The Australian Federal Parliament’s upper house is known as the Senate and it consists of 76 senators, with twelve from each state and two from each territory. The roles within Australia’s Senate have developed over time and include a mix of Westminster and Washington systems (House of Lords, US Senate), with convention dictating much of the process. Five of the key roles in the Australian Senate, and what they entail, are outlined below including the current individuals who hold that office.
It is important to note that many of the positions are determined or selected by the ‘government’ which is the party or coalition with a majority in the lower house. Because, unlike in the lower house, there is no requirement to command the confidence of the chamber, the leadership positions do not always align with holding a majority in the Senate.
1. The President (Senator the Hon Scott Ryan)
Typically, the President is elected following a normal election for senators (a half-Senate election) and is nominated by a senator or senators. The current convention is that the President is elected from the government (the party or coalition who holds a majority in the lower house). The President presides over (or chairs) the meetings of the Senate. They are also the Senate’s spokesperson and representative in dealings with the lower house, the executive government, the Governor-General and others outside of Parliament. In order to maintain confidence and keep the order, the President must make decisions with a degree of political impartiality, as with the position of Speaker in the lower house. However, they still participate in the deliberations of the Senate and have an equal vote on all matters before the Senate. Much like the Speaker of the Lower House, the President is a formal and important role within Parliament, but often does not have an extensive public profile.
2. Deputy President and Chair of Committees (Senator Sue Lines)
The election process for the Deputy President is the same as with the President, however, the current convention is that the Deputy President is elected from the largest non-government party in the Senate. The Deputy presides over the Senate whenever the President requests them to or is not able to, and during those times exercises the President’s authority. The Deputy also holds the role of Chair of Committees, and presides when the Senate is sitting as a ‘committee of the whole’, which is a committee of all senators most commonly used for the detailed examination of legislation (as opposed to select and standing committees). Temporary chairs for the select and standing committees are nominated by the President and the Chair of Committees will request them to do so.
3. Leader of the Senate (Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann)
The most senior government minister in the Senate becomes the Leader of the Government in the Senate or Leader of the Senate. Within Parliament, the role is similar to that of the Prime Minister in the lower house, as they are the government’s spokesperson and hold overarching responsibility for all policy areas in the Senate. Like the Prime Minister, albeit to a much lesser extent, and because they do not have the same requirements for impartiality, the Leader of the Senate is one of the more publicly high profile roles in the house.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator the Hon Penny Wong) is the Opposition’s counterpart and is their most senior Shadow Cabinet member and their main spokesperson in the Senate.
4. Whips (Liberal Senator Dean Smith, ALP Senator Anne Urquhart, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, Nationals Senator Perin Davey)
Each political party appoints a whip, who is responsible for organising their party’s activities in the Senate. The whip is expected to ensure party discipline in the chamber and they coordinate what will happen, who will speak and importantly ensure their members attend and vote together when required. In addition, they are involved in the counting and recording of votes, as well as providing advice and support to their members. Whips are found in both houses of parliament and they are considered essential for the daily running of the house. An odd name for a parliamentary function, the name is derived from the sport of fox hunting in England, which refers to an individual who would whip all the hounds into a pack and steer them in the right direction to chase the fox.
5. Usher of the Black Rod (John Begley)
The Usher is an appointed position (not elected), who heads a Senate Department office that provides support services to the Senate, the senators and the committees, and delivers corporate services to the department. Within the chamber, and as the name suggests, this individual carries a silver-capped ebony rod and ushers the President into the Senate chamber. They sit to the right of the President and are responsible for carrying messages to the House of Representatives and locking the doors during Senate divisions. This position originates from the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, and they are intended to be a symbol of authority to maintain order in the upper house. They therefore have the power to remove any person who causes disturbances in the Senate at the order of the President, which includes detaining senators.
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