- This article describes the national government of Australia. See list of Australian governments for other jurisdictions.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a federation and a parliamentary democracy. Australia's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title Queen of Australia in addition to her other titles. The Queen is represented in Australia by the Governor-General, who is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister. The Governor-General has come to exercise all the functions of a head of state, and does so without reference to the Queen. Although the Constitution gives significant executive power to the Governor-General, under the conventions of the Westminister system these powers are almost always exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister or other ministers. The Governor-General, however, retains the reserve powers of the Crown, and uses them on very rare occasions.
The role of the monarch, governor-general, and the degree of Australia's independence from the UK (now complete) evolved gradually through changing conventions and parliamentary acts. See constitutional history of Australia for more details of the changes.
Structure of the government
Australia is a federation, formed in 1901 as a result of an agreement between what were previously six self-governing British colonies. The terms of this agreement are embodied in the Australian Constitution, which was drawn up at a Constitutional Convention and ratified by the people of the colonies at referendums. The Constitution creates an Australian federal Parliament, executive and judiciary, and allocates certain powers and responsibilities to them (known as "heads of power"). All remaining responsibilities were retained by the six colonies, which under the Constitution became States of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Australia thus has seven sovereign Parliaments, none of which can encroach on the functions of the other. The High Court of Australia arbitrates on any disputes which arise between the Commonwealth and the States, or among the States, concerning their respective functions. The Constitution, however, provides that the States can agree to refer any of their powers to the Commonwealth if they choose. The Commonwealth Parliament can also propose to the people the transfer of power from the States to the Commonwealth (or vice versa), by way of a referendum to amend the Constitution. Such a referendum require the approval of a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states (this is called the "double majority").
In addition, Australia has three self-governing territories: the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island. The legislatures of these territories exercise powers delegated to them by the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Parliament retains the power to override territorial legislation and to transfer powers to or from the territories.
The federal nature of the Commonwealth is reflected in the structure of the Parliament of Australia, which was the subject of protracted negotiations among the colonies during the drafting of the Constitution. The House of Representatives is elected on a basis which reflects the differing populations of the States. Thus New South Wales has 50 members of the House while Tasmania has five. But the Australian Senate is elected on a basis of equality among the States: all States elect 12 Senators, regardless of population. This was intended to prevent the Parliament being dominated by the interests of the two most populous States.
Government is undertaken by three inter-connected arms of government:
- Legislature - The Commonwealth Parliament
- Executive - The Prime Minister, the Cabinet Ministers, Ministers and their Departments
- Judiciary - The High Court of Australia and subsidiary Federal courts.
The Separation of Powers is the principle whereby the three arms of government undertake their activities separate from each other:
- the Legislature makes laws, and provides a legislative framework for the operations of the other two arms.
- the Executive administers the laws and carries out the tasks assigned to it by legislation;
- the Judiciary hears cases arising from the administration of the law, using both statute law and the common law. Unlike courts in the United States, the Australian courts cannot give advisory opinions on the constitutionality of laws.
- the other arms cannot influence the Judiciary.
Until the passage of the Australia Act 1986, and associated legislation in the parliament of the United Kingdom, some Australian cases could be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for final appeal. With this act, Australian law was made unequivocally sovereign, and the High Court of Australia was confirmed as the highest court of appeal. The theoretical possibility of the British Parliament enacting laws to override the Australian Constitution was also removed.(Act:pdf) (http://scaleplus.law.gov.au/html/pasteact/1/973/pdf/AustraliaAct86.pdf)
In 1999 the Australian people voted in a referendum on a proposal to change the Constitution to make Australia a republic. The proposal would have replaced the Queen with a President chosen by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of the Parliament. The referendum was defeated, but the Australian Republican Movement continues to campaign for an Australian republic (see also Australian republicanism).
Parliament House, Canberra: the seat of the Parliament of Australia
Main article: Parliament of Australia
The Legislature makes the laws, and supervises the activities of the other two arms with a view to changing the laws when appropriate. The Australian Parliament is bicameral, consisting of a 76-member Senate and a 150-member House of Representatives. Twelve senators from each state and two from each territory are elected for six-year terms using proportional representation and the single transferable vote (known in Australia as "preferential voting": see Australian electoral system), with half elected every three years.
