As part of our ongoing NSW state election coverage, the Newsroom today looks at how Parliament and elections work.
NSW Parliament – Structure
The Parliament of New South Wales is a bicameral system: it is divided into two houses – an Upper House and a Lower House. Our federal Parliament is also bicameral, though Queensland and both Territories have unicameral parliaments (consisting of one house only).
As in Federal Parliament, the party or coalition winning control of the Lower House, called the Legislative Assembly, forms a government. Members of the assembly, referred to as MPs, are decided at general elections every four years. The Legislative Assembly has 93 seats, so a party or coalition must win 47 – a simple majority – to form government. The leader of that government is the Premier.
The state is carved into constituencies of roughly equal population, usually named after geographical zones, to elect MPs. Premier Mike Baird, for example, represents Manly. The NSW assembly, created in 1856, is the oldest fully elected legislature in Australia.
The Legislative Council is the upper house. Members of the Legislative Council – MLCs – serve eight-year terms; half the 42-member council is elected at each general election.
Unlike the Legislative Assembly, the Legislative Council has only one electorate: the whole of NSW. Everyone in the state has the opportunity to vote for any council candidates.
Winning a majority in the council (22 seats) does not entitle a party or coalition to form the Government. It is possible for one party to hold a majority in the Legislative Assembly and another to hold a majority in the Legislative Council.
The Legislative Council commonly includes more independents and members of minor parties than the Legislative Assembly. This can make negotiation with those groups essential to getting legislation passed. When the government also holds a majority in the council, it can pass its legislation much more easily.
The law-making process
Proposals must win approval of both houses to be passed into law. When introduced (usually into the Legislative Assembly), a bill is debated and can be amended (changed, added to or subtracted from). After that, a vote is taken on whether it should be passed; government bills in the Legislative Assembly are usually given the thumbs-up.
From there, the bill is sent to the other house for review. There it is debated again, perhaps amended again, and voted on again. A bill amended by a reviewing house is sent back to the original house to repeat the process.
Once both houses have passed a bill it is sent to the Governor to be signed into law, when it becomes an Act.
Voting in Australia is compulsory – you must enrol and vote at every local, state and federal election if you are over 18. The electoral process is different for the upper and lower houses. You need to understand how to vote properly to make your vote count.
The Legislative Assembly: The assembly is elected using an optional preferential system. When you vote, you will be given a ballot paper listing all the candidates for your seat. To register a valid (or formal) vote, you must place the number “1” in the box for the candidate you would most prefer. From there, you have the option of numbering the remaining boxes in order of your preference. Be sure to fill out the ballot paper correctly; any vote that does not meet the criteria is ruled informal and is not counted.
To win a seat in the assembly an MP must gain an absolute majority of votes: 50 per cent of all formal votes in the count, plus one vote. In each count, all first-preference votes are counted. Then, if no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their second-preference votes converted to first preferences. (Any votes without second preferences are not included in further counting, so the more boxes you number, the more say you have about your vote.) This process repeats until one candidate has an absolute majority. Votes may be counted multiple times before a winner is decided.
The Legislative Council: The council is elected using proportional representation. The ballot paper for the council has two sections, separated by a thick line. You can choose to vote “above the line” OR “below the line”.
When you vote above the line, you vote for a party. You place a “1” in the box of the party you would most prefer, and then can number as many other boxes above the line as you want. The party will allocate its votes to its candidates in the order they appear below the line.
When you vote below the line, you vote for individual candidates, potentially from different parties. Number candidates from “1” to “15” in the order of your preference. You must number at least 15, but can number more if you like.
Under proportional representation, parties and candidates can expect to win seats roughly equal to the percentage of votes they receive; for example, a party which wins 30 per cent of the vote would win roughly 30 per cent of the seats. That makes it easier for minor parties (such as the Greens, the Shooters and Fishers, and the Christian Democrats) to win seats in the Legislative Council than in the Legislative Assembly.
Make your voice heard
Voter enrolment for the 2015 NSW state election closes on March 7 – Saturday. If you are over 18 and have NOT enrolled, go to http://www.aec.gov.au/enrol/ and enrol before Saturday to ensure that you will be able to vote (and that you won’t get fined). If you’re not sure about your enrolment, you can check it online at the NSW Electoral Commission website.
If you can’t make it to a polling place on election day, you have a variety of options for voting early. Make sure you vote in the correct seat!
For more information on Parliament and voting, visit the NSW Electoral Commission or the NSW Parliament websites.
In the next week the Newsroom will also look at the minor parties and the major issues in this election. – Jake Nelson