Australia’s system of government is founded in the liberal democratic tradition.
Based on the values of religious tolerance, freedom of speech and association, and the rule of law, Australia’s institutions and practices of government reflect British and North American models. At the same time, they are uniquely Australian.
Australian federation is modeled on the US federation. For example, residuary powers are with the states, Governors of the states are elected by the people and formally appointed by the British Queen.
In Australia, there has been a growth of Cooperative Federalism.
- Form of Government
One of the oldest continuous democracies in the world, the Commonwealth of Australia was created in 1901, when the former British colonies—now the six states—agreed to federate. The democratic practices and principles that shaped the pre-federation colonial Parliaments (such as ‘one man, one vote’ and women’s suffrage) were adopted by Australia’s first federal government.
The Australian Constitution sets out the powers of government in three separate chapters—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary—but insists that members of the legislature must also be members of the executive. In practice, Parliament delegates wide regulatory powers to the executive.
The popularly elected Parliament consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Ministers appointed from these Chambers conduct executive government, and policy decisions are made in Cabinet meetings.
Apart from the announcement of decisions, Cabinet discussions are not disclosed. Ministers are bound by the principle of Cabinet solidarity, which closely mirrors the British model of Cabinet government responsible to the Parliament.
Although, Australia is an independent nation, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is also formally the Queen of Australia. The Queen appoints a Governor-General (on the advice of the elected Australian Government) to represent her. The Governor-General has wide powers, but by convention acts only on the advice of the ministers on virtually all matters.
- Nature of the Constitution
Like the United States, Australia has a written constitution. The Australian Constitution defines the responsibilities of the federal government, which include foreign relations, trade, defence and immigration.
Governments of the States and territories are responsible for all matters not assigned to the Commonwealth, and they too adhere to the principles of responsible government. In the States, the Queen is represented by a Governor for each State.
The High Court of Australia arbitrates on disputes between the Commonwealth and the states. Many of the court’s decisions have expanded the constitutional powers and responsibilities of the federal government.
- Procedure of Amendment
The Australian Constitution can be amended only with the approval of the electorate through a national referendum in which all adults on the electoral roll must participate. A bill containing the amendment must first be passed by both houses of Parliament, or, in certain limited circumstances, by only one House of Parliament.
Any constitutional change must be approved by a double majority—a national majority of electors as well as a majority of electors in a majority of the states (at least four of the six). Where any state or states are particularly affected by the subject of the referendum, a majority of voters in those states must also agree to the change. This is often referred to as the ‘triple majority’ rule.
The double majority provision makes alterations to the Constitution difficult. Since federation in 1901, only eight out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have been approved. Voters are generally reluctant to support what they perceive as increases in the power of the federal government. States and territories may also hold referendums.
The government is formed in the House of Representatives by the party able to command a majority in that chamber. Minority parties often hold the balance of power in the Senate, which serves as a chamber of review for the decisions of the government. Senators are elected for six-year terms, and in an ordinary general election only half the senators face the voters.
In the Australian Parliament, questions can be asked without notice, and there is a strict alternation between Government and Opposition questions to ministers during the Question Time. The Opposition uses its questions to pursue the government. Government members give ministers a chance to put government policies and actions in a favourable light, or to pursue the Opposition.
Anything said in the Parliament can be reported fairly and accurately without fear of a suit for defamation. The rough-and-tumble of Parliamentary Question Time and debates is broadcast and widely reported. This has helped in establishing Australia’s reputation for robust public debate, and serves as an informal check on the executive power.
- Nature of Elections
A national general election must be held within three years of the first meeting of a new federal Parliament. The average life of Parliaments is about two-and-a-half years. In practice, general elections are held when the Governor-General agrees to a request from the Prime Minister, who selects the date of the election. The governing party has changed almost every five years on an average, since federation in 1901. The Liberal Party led a coalition with the longest hold on government—23 years—from 1949 to 1972. Prior to World War II, several governments lasted less than a year, but since 1945 there have been only seven changes in the government.
For all citizens over the age of 18 it is compulsory to vote in the election of both federal and state governments, and failure to do so may result in fine or prosecution.
Relations between Levels of Government
State parliaments are subject to the national Constitution as well as their state constitutions. A federal law overrides any state law not consistent with it.
In practice, the two levels of government cooperate in many areas where states and territories are formally responsible, such as education, transport, health and law enforcement.
Income tax is levied federally, and debate between the levels of governments about access to revenue and duplication of expenditure functions is a perennial feature of Australian politics. Local government bodies are created by legislation at the state and territory level.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is a forum to initiate, develop and implement national policy reforms requiring cooperative action between the three levels of government: national, state or territory, and local.
COAG comprises the Prime minister, State Premiers, Chief Ministers of the territories, and the President of the Australian Local Government Association.
Its objectives include dealing with major issues by cooperating on structural reform of government and on reforms to achieve an integrated, efficient national economy and a single national market.
In addition, Ministerial Councils (comprising national, state and territory ministers, and, where relevant, representatives of local government and of the governments of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea) meet regularly to develop and implement inter-governmental action in specific policy areas.