The members of the House of Representatives are elected by preferential voting from single-member constituencies allocated among the states and territories roughly in proportion to population. In ordinary legislation, the two chambers have coordinate powers, but all proposals for appropriating revenue or imposing taxes must be introduced in the House of Representatives. Under the prevailing Westminster system, the leader of the political party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives is named Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to the Parliament, of which they must be elected members. General elections are held at least once every three years. The Prime Minister has a discretion to advise the Governor-General to call an election for the House of Representatives at any time, but Senate elections can only be held within certain periods prescribed in the Constitution. The last general election was in October 2004.
Main article: Executive Council of Australia
The Federal Executive Council consists of the Governor-General, Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers, and Ministers and their Departments.
The Executive Council is Australia's version of the Privy Council in the UK. Active membership consists of the current cabinet, who act as advisers to the Governor-General of Australia in council. Membership--even though not active--is for life.
Main article: Cabinet of Australia
The Constitution of Australia does not recognise the Cabinet as a legal entity, and its decisions have no legal force. All members of the ministry are also members of the Executive Council, a body which is (in theory, though rarely in practice) chaired by the Governor-General and which meets solely to endorse and give legal force to decisions already made by the Cabinet. That is why there is always a member of the ministry holding the title Vice-President of the Executive Council.
Until 1956 all members of the ministry were members of the Cabinet. The growth of the ministry in the 1940s and 1950s made this increasingly impractical, and in 1956 Robert Menzies created a two-tier ministry, with only senior ministers holding Cabinet rank. This practice has been continued by all governments except the Whitlam Government.
When the non-Labor parties have been in power, the Prime Minister has made all Cabinet and ministerial appointments at his own discretion, although in practice he consults with senior colleagues in making appointments. When the Liberal Party and its predecessors (the Nationalist Party and the United Australia Party) have been in coalition with the National Party or its predecessor the Country Party, the leader of the junior Coalition party has had the right to nominate his party's members of the Coalition ministry, and to be consulted by the Prime Minister on the allocation of their portfolios.
When the Labor first held office under Chris Watson, Watson assumed the right to choose members of his Cabinet. In 1907, however, the party decided that future Labor Cabinets would be elected by the members of the Parliamentary Labor Party, the Caucus, and this practice has been followed ever since. The Prime Minister retains the right to allocate portfolios. In practice, Labor Prime Ministers have exercised a predominant influence over who has been elected to Labor Cabinets, although the leaders of the party factions also exercise considerable influence.
- Prime Minister
- Minister for Transport and Regional Services
- Minister for Trade
- Minister for Foreign Affairs
- Minister for Defence
- Minister for Finance and Administration
- Minister for Health and Ageing
- Minister for the Environment and Heritage
- Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
- Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
- Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
- Minister for Education, Science and Training
- Minister for Family and Community Services
- Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources
- Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
See: Australian Commonwealth ministries 1901-2004
R. G. Casey House, the headquarters of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
- Attorney-General's Department
- Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
- Department of Defence
- Department of Education, Science and Training
- Department of Employment and Workplace Relations
- Department of the Environment and Heritage
- Department of Family and Community Services
- Department of Finance and Administration
- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Department of Health and Ageing
- Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
- Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources
- Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet  (http://www.dpmc.gov.au/)
- Department of Transport and Regional Services
- Department of the Treasury
- Department of Veterans' Affairs
- Public Service Commissioner
Main article: Australian court hierarchy
The Judiciary interprets the laws, using as a basis the laws as enacted and explanatory statements made in the Legislature during the enactment.
In each parliament, the major party holding a majority forms the Government. The major party not holding a majority forms the Opposition.
In the system of government similar to the British system, of which Australia's is one, the term sometimes used is "Her/His Majesty's loyal Opposition", where the term loyal refers to the ultimate loyalty of the party and members who hope at some future time to form a government loyal to the head of state or nation.
- Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (http://www.dpmc.gov.au)
- Australian Republican Movement (http://www.republic.org.au)