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Decipher: The Balance of Power in the Senate

You may have heard news reports referring to the Balance of Power in the Senate. This is an important factor in the legislative process, one that can determine whether or not a Bill is passed at all.

In essence, the balance of power in the Senate is the control held by minor parties or independents who can, by cooperating with the governing party, ensure the government has a majority in the Senate. Alternatively, they can cooperate with the Opposition to block government bills in the Senate.

2-DebateBeAdjournedIn a previous post, we discussed how legislation is passed. A Bill is put forward by a member of the governing party in the House of Representatives, and (after having been “read” three times) it is approved and given to the Senate, or Upper House.

The governing party or coalition has majority in the House of Representatives (which they must do most of the time in order to form Government). In the Senate, however, the governing party does not necessarily have enough seats to form a majority, due to the method through which Senators are elected, and their six year terms.

This means that in order to pass legislation through the Senate, a governing party without a majority would need the support of the Opposition, or the Senators who hold the balance of power.

Budget Measures

The balance of power in the Senate is very important when it comes to the Federal Budget.

The term Budget Measures refers to the governing party’s plans outlined in the Federal Budget.

While Appropriation Bills (the collection of bills referred to as the Federal Budget) contain legislation allowing money to be assigned to (or taken from) certain sections of government and its projects, the governing party still has to pass the legislation necessary to allow the new projects and measures to go forward.

3-CarWe could explain the Appropriation Bills in terms of a company budget. The Appropriation Bills are the equivalent of saying “We will set aside $20,000 for the purchase of a car, manufactured between 1995 and 2005, with an engine size no larger than three litres and a six speed manual transmission.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that an employee has the go-ahead to go out straight away and purchase a $20,000 Toyota Supra.

In terms of legislation, separate Bills must often be passed in order for the government to implement the plans set out in their Budget documents. These Bills can still be rejected or amended by the Senate, even though the Appropriation Bills assigning money to the projects were passed.

The Generally Pleasant Party

In order to explain the balance of power in the Senate, we will return to our fictional political party, the Generally Pleasant Party.

The Generally Pleasant Party wants to pass its Budget, allowing it to establish the new Federal Niceness Commission to replace the Australian Regulator of Niceness and Interpersonal Etiquette. (The Budget was passed by the Generally Pleasant Party in our previous blog post, Decipher: The Australian Federal Budget Parts 1 and 2)

In the Appropriation Bills, the GPP took money from the ARNIE, and set it aside to establish the FNC. The FNC still doesn’t exist, but the Appropriation Bills were passed so the money has been set aside.

In order to actually establish the FNC, separate legislation still has to be passed. It can still be changed or blocked in the Senate even though all of the Appropriation Bills have been passed.

A Bill to Make Things Better

The Generally Pleasant Party put through a new Bill to the Senate, A Bill to Make Things Better 2014. It includes the legislation necessary to establish the Federal Niceness Commission.

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The Generally Pleasant Party knows that it doesn’t have the numbers by itself, and the Opposition party refuses to support the bill.

There are only 36 GPP Senators in the Senate, so they need the cooperation of at least three more Senators.

At the time that the Generally Pleasant Party is hoping to pass the Bill, the Opposition party has 33 Senators. The remaining Senators are from minor parties, or are independents.

The Small Bat Preservation Party

One of the minor parties, the Small Bat Preservation Party, has four of these Senators. They are approached by the Generally Pleasant Party regarding the legislation.

Discussions are had between Senator Kentworth of the Generally Pleasant Party and Senator Bruce of the Small Bat Preservation Party. It is agreed that the SBPP will support the Bill to Make Things Better 2014, but only if some small changes are made to it first.

The Small Bat Preservation Party says that they will offer their support to the slightly amended bill so long as the GPP first introduces a separate Bill to fund the conservation and study of the endangered Mahtog bat. This involves the construction of a bat preservation centre at the Mahtog National Park.

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Senator Bruce of the SBPP oversees the construction at the Mahtog National Park, including the construction of a statue of the Mahtog bat, commissioned from a local sculptor.

When the Bill To Make Things Better 2014 is voted on in the Senate, it is passed with the support of the SBPP.

Balance of Power

In this example, the Small Bat Preservation Party holds the balance of power, in that they are able to work with the governing party and request amendments to Bills in order to allow them through. This includes Budget Measures.

To see who currently holds the balance of power in the Senate, you can check the current Senate composition on the Australian Parliament House website.

Follow the link to read our previous political Decipher blog post, Decipher: Ministers, Portfolios and the Cabinet

Written for Uniting for Change by Lachlan Macleod
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