Information Sheet 1 - The Legislative Council

The Council's role within the parliamentary structure

The Victorian Parliament's structure is based on the Westminster model of the United Kingdom in which there are two houses of parliament: a Lower House, which is known in Victoria as the Legislative Assembly, and an Upper House, known as the Legislative Council. These two houses constitute two of the three central elements of Victoria 's parliamentary structure. The third element is the Crown (the Queen), represented by the Governor, who is advised by the Executive (Government Ministers).

Under the Westminster system, the Government of the day requires the support of a majority of Members of the Lower House. It is not essential for the Government to have majority support in the Upper House. Nevertheless, the Upper House can exercise a significant role within the parliamentary process by acting as a 'House of Review'. It can do this by scrutinising, debating and, on occasions, amending or rejecting legislation which has usually been initiated by the Government. By performing these functions, as well as initiating its own legislation and reviewing Ministers' actions during periods such as Question Time, the Legislative Council can apply many of the important checks and balances which uphold the system of responsible government. Essentially, responsible government concerns the Executive being held accountable to Parliament for its performance in office. The Legislative Council's role in this system allows it to exercise a central and influential role within the parliamentary system. This is so particularly as the Council has similar powers to the Assembly with the important exceptions that it cannot initiate legislation that spends money, it cannot reject appropriation (money) Bills nor delay their passage for more than one month after the Assembly agrees to them.

1-council_in_session

 

Composition of the Legislative Council

The composition of the Legislative Council has varied considerably since it became a fully elected House in 1856. Originally 6 provinces elected 30 Members. Membership of the Council peaked with 44 Members representing 22 provinces following reforms in 1974, which took effect at the state elections in 1976. The most recent changes, the result of the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Act 2003, came into effect following the state election in November 2006. Membership of the Council now consists of 40 Members representing 8 regions.

1-council_regions

Maps of metropolitan and rural regions (in use from 2006-current). Used with permission from the Victorian Electoral Commission.

1-council_provinces

Maps of metropolitan and rural regions (in use from 1976-2003). Used with permission from the Victorian Electoral Commission.

Briefly, the 2003 reforms to the Legislative Council included:

  • Electorates for Council Members, previously called 'provinces', are now referred to as 'regions'.
  • Each Council province used to encompass 4 Assembly districts, while now each region encompasses 11 Assembly districts.
  • Metropolitan areas were previously represented by 26 Members from 13 provinces, whereas now they are represented by 25 Members from 5 regions.
  • Rural areas, that were previously represented by 18 Members from 9 provinces, are now represented by 15 Members from 3 regions.
  • Members are now elected using a proportional representation system, which has replaced the previous preferential voting system.
  • All Council Members now face elections on the same day; previously, only half the Council’s Members were elected at each election.
  • Council Members now serve fixed 4 year terms; previously, they served the equivalent of two Assembly Members’ terms.
  • Under the Victorian Constitution a maximum of 6 Ministers may be Members of the Legislative Council at any one time. In the current Parliament, 6 Council Members have been appointed as Ministers: Hon. David Davis (who is also Leader of the Government in the Upper House), Hon. Peter Hall, Hon. Wendy Lovell, Hon. Matthew Guy, Hon. Richard Dalla-Riva and Hon. Gordon Rich-Phillips.
    (Full details can be obtained from Legislative Council Information Sheet No. 16: A New Electoral System for Victoria's Legislative Council.)

Women in the Council

  • Women gained the right to stand as candidates in Legislative Council elections in 1923; however, it took until 1979, and the election of Gracia Baylor (Liberal) and Joan Coxsedge (ALP), for the first women to win a seat in the House.
  • The first and only woman to be elected President of Victoria’s Legislative Council was Monica Gould in February 2003.
  • The House currently contains 13 female Members, of whom 6 are from the Liberal Party, 5 are from the Australian Labor Party, and 2 from the Greens Party.

1-graciabaylor_t

Gracia Baylor

1-joancoxsedge_t

Joan Coxsedge

1-monicagould_t

Monica Gould, the
first female President
of the Legislative Council

 

presidentThe President  

  • When the Legislative Council is sitting, its rules of procedure are applied by its presiding officer, the President, who is a Member of the House and is elected to the office by fellow Members.
  • The President occupies a Chair above the floor of the House facing Members. This elevated position reflects the President's standing as the Legislative Council's principal office-holder. Outside of the Chamber, the President is jointly responsible with the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly for the oversight of the Parliament's administration, buildings and committees.
    (Further information about the President can be obtained from Legislative Council Information Sheet No 2: The President)

The Legislative Council as a House of Review

A primary function of Upper Houses is their role as a House of Review. In particular, Upper Houses have a responsibility to provide a second opinion concerning legislation already passed by the Lower House. The Victorian Legislative Council's actions as a House of Review can include:

  • rejecting proposed legislation that has been passed by the Legislative Assembly;
  • amending legislation the Council considers flawed. On occasions, this saves the Assembly valuable time, particularly when technical amendments are required, the need for which was previously overlooked;
  • delaying the passage of 'hasty' legislation to allow time for adequate review;
  • acting as a forum for debate (which assists Oppositions to publicise their concerns within the wider community);
  • scrutinising and criticising Ministers who are Members of the Council; and
  • establishing Select and Standing Committees to conduct detailed investigations into specific issues (full details about Select and Standing Committees can be obtained from Legislative Council Information Sheet No. 6: Committees).

The Council has enhanced its capacity to perform such functions by adopting certain rules and procedures including:

  • General Business (non-Government business) taking precedence on Wednesdays. This is an important opportunity for Members of the non-Government parties to initiate debate on matters of concern or introduce Private Members' Bills;
  • precedence being given for up to one hour on Wednesdays for Members to make statements on reports and other papers which have been tabled in the Council;
  • Question Time, which in practice, allows for a minimum of ten questions (five from Government Members and five from non-Government Members) to be asked each sitting day. In addition, under the House's Sessional Orders a Member who asks a question without notice may be permitted to ask an immediate supplementary question of the Minister to whom the initial question was directed;
  • the adoption of a 'thirty day rule' in relation to answers to questions on notice. This rule requires Ministers to respond to written requests for information within thirty days by either providing an answer or an explanation as to why the answer has not yet been provided. Answers are published in Hansard;
  • the opportunity for up to 15 Members to make 90 second statements on any topic of concern on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; and
  • the daily Adjournment Debate when Members may raise matters for consideration by Ministers and, in so doing, make a complaint, make a request or pose a query related to Victorian Government administration; and
  • requiring Ministers to respond to Adjournment debate matters at the time the matter is raised or in writing within thirty days. The responses are then published in Hansard.

 

 

    Prepared by: Table Office
    Department of the Legislative Council
    Parliament of Victoria
    Reissued March 2011