1. How many senators are there and how long do they serve?
There are seventy-six senators—twelve for each state and two each for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Senators are elected by a system of proportional representation for a period of six years. A system of rotation, however, ensures that half the Senate retires every three years. The four senators who represent the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are elected concurrently with members of the House of Representatives and the duration of their terms of office coincide with those for that House (a maximum of three years).
2. How are senators elected?
In Senate elections, a system called proportional representation voting secures the election of a number of candidates, each of whom has obtained a required quota or proportion of votes necessary for election. The quota is worked out by dividing the total number of formal votes in the election by one more than the number of places available for election.
Votes received in excess of the quota by successful candidates are redistributed to those candidates who have been ranked second by the voters on the excess ballot papers. If insufficient candidates reach a quota after this distribution, the preferences of voters for the least successful candidates are progressively distributed until enough candidates reach a quota to fill the available seats. Independents and members of minority parties, who would not hope to receive enough first votes to achieve a quota, are usually elected on the preferences of voters who gave their first vote to another candidate.
This method of electing senators to the Australian Parliament results in a representation which more closely reflects the wishes of voters than that used by the House of Representatives. Proportional representation is designed to ensure that the number of seats won is in proportion to the number of votes received.
3. What happens if a senator resigns or dies before his or her term expires?
When a casual vacancy occurs in the Senate, on the resignation or death of a senator, a new senator is appointed by the parliament of the state which the former senator represented. If the state or territory parliament is not sitting, an appointment can be made by the Governor of the state (or in the case of an Australian Capital Territory senator, the Governor-General, or the Administrator in the case of the Northern Territory) and the appointment is confirmed by the parliament when next it assembles.
In order that the Senate continue to preserve the representation of parties in the Senate as determined by the electors, the new senator must be of the same political party or group as the senator he is replacing. It is a matter of contention whether this means that the appointee must be the nominee of the political party or whether it suffices that he or she is a member of that party.
4. How is the President of the Senate elected?
When the position of President of the Senate becomes vacant, the election of a President is given priority over other Senate business. It begins with a senator proposing to the Clerk, who acts as chairman, that a senator who is present be President of the Senate. If no other senator is proposed, that Senator is called to the chair and becomes President. When two or more senators are proposed as President, a secret ballot is conducted. Each senator is provided with a ballot paper on which to write the name of a candidate, and if one candidate receives a majority of the votes of the senators present he or she is declared elected.
If, in the case of two candidates, the vote is tied, the vote is taken again; and if they are still tied, the Clerk determines by lot which candidate should be withdrawn. Where there are more than two candidates and no-one receives a majority of votes on the first count, the candidate having the smallest number of votes withdraws and a fresh vote is taken.
The office of President of the Senate is conventionally taken by a member of the party which holds a majority in the House of Representatives (the government), while the Deputy President is a member of the largest opposition party.