Glossary of Australian political terms

Don't know your proportional representation from your party preselection? Let SBS decode the quagmire of Australian political terms.

Don't know your proportional representation from your party preselection? Let SBS decode the quagmire of Australian political terms.

Back bencher: A Member of Parliament who is not part of the cabinet or shadow cabinet and sits towards the back of the chamber in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Ballot: A method of secret voting, usually in written form. Ballot papers, which show the name of the candidates standing for election, are put into ballot boxes, which are a sealed container that can only be opened by officials once voting is complete.

Bicameral system: Government with two houses of Parliament. In Australia, these are the Senate and the House of Representatives.

By-election: These are held when the Member of Parliament who represents that electorate retires or dies, or can no longer hold office. They occur before the MP's elected term is complete.

Cabinet: Key ministers or shadow ministers who occupy important portfolios and advise and consult the party leader. They are sometimes called the frontbench, as they sit in on either side of the aisle in a Parliament. This area is reserved for ministers and leaders of the principal political parties.

A person who stands for election to Parliament. In Australia candidates can be nominated by political parties or stand as independents.

Conscience vote: See free vote.

Constituent: A citizen residing in a particular MP's area, state or district.

Constitution: The set of basic rules by which a country or state is governed. In Australia's case it is a document written in the 1890s which sets out the structure of Australian federal politics. The Constitution can only be amended through a constitutional referendum. In Australia at a referendum the proposed alteration must be approved by a 'double majority': a national majority of voters in the States and Territories; and a majority of voters in a majority of the States.

Crossing the floor: An MP crossing the floor of Parliament to vote with his or her opposition. This is an act rarely forgiven in Australia due to our strong party system.

Distribution of preferences:
The process used to determine the winning candidate when no candidate wins an absolute majority of first preference votes.

Geographical areas containing approximately equal numbers of voters as defined for federal electoral purposes.

Donkey vote: A ballot paper marked 1, 2, 3, 4 straight down (or up) a ballot paper.

Dorothy Dixer: Where some of the allocated time in Question Time is used for back bench MPs to ask their own leaders pre-arranged 'soft' questions.

Electorate: The total population within a special boundary which is entitled to cast a vote. Australia is divided into 150 (federal) voting districts or divisions which are known as electorates. One Member is elected from each electorate to the House of Representatives.

Formal vote: A vote cast in an election or a referendum that has been marked according to the rules for that election. A vote not marked correctly is an informal vote.

Free vote: Also known as a conscience vote. This is where an MP is not obliged to vote along party lines. These are rare, due to the strength of the party system, but occur with contentious ethical issues like euthanasia and abortion.

See cabinet.

General election: An election for all the federal seats in a House of Representatives, and half of those in the Senate.

Gerrymander: The drawing of electoral boundaries in a way which gives one political party an unfair advantage in elections.

House of Representatives:
Also known as the Lower House. The largest and most influential house of Parliament. This House has 150 members, and is where the Prime Minister usually hails from. The party that wins the most seats here, governs.

How-to-vote cards: Cards handed out to voters by party officials at polling places on election day, suggesting you vote for a particular party or candidate. You do not have to follow these cards. How you choose to vote is up to you.

Independent: Candidates for, or Members of Parliament, who do not belong to a political party.

Informal vote: A ballot paper which has been sabotaged, incorrectly completed or not filled in at all. Informal votes are not counted towards any candidate but are set aside.

Lower House: See House of Representatives.

Marginal seat: A term used after counting has been completed to describe a seat where the winning candidate received less than 56 per cent of the vote.

Member: Any person elected to Parliament, but more commonly used for those elected to the House of Representatives.

Opposition: The major party, or coalition of parties in Parliament which has the next highest number of votes.

Parliamentary privilege: The privilege while (physically) in Parliament that allows an MP to say anything without fear of prosecution for slander.

Party line voting: Despite the fact an MP is elected to represent his or her electorate, they almost always vote according to the pre-determined will of the party. This does not apply to independents, who have no party allegiances.

Preferential voting: A system of voting in which the voter completes the ballot paper by putting the number '1' in the box beside their first choice candidate, the number '2' beside their second choice and so on until all candidates are numbered.

Preselection: The choice by a political party of its candidates for an election.

Proportional representation: A system of voting designed to elect representatives in proportion to the amount of support each has in the electorate.

Safe seat: A term used after counting has been completed to describe a seat where the winning candidate received more than 60 per cent of the vote.

Senate: One of the two houses of federal Parliament, the other being the House of Representatives. It is often called the 'Upper House' or house of review. There are 76 Senators; 12 from each of the six states and 2 from the ACT and NT.

Swing: The difference between the performance of a candidate or party at one election in comparison to another.

Swinging voter:
Voters who are not loyal to any particular party but swing from one party to another according to the circumstances of the time.

Upper House: See Senate.

Writ: In electoral terms a writ is a document commanding an electoral officer to hold an election and contains dates for the close of rolls, the close of nominations, the polling day and the return of the writ. The issue of a writ triggers the electoral process.

Source: Australian Electoral Commission and

Source SBS

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