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The role of the Council

The role of the Council

The New South Wales Parliament consists of a Lower House, the Legislative Assembly, and an Upper House, the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council has three main functions: to represent the people, to legislate and to scrutinise the executive government as a ‘House of review’.

1. To represent the people

The Legislative Council provides an alternative and complementary system of representation to that of the Legislative Assembly. Members of the Council are elected for eight years under a system of proportional representation from a single electorate encompassing the whole State of New South Wales. By contrast, members of the Assembly are elected for four years using optional preferential voting from 93 separate electorates within the State.

As a result of these different electoral arrangements, the Council’s membership usually includes representatives from a range of political parties, in proportion to the votes cast, while the Assembly’s membership is more likely to be drawn from the two main sides of politics. The Council’s membership therefore tends to be more diverse, reflecting a wide range of opinions and views. This diversity enhances the democratic quality of the Parliament making it more representative of the people it serves.

A table depicting the composition of the Council since the introduction of popular elections for the Council is available here.

2. To legislate

The two Houses of the New South Wales Parliament have equal power in the making of laws, except in respect of certain money bills. The Council has power to amend, reject, or fail to pass any bill submitted to it by the Assembly. Consequently, the government of the day requires the agreement of both Houses, and not just the Lower House, to implement its legislative agenda.

The need for legislation to be passed by both Houses provides protection against a government with a disciplined majority in the Lower House introducing extreme measures for which it does not have broad community support. It also provides an opportunity for further consultation on proposed legislation and for amendments to be made to legislation where required.

The Council also has the right to initiate legislation. As a result, the Council is not confined to considering only those legislative proposals brought forward by the government. Over recent years, there have been several important pieces of legislation which have originated in the Legislative Council on the initiative of members not belonging to the government of the day.

3. To scrutinise executive government as a ‘House of Review’

The Legislative Council acts as a ‘House of review’ by scrutinising the actions of the executive government and holding it to account. While the government is formed by the party or coalition of parties which has the majority of seats in the Lower House, under the system of responsible government that operates in New South Wales, the government is accountable to the Upper House as well.

The reality of responsible government is that the Lower House has come to be dominated by the executive government through the mechanism of strict party control. The Council therefore has a crucial role to play in superintending the actions of government.

The Council’s capacity to perform this scrutiny role is enhanced by the fact that since 1988, no government has had a majority of members in the Council. Lack of government control has coincided with an increased level of Council scrutiny of government, and greater activism by the Council in its role as the ‘House of review’.

Mechanisms by which the Council undertakes its role as a ‘House of review’ include its extensive committee system, the annual Budget Estimates inquiry, the review of legislation, orders for the production of state papers, and the questioning of ministers in Question Time.

A Legislative Council Budget Estimates hearing
A Budget Estimates hearing in the NSW Legislative Council

More information on the role of the Council
New South Wales Legislative Council Practice, Chapter 2.
Statistics of the Legislative Council
Annual Reports of the Department of the Legislative Council