Australian Democracy

The Australian system of government has its beginnings in two great democratic traditions. Following British settlement in 1788, the Westminster model was used as the basis of government in the six separate colonies established across the continent in the 19th century. When those colonies met to discuss the formation of a national government in 1890 they opted for a relationship between the national and state governments similar to that of the United States. At the same time they opted to retain the Westminster model as the basis for the legislature, the executive government and the judiciary at the national and state level. The American tradition is expressed through a written constitution defining the powers of the national government. Australia was declared a federation in 1901 with the concurrence of the British Parliament, and now has a Federal Government, six State Governments and two Territories which are largely self-governing.

The Constitution

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.

State and Local Government

State governments have basically similar institutions to their federal counterpart. Each has its own Governor with powers similar to those of the Governor-General, also exercised on the advice of the Government. Each has an upper and lower House of Parliament, except for Queensland which has only one House. All operate on the British system of cabinet government. The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory also have their own governments and legislatures, but their powers are less than those of state governments.

In the years since federation, increasing powers have been transferred to the Federal Government or shared between the States and the Federal Government. The taxing power, passed to the Federal Government more than 65 years ago, has generated regular consultations on the distribution of revenue and other matters between the Federal and State Governments. Councils and conferences of ministers are frequent and cover agriculture, education, housing, employment, minerals and energy, transport and legal matters. Commissions have also been set up to advise on the allocation of federal grants to the States in such areas as education and road construction.

The Council of Australian Governments representing the Federal Government and the heads of all States and Territories has taken a number of initiatives to rationalise intergovernmental decision making since its formation in 1992 as a forum for ongoing discussions on national matters. It has endorsed strategies on ecologically sustainable development and greenhouse gas emissions.

The six States contain more than 850 local government areas. They are controlled by elected councils and are regulated by state Acts of Parliament. Responsibility for administering local amenities such as roads, water supply, sewerage and electricity often lies with statutory authorities established by State Governments.

Finance for their activities is increasingly obtained through grants from the Federal and State Governments.

The Judiciary

The third branch of government is based on the British tradition, but with several important differences arising from a written constitution and a federal form of government. Under the Constitution, the judicial power of the Federal Government is vested in the High Court. The Federal Government also has the power to create other courts such as the Federal Court and the Family Court.

The High Court may deal with federal and state matters and has original jurisdiction in interpreting the Constitution and determining legal disputes between the Federal and State Governments. It is the final court of appeal in Australia from federal and state courts. The Federal Court deals with federal law in such areas as copyright, industrial law, trade practices, bankruptcy and administrative law. The Family Court deals with divorce, custody of children and maintenance and associated property disputes.