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3.1 Legislature - The Role of the two Houses

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The Parliament of Western Australia (the legislature), like all Australian Parliaments and those of many Commonwealth countries, is based on the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy.

The functions of the Western Australian Parliament include the following: 

the provision of an executive government that is responsible (accountable) to the Parliament. According to convention (tradition) all Ministers must be Members of Parliament; 

  • making laws (legislation) which must be agreed to by both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council; 
  • examining the work of government. Parliamentary questions are an important way to examine the Government's administration;
  • approving finance for government operations. Only the Western Australian Parliament can give permission for the Government to collect taxes. It is the Western Australian Parliament which decides what State taxes shall be collected and also how the money should be spent; and
  • representing the interests of Western Australians by raising issues of public concern and providing a forum for public debate. This may happen through Parliament receiving petitions and through debate on the floor of either House.

The Western Australian Parliament comprises the Sovereign and two houses, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council.(13)  When a parliament has two houses it is called bicameral.  In Australia all States except Queensland have bicameral parliaments. The Northern Territory and the ACT have one house and the federal Parliament has two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The parliamentary leader of the political party or coalition of parties that can command a majority of votes in the Legislative Assembly (sometimes called the 'Lower House') will be asked by the Governor to form a government. Typically, this happens after every general election, although governments can change at by-elections or even between elections if they lose their majority of support in the Legislative Assembly.  A party or coalition of parties can continue in government even though they may not have a majority of members in the Legislative Assembly.  For instance, a government may be able to maintain the support of a majority of the Legislative Assembly with the help of independent or members of minor parties, who may support the government on major issues such as the budget and questions of confidence, but may not support other aspects of the government’s platform.  This is called a minority government.

At the first Legislative Assembly elections in 1890 there were 30 Assembly districts which each elected one member. By 1901, when Western Australia joined the federation, there were 50 districts. Today there are 59 elected members chosen by the preferential voting method each holding their seats for a maximum of four years between elections.(14)

The Legislative Council (sometimes called the "Upper House") dates back to 1832 when a Legislative Council (and Executive Council) was established in the Swan River Colony with Captain Stirling as Governor. Although the first Council had four appointed members and had very limited powers, it marked the beginnings of a parliamentary system of government.  In recent years the Legislative Council has developed a role as a house of review.  This means that the Legislative Council functions as a check to critically review the operations of government and the legislation passed by the Legislative Assembly. One method of achieving this is through an extensive system of parliamentary committees.

The two houses also have slightly different powers. The most important of these relates to the passage of Money Bills. Measures such as the raising of revenue (including taxation and government charges) and the granting of supply or funds to the Government (typically through annual budgets) can only be introduced in the Lower House.(15) If such Bills are passed by the Assembly, they cannot be amended by the Council, although they can be rejected or sent back to the Assembly with a request that amendments be made. Such amendments, however, cannot 'increase any proposed charge or burden on the people'. (16)

When the Western Australian Parliament is sitting the public can watch debates from the public galleries of either House. Journalists from the media report proceedings from the press galleries.