importance of this role may be judged by the high proportion of time spent by MPs in their electorates and away from Parliament. During the 1990s, Parliament averaged 64 sitting days per year.

The scrutiny function is seen most obviously in the formal periods of Question Time, in both houses, that are a part of each day's sitting. Question Time is the best-known part of parliamentary proceedings, and is attended by many of the visiting public. Less well-known is the activity of a range of parliamentary committees which are established in order that Parliament's legislative, representation and scrutiny functions can be carried out more thoroughly and with the benefit of expert advice. These committees undertake the scrutiny of government operations as well as frequent inquiries into a range of current issues.

In Westminster-derived governments, such as Australia's, the Opposition has a recognised and formal status, being recognised in the Standing Orders of the Parliament and in legislation. The Opposition is seen as the alternative government and typically forms a 'shadow Cabinet' of MPs who prepare themselves to take on the reins of government. The Opposition also has the role of acting as the main critic of the government and of offering to the community an alternative set of policies.

MW Latham, MP (Australian Labor Party) has been Leader of the Opposition since 2 December 2003.

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