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Senate Chamber — M170North Wing, Main Floor

The Senate, also known as the Upper House, was sometimes referred to as the States’ House because its main purpose was originally to safeguard the interests of the States. Sir Edmund Barton, leader of the Australasian Federal Convention and Australia’s first Prime Minister, noted that: ‘We cannot fail to remember that the Constitution designed the Senate to be a House of greater power than any ordinary second Chamber. Not only by its express powers, but by the equality of its representation of the States, the Senate was intended to be able to protect the States from aggression.’ (JR Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, Parliamentary Paper No 28, 1972). By the 1980s, each of the six States was represented by 10 Senators, with the addition of two Senators for the Northern Territory and ACT respectively - a total of 64 Senators. Amongst the Senate’s Constitutional powers is the right to veto any Bill presented to it, and it can amend all but money bills. It can also initiate legislation, apart from money bills.

As with the English House of Commons, there is a convention that the Sovereign is not permitted to enter the House of Representatives. In Australia, therefore, Parliament is opened by the Governor-General in the Senate Chamber. The Governor-General entered the Chamber and occupied the Vice-Regal chair, requesting the assembled Senators to be seated. His Excellency then commanded the Usher of the Black Rod to request the presence of the Members of the House of Representatives in the Senate Chamber. The Usher of the Black Rod proceeded across King’s Hall to the door of the House of Representatives and knocked to be admitted. Members then crossed to the Senate Chamber via King’s Hall.

Although John Smith Murdoch designed Provisional Parliament House in a stripped classical style, many aspects of the interior furnishings in the Senate Chamber were derived from Westminster traditions and symbols. The green and red colours of the two Chambers (House of Representatives and Senate respectively) reflect the colour scheme of the lower and upper houses in the British House of Commons.

The original plan for the Senate chamber provided for 56 Senators, and at the time of the opening of the building in 1927 there were 36. These numbers increased to 60 in 1950 (four more than originally allowed for) and to 76 Senators in 1984. The President of the Senate sat in the rear centre of the Chamber with the Vice-Regal chair located immediately behind. Government Senators occupied the seats on the Government side of the Chamber to the right of the Speaker (as he or she faced the main entrance of the Chamber), while the Senate Members of the Ministry occupied the three front desks nearest the centre table and others depending on the size of the ministry. A bench provided for three officials behind the Ministers. The non-Government Senators sat on the opposite side and cross-bench Senators sat on either side of the aisle to the main door. On the floor of the Chamber there were four galleries: those on either side of the Chamber nearest the President’s Chair were, respectively, for officers and guests of the President. The other two galleries were for visiting Members of the House of Representatives and for Senators’ guests. The Senate had an upstairs Press gallery together with three galleries above both long sides and rear of the Chamber designed for public visitors. A carved timber coat of arms is incorporated into the wall panelling behind the Vice-Regal chair. It is believed this was originally commissioned for the House of Representatives, but was relocated after the architect was forced to accept the Speaker’s Chair, which would have blocked the view of the Australian coat of arms.

The 1927 configuration of the Senate Chamber appears to have been entirely two-seater benches and desks. Unlike the House of Representatives the front benches in the Senate all had desks, distinguished by having break-fronts, all 10 of which survive (though two of these may have been transferred from the House of Representatives in 1949-50). Two front benches manufactured later were occupied by officials each side of the President, presumably after the 1984 increase in Senator numbers. All Senate desks retain the original 1927 detailing for pen holder and ink well, except for a later-produced 5-seater desk which has no ink wells. Each desk position has a lockable document drawer and a waste paper drawer. Changes were made by the addition of attendant call buttons, audio ear phone jacks, volume switches and speakers between the drawers, microphone support plates on the fronts of desks and holes in the tops of desks for later generation microphones. It has been reported that Senators were able to listen to debates in the House of Representatives on the earphone system. Overall the Senate has the appearance of greater unity of design and integrity of furniture than does the House of Representatives Chamber, most of it being original 1927 furniture from both houses, though in reality the 1988 arrangement of the Chamber was a result of continuous change.