Sensational World of Civics – Episode 3 – What happens in Parliament?

Politics … a total snoozefest, right? Wrong!

How our government works and the decisions it makes reaches into almost every part of our everyday lives. So settle in as we explore in a series of podcasts the history of Australian democracy and pull apart how our system of government works .. it’ll be heaps more fun than it sounds. Promise!

In this episode we explore what happens inside that big building in Canberra you see on the TV every night … aka Parliament House.  Including how laws are made,  the difference between the House of Reps and the Senate – and what’s a bill and why it has nothing to do with a duck.

This special four-part civics series for primary school kids is produced in association with the Museum of Australian Democracy




Last episode, we got comfy with how exactly our politicians are elected. Well, once you’ve given them a job, they need to get to work! Today, we’ll learn about the different jobs done in the house of representatives and the senate; how laws are made; and what political parties are.
And to guide us on this journey – I’m delighted to welcome to the Squiz Kids hotseat Cameron Hansell, from the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra. Cam, welcome!

Great to be back!

Cam, we talked last time about bicameral Australian Parliament – bicameral meaning two houses, or two chambers. There’s the green House of Representatives, with 151 members, and the red Senate, which has 76 Senators. Why do we need all those people in two different coloured rooms? Couldn’t we just have one house, and get stuff done a bit faster?

Well you are right Amanda, if we did just have one chamber things probably would get done a lot faster…however we wouldn’t have the same level of rigorous debate! We need checks and balances.

Check and balances – what are they?

You see, it’s really important that the decisions made in parliament are reviewed and scrutinised…having two chambers allows us to do this. Each chamber serves a slightly different purpose, and a good hint into the different purposes of these chambers comes from the names given to them. The House of Representatives is also known as the lower house, or the peoples house. It is in this chamber where government is formed and where the people of individual electorates are represented by their leaders.

Okay, and the senate?

That’s known as the upper house or the state’s house. In the Senate, politicians are representing the interests of their entire state, such as NSW or Victoria. Here is a fun fact…Most bills start in the House of Representatives, but to become a law they must also be debated and passed in the Senate as well. For this reason, you will often hear the senate referred to as the house of review, and that’s why its so important that we have two chambers.

Kind of like how in my house, the kids know they’re not getting something expensive and new until both parents have said it’s okay. Got it. Okay, so the majority of laws are made in the lower house. Let’s find out how they do that.

Cam, we hear all the time that something is “against the law”. But what IS a law, exactly?

Well a law is a rule which society uses to define how people and organisations are expected to behave. In a democracy like our own this is a rule that applies to all people at all times. The laws also tell us the penalties for breaking the rules such as fines or prison time. Laws help us all to behave safely, fairly, and respectfully…Now that I think about it, just like rules in classroom.

That’s true! Imagine the chaos if you didn’t have rules at school. I shudder to think. Okay, so the majority of laws are made in the lower house. Let’s find out how they do that. Can you take us through a recent bill that’s become a law?

Oh wow that is tough! You see there are sooooo many that pass through parliament! In 2021 for example there was alone over 100…and that’s just the ones that were able to passed through both houses! And you know what? All of those bills either created or changed a law, and its these laws which shape our lives and the society we live. They can be laws related to very big important issues such as the defence, dealing with natural disasters like fires and floods, making our industries more sustainable…OR it could be about small everyday things.

Okay, I’m going to spin the Squiz Kids Wheel of Fortune and pick a random one… aha! the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill of 2021. Geez, that sounds boring.

Actually, that’s a good one! It changed the wording of an existing law. The law used to say that parents with children between the ages of 2 and 18 could receive some money from the Government to make a trip to the dentist a bit cheaper….and I tell you what, the cost is what really scares adults about the dentist.

Are you sure that’s all that adults care about at the dentist? Sometimes I reckon they need their hands held for other reasons…

That’s true.. but at least this bill changed the law to now say that children of ANY age are eligible. So, this effectively means that parents can now take their babies to the dentist and not need to worry about the cost so much. So there we have an example of something which we probably wouldn’t see talked about in the media, it doesn’t exactly scream excitement, but its important, and I dare say that thanks to this bill Australians will have even healthier mouths in the future.

Everyone wants a healthy mouth …

So what happens when a bill is first introduced? What if someone likes the main idea, but disagrees with some of the details? Can it be changed?

It certainly can! In fact, its not very often that a bill isn’t changed at least a little bit before it becomes a law. You see when it comes to bills, words are VERY important. Adding, removing or changing just one word can sometimes make a huge difference in how the law will actually work in reality, so its important to get it right.

Now speaking of cheering, Cam, sometimes when I listen to what’s happening in Parliament, it sounds like a rowdy school playground… I think it’s time to talk about Question Time.

So Cam, every day that Federal Parliament sits, there is at least an hour each day called Question Time. That’s when any member of Parliament can ask a government minister a question. And it’s the time of day that the most members are present in the house.

Question time is very important because it allows an opportunity for our opposition, as well as minor parties, to scrutinize the actions of the Government. Question time is an opportunity for them to ask the Government questions without notice, meaning without them knowing what questions are going to be asked beforehand.

And it’s also a time when some pretty intense political fighting happens between the parties.

Yeah Question time can get really, really heated, and its because our politicians know that out of all the time spent in parliament, this is when the public and the news media will DEFINITLEY be watching. I tell you what Amanda, if I was a minister in this situation, I would be VERY nervous! All eyes are on them at this point and opposition members use this brief moment of guaranteed press coverage as opportunity to embarrass the government. They will use it to demand answers from them and try pressure them into taking certain actions. To show confidence in their policies and actions, the government need to be able to deflect criticism back onto the opposition. As you can imagine, things can end up getting very rowdy and unprofessional because our politicians know that these sessions can make or break careers.

Who decides which members get to ask questions?

I’m glad you asked Amanda, you see without somebody to control sessions of parliament it would just completely out of hand…it would be like a classroom without a teacher!

And no one would want that!!

Look, our politicians are very passionate people and they could talk allll day if they were allowed too. So we have someone with a very important job in the House of Representatives known as the Speaker. This is the person that sits right in the centre and monitors the debate. They have a lot of power in the chamber. In fact, did you know they are allowed to kick any member out of the chamber if they are being too disruptive…even the Prime Minister! Now the speaker isn’t like a judge who has a little hammer known as a gavel they can use to control the room. They only have their voice. So when things are getting out of hand, you will hear them shout ORDER ORDER as they try to control the room.

Sounds a bit like what a teacher does. I’ll have to try that next time I’m in a classroom… ORDER!

So far, we’ve been talking all about stuff that only adults can do. You have to be 18 to vote, you have to be 18 to be elected … the youngest politician in Australia was Queenslander Wyatt Roy, who joined the house of representatives at age 20. But don’t worry, kids can still get involved! Next episode, Bryce will explore how kids can get into politics at a local level; how you can communicate with and influence members of Parliament; and how you can make a difference. I’m looking forward to that! Cam, thanks for your time and expertise today… will you do the honours?

Now get out there, and have a most excellent day.

Over and out.