Australia’s system of government

australia government
The Gough Whitlam-led Federal cabinet, 1974

Australia has a federal system of government that stems from our unique history. We began not as a single nation but a collection of colonies, settled, populated and governed by Great Britain. The English established these colonies in New South Wales (1788) Tasmania (1825) Western Australia (1827) South Australia (1842) Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859). Over time these colonies, though nominally under the control of Britain, were granted authority to develop their own parliaments, under charter from the British Crown. These six parliaments and their operation were based on the ‘Westminster system’ used in British government. Over time the six Australian colonial parliaments became largely self-governing, with little interference or intervention from England.

A movement for a federated Australia emerged in the last 1870s, calling for national unity and a single federal government. The ‘Founding Fathers’ who led this process wanted to retain the fundamental aspects of British Westminster democracy – but they also drew heavily on the political system of the United States, which in 1789 had united as thirteen states belonging to a single federated nation. Federalism is a political system with different levels of government; law-making powers and responsibilities shared amongst them. The ‘Founding Fathers’ constructed a written constitution that outlined our systems of government and law-making, including the allocation of powers and responsibilities. This document, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, was approved by the British parliament and came into effect on January 1st, 1901. Most Australians refer to this day simply as Federation.

Key features of Australian government include:

The rule of law. Governments must abide by existing laws and regulations, particularly the Constitution, which is our highest law. Governments cannot just ‘do as they please’.

Federalism. There are three tiers or levels of government, and law-making power is divided or shared between them. Federalism allows for government in the national interest as well as at a local or regional level.

Separation of powers. Law-making power is not just shared between different levels of government, it is also divided between three different branches of government: the executive (the Prime Minister or Premier and his or her Cabinet) the legislature (the Federal or State parliament) and the judiciary (the High Court and subordinate courts). This prevents one branch or section of the government from acquiring too much power or exerting too much influence.

Democracy. Australian citizens vote regularly to elect the people who sit in Federal and State parliaments. If these assemblies fail to pass laws or initiate law reform for the public good, they can be removed from office at election.

Representative government. Each Australian is represented by a Member of Parliament, who acts as their deputy and their ‘voice’ in the legislature and the law-making process.

Responsible government. Parliaments, as representative assemblies of the people, are supreme bodies and all branches of government are ultimately accountable to them. All ministers, for example, are ultimately responsible to parliament.

Bicameralism. Apart from Queensland, which abolished its upper house in 1922, all Australian Federal and State parliaments have two separate houses or chambers. Proposed laws must pass through both houses before being enacted. This allows for greater scrutiny, accountability and self-checking.

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