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Parliament at work

Representation

Federal Parliament represents all Australians. It is the job of each member of parliament to speak for and make decisions on behalf of their constituents. For members of the House of Representatives, constituents are the people who live in their electorate. For senators, it is the people in their state or territory.

Members of parliament represent their constituents in a number of different ways. For example, they might argue for or against a bill (proposed law), or make statements and ask questions in the Parliament or investigate matters in a committee. They can speak to ministers and government departments about issues affecting their constituents and ask them to take action to solve problems.

Members of parliament also represent Australians by making decisions on their behalf. Decisions are made in Parliament by voting on bills and proposals put forward by ministers and other members of parliament.

Members of parliament can speak freely for you in the Parliament because they are protected by parliamentary privilege. This means that legal action can't be taken against them for anything they say or do in Parliament. Freedom of speech allows the Parliament to debate and inquire into any matters in a detailed and open way.

Political parties

Most members of parliament belong to a political party and are elected to Parliament as a member of that party. A political party is a group of people who share similar ideas about what they believe are the best policies and actions needed to run the country. Party members will then work together to gain the support of the public and Parliament for these policies.

Political parties aim to have enough of their members elected to Parliament to form government. At present the majority of members of parliament come from two major political party groups. Minor parties and Independents are also represented in the Parliament.

To see the current composition of the Australian Parliament, go to Parliament NOW

Forming government

After a federal election, the government is formed by the political party or coalition of parties with the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives.

To stay in power, the government must keep the support of more than half of the 150 members (that is, at least 76). The government does not need majority support in the Senate to form government.

The Prime Minister is a member of the House of Representatives and the leader of the government. The Australian people do not vote directly for the Prime Minister. Rather, the Prime Minister is chosen as leader by their party.

Some members of the government are selected to be ministers. Usually, about 20 ministers are members of the House of Representatives and about 10 are senators.

Executive government

The Prime Minister and ministers make up a group called the 'ministry' or the 'executive government'. The executive makes decisions about how the country should be run and administers (carries out) laws made by the Parliament.

The executive also suggests ideas for new laws and proposes changes to current laws which it introduces into the Parliament as bills. Ministers are given an area of responsibility known as a 'portfolio'. They are usually in charge of a government department, which looks after areas such as foreign affairs or health.

Opposition

The opposition is the largest party (or coalition) that is not in government. The opposition wants voters to see it as the alternative government. It sets out ideas and plans for how it would govern the country and explains why it would do a better job than the current government.

The opposition must be ready to form government if it gains the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives following a federal election.

Crossbench

The crossbench is made up of minor party members and Independents. They play a role in decision-making and in scrutinising (closely examining) the work of the government. To be passed by the Parliament, a bill or proposal needs the support of the majority in each house. Crossbench votes can be important in deciding an issue. 

A day in the life of a member of parliament

Parliament sits for about 70 days a year. Members of parliament spend some of the sitting period in the chambers, but have many other demands on their time.

For example, they participate in parliamentary committees (which investigate proposed laws and other issues), assist constituents, attend party meetings and keep up-to-date with current issues.

Business is conducted in each chamber for an average of eleven hours a day, four days a week. However, it is not unusual for members of parliament to begin their day with a breakfast meeting at 7am and to end their day at 10pm or later.

Members of parliament work similar hours in their electorate or state/territory when Parliament is not sitting. For example, they meet with community organisations, visit schools, make presentations, attend local party meetings, handle enquiries from their constituents and speak to the media.

Sample diary of an MP – Tuesday 14 March

7am–Breakfast meeting with schools about junk food in school canteens

8am–Meet with advisors to review the day’s schedule

9am–Party meeting to discuss policies and prepare for Question Time

10am–Office to read notes and prepare questions for committee hearing into cyber crime

10.30am–Speech in chamber on the government's bill to ban junk food in school canteens

11am–committee hearing into pressures faced by secondary school students

12pm–Working lunch with Year 10 students from my electorate to hear about how they juggle study and part-time work

1pm–Meeting with media advisor to prepare for radio interview this afternoon

2pm–Question Time in the house ask the government about its policy on junk food advertising

3.30pm–Meeting with a constituent from my electorate about an immigration issue

4pm–Meeting with a lobby group from the food industry to hear its views on the junk food bill

4.30pm–committee hearing question witness groups about cyber crime

6pm–Radio interview about banning junk food advertising on television

6pm–Speak at dinner function hosted by the Australian Film and Television School

8pm–Present petition to the House on behalf of constituents calling on the government to ban junk food advertising during children’s programs on television