The Senate of Howland is the upper house of the bicameral National Assembly of Howland. The House of Representatives is the lower house. The Senate consists of 27 members, called Senators. The senators are popularly elected under a modified party-list single transferable vote system of proportional representation. Senators serve fixed six-year terms, with elections staggered such that one-third of the Senate faces election every two years. Like the House of Representatives, elections are held on the last Saturday in June.
Unusually for an upper house in a parliamentary system, the Senate is vested with significant power, including the capacity to block certain legislation initiated by the government in the House of Representatives. Certain provisions in the Constitution, however, allow for the House of override a decision in the Senate.
The present Senate is the 33rd to be convoked since Howland gained independence in 1949. The 33rd Senate was elected on June 30, 2013, and sat for the first time during the 129th Ordinary Session of the National Assembly of Howland on August 5, 2013. The next scheduled elections to the Senate will take place on June 28, 2015, and the 34th Senate will be convoked on August 5, 2015, during the 131st Ordinary Session.
Origins and role
The Senate is established by the Constitution of Howland, as part of the bicameral National Assembly of Howland. Unlike upper houses in other Westminster system governments, the Senate is not a rubber-stamp body with limited legislative authority. Rather it was intended to play, and does play, an active role in legislation. Modeled in part after the Senates of Australia and the United States, the Senate was intended to give a greater legislative voice to smaller parties and groups due to its proportional makeup in comparison to the majoritarian House of Representatives, while also providing for the revising role of an upper house in the Westminster system.
Although the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Representatives, other ministers may come from either house, and the two houses have roughly similar legislative power. As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, the Senate cannot introduce appropriation bills (bills that authorize government expenditure of public revenue), bills that impose taxation, or treaties, these roles being reserved for the lower house. In practice, however, most legislation in the National Assembly is initiated by the Government, which has control over the lower house. It is then passed to the Senate, which may amend the bill or refuse to pass it. In the majority of cases, voting takes place along party lines, although there are occasional conscience votes.
From 1949 to 1959, the Senate was elected under the single transferable vote (STV) system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. This system was changed beginning with the 1961 Senate election to a modified party-list form of STV, in which the parties contesting the election produce ranked lists of candidates prior to the election, as well as a transfer list of how they intend their votes to be transferred. On election day, voters cast a single vote for the party of their choice, and the seats are allocated to the parties under a counting method similar to the old STV system. The party list system was adopted to ensure that a party wouldn't nominate too many or too few candidates than necessary for election given their share of the vote.
The size of the Senate has been changed four times from the original 15-member chamber of 1949. The number of senators was increased to 18 in 1961, to 21 in 1979, to 24 in 1997 and finally to the current 27 in 2009.
The Howland Senate is in session for 240 days of the year, with an autumn session from February to June and a spring session from August to December. The number of actual sitting days is significantly fewer, with approximately 90 sitting days per year. Most of these days are grouped into "sitting fortnights" of two four-day weeks. The senate has a regular schedule that structures its typical working week.
Dealing with legislation
All bills must be passed by a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate before they become law. Most bills originate in the House of Representatives, and the great majority are introduced by the government.
The usual procedure is for notice to be given by a government minister the day before the bill is introduced into the Senate. Once introduced the bill goes through several stages of consideration. It is given a first reading, which represents the bill's formal introduction into the chamber.
The first reading is followed by debate on the principle or policy of the bill (the second reading debate). Agreement to the bill in principle is indicated by a second reading, after which the detailed provisions of the bill are considered by one of a number of methods (see below). Bills may also be referred by either House to their specialized standing or select committees. Agreement to the policy and the details is confirmed by a third and final reading. These processes ensure that a bill is systematically considered before being agreed to.
The Senate has detailed rules in its standing orders that govern how a bill is considered at each stage. This process of consideration can vary greatly in the amount of time taken. Consideration of some bills is completed in a single day, while complex or controversial legislation may take months to pass through all stages of Senate scrutiny.
In addition to the work of the main chamber, the Senate also has a number of committees which deal with matters referred to them by the Senate. These committees also conduct hearings three times a year in which the government's budget and operations are examined. These are known as estimates hearings. Traditionally dominated by scrutiny of government activities by non-government senators, they provide the opportunity for all senators to ask questions of ministers and public officials. This may occasionally include government senators examining activities of independent publicly funded bodies, or pursuing issues arising from previous governments' terms of office. There is however a convention that senators do not have access to the files and records of previous governments when there has been an election resulting in a change in the party in government.
Holding governments to account
One of the functions of the Senate, both directly and through its committees, is to scrutinize government activity. The vigor of this scrutiny has been fueled for many years by the fact that the party in government has seldom had a majority in the Senate. In fact, the Senate has had a government majority in only fourteen out of 129 sessions to date. The first eight sessions had an Independence majority (August 5, 1949–June 5, 1953) and the 55th through the 60th sessions had a Social Democrat majority (August 5, 1976–June 5, 1979)
Whereas in the House of Representatives the government's majority has sometimes limited that chamber's capacity to implement executive scrutiny, the opposition and minor parties have been able to use their Senate numbers as a basis for conducting inquiries into government operations.
Senators are called upon to vote on matters before the Senate. These votes are called divisions in the case of Senate business, or ballots where the vote is to choose a senator to fill an office of the Senate.
Party discipline is extremely tight, so divisions almost always are decided on party lines. Nevertheless, the existence of minor parties holding the balance of power in the Senate has made divisions in that chamber more important and occasionally more dramatic than in the House of Representatives.
When a division is to be held, bells ring throughout the building for four minutes, during which time senators must go to the chamber. At the end of that period the doors are locked and a vote is taken, by identifying and counting senators according to the side of the chamber on which they sit (ayes to the right of the chair, noes to the left). The whole procedure takes around eight minutes. Senators with commitments that keep them from the chamber may make arrangements in advance to be 'paired' with a senator of the opposite political party, so that their absence does not affect the outcome of the vote.
The senate contains an even number of senators, so a tied vote is a real prospect (which regularly occurs when the party numbers in the chamber are finely balanced). The Constitution requires that in the event of a tied division, the question is resolved in the negative. The system is however different for ballots for offices such as the President. If such a ballot is tied, the Clerk of the Senate decides the outcome by the drawing of lots. In reality, conventions govern most ballots, so this situation does not arise.
Political parties and voting outcomes
The extent to which party discipline determines the outcome of parliamentary votes is highlighted by the rarity with which members of the same political party will find themselves on opposing sides of a vote. The exceptions are where a conscience vote is allowed by one or more of the political parties; and occasions where a member of a political party crosses the floor of the chamber to vote against the instructions of their party whip. Crossing the floor very rarely occurs, but is more likely in the Senate than in the House of Representatives
From 1949 until 1959, a vacancy in the Senate triggered a by-election, which would normally be held in either March or September as necessary. If the vacancy occurred within three months of a general election, a by-election was not held and the seat remained vacant for the remainder of the term. Following the change of the voting system from the 1961 election onward, each party's list must include several alternates, which are used to fill vacancies in the event they occur. Therefore, there are no by-elections in the Senate.
Historical composition since 1949