This document, drawn up in constitutional conventions in the 1890s and ratified at referenda in all six colonies, reserves for the Federal Government power over defence, foreign affairs, trade and commerce, taxation, customs and excise duties, pensions, immigration and postal services. Other powers are left with the States, but federal law prevails if there is a conflict over concurrent powers. The Federal Government also has the power to ensure observance at the state level of Australia’s international treaty obligations. The Constitution vests the executive powers of government in a Governor-General representing Queen Elizabeth II of England (also the Queen of Australia), but they are exercised by tradition on behalf of the elected government. Only once, in 1975, has the Governor-General dismissed an elected national government. The Constitution can be changed only if both houses of the Federal Parliament agree on a national referendum, and that can be successful only if it gains an overall majority nationally and in four of the six States. Of the 42 proposals for Constitutional change put since 1901, only eight have been successful.
The Federal Government and Parliament
The form of government at the national level corresponds largely with the British democratic tradition. The federal legislature consists of a House of Representatives of 147 members representing individual electorates in all States and Territories and elected on a preferential voting system, and a Senate consisting of 12 representatives from each State and two from each Territory elected through proportional representation.
The party with the majority in the House of Representatives provides a ministry from its members in the House of Representatives and the Senate, with the Prime Minister traditionally coming from the House of Representatives. Membership in the House of Representatives is divided between two major groupings, the Australian Labor Party and a coalition of the Liberal Party and therural-based National Party. Elections must be held every three years, but may be held more frequently with the consent of the Governor-General.
The Senate is more diverse in its membership. The two major groupings provide the majority of members. However, the Australian Democrats, and recently other minor parties, have held the balance of power for most of the past 20 years. If the Government fails to command a majority in the House of Representatives it must ask the Governor-General to authorise an election or resign. It need not, however, command a majority in the Senate. Senators are generally elected for six-year terms.
Each Minister of State is responsible to Parliament for the operation of a department, in some cases jointly with other ministers. The amalgamation of departments in the past decade has resulted in the assignment of responsibilities in the larger departments to a portfolio minister, assisted by one or more ministers within the same portfolio. There are many statutory agencies, corporations, tribunals and commissions in the federal public sector, all responsible to particular ministers.
Australia is one of the few countries to adopt compulsory voting at the national and state level and to have a permanent electoral commission charged with overseeing fair elections and regular redistribution of the boundaries of electorates for the House of Representatives. This ensures, as nearly as practicable, the same number of electors in each electorate. The Australian Electoral Commission also administers public funding provisions for registered political parties and eligible independents.