Senate Key to Australian Democracy Success – Yet a Mystery to Most Australians

Australia Institute

New research by the Australia Institute shows that it is the Australian Parliament’s bicameral structure, and specifically, the Australian Senate which has been key to the success of Australian democracy, in particular because its make-up provides accountability, proportionality and diversity to the Australian Parliamentary system

The report is one of the few extensive studies of Australians’ knowledge of and attitudes to the Senate recent years, and will be launched by President of the Senate, Senator Scott Ryan, at a special webinar on 9 March.

Key findings include:

  • The report finds that the Senate is key to the success of Australian democracy, in particular because it provides accountability, proportionality and diversity:
  • Accountability: The Senate holds the Government to account when it amends legislation, disallows regulations, demands documents and questions public servants
  • Proportionality: The Senate’s makeup better matches how Australians vote than that of the majority-dominated House of Representatives.
  • Diversity: The Senate has been a place of milestones, like the first Indigenous Australian, first Asian Australian and first Muslim woman elected to Parliament. Senators can represent a variety of interests, not just geographic ones.
  • Even today, women make up exactly half of the Senate but just 30% of the House of Representatives.

    The Senate’s strong constitutional powers combined with the legitimacy that comes from being proportional to the nation’s population make it an important, separate part of Australia’s political system.

  • However, less Australians answered correctly than incorrectly on general Senate knowledge questions: which Houses of Parliament ministers can come from (24% correct), whether Senators or Members of the House of Representatives are paid more (16% correct), how long a Senator’s term lasts (15% correct) or which houses Question Time is held in (25% correct).

“The Senate has been key in holding the Government to account and being an important guard-rail, and critical in saving many important reforms that have subsequently been supported by all sides of politics such as the CEFC and ARENA, as well as blocking poor legislation,” said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute.

“However, the Senate is more than just a parliamentary safeguard, and has demonstrated that more diverse voices in Parliament helps improve the strength of our democracy.

“More focus on the Senate by both the media and in school education could help more Australians build their knowledge in this key piece part of our democracy.”

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