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.