Government of Australia

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This article describes the federal government of Australia. See Australian governments for other jurisdictions.


Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a federation and a parliamentary democracy. The Commonwealth of Australia was 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 referenda.

Structure of the government

The structure of the Australian Government may be examined in light of two distinct concepts, namely:

  1. Federalism - Australia has both a federal government called the Commonwealth Government as well as state and local governments, and
  2. Separation of powers into legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. Separation of powers is implied from the structure of the Constitution which breaks down the branches of government into separate chapters.


The Australian Constitution (The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900) creates a federal legislature known as the Parliament of the Commonwealth (Section 1). The bicameral parliament consists of the Queen and two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives (Section 1). Section 51 of the Constitution provides for the Commonwealth Government's legislative powers and allocates certain powers and responsibilities (known as "heads of power") to the Commonwealth government. All remaining responsibilities were retained by the six colonies, which under the Constitution became States of the Commonwealth of Australia. Further, each state has their own State Constitution so that Australia actually has seven sovereign state 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 Commonwealth Parliament can propose changes to the Constitution which must receive the support of a majority of those voting in a referendum and a majority of voters in a majority of States, what is called the "double majority" or "dual criteria", and also the majority of voters in each affected State.

The Commonwealth Constitution also provides that the States can agree to refer any of their powers to the Commonwealth if they choose. This may be achieved by way of an amendment to the Constitution via referendum (a vote on whether the proposed transfer of power from the States to the Commonwealth, or vice versa, should be implimented). More commonly powers may be transferred by passing other acts of legislation which authorise the transfer and such acts require the legislative agreement of all the state governments involved. This "transfer" legislation may have a "sunset clause", a legislative provision that nullifies the transfer of power after a specified period, at which point the original division of power is restored.

In addition, Australia has three self-governing territories: the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island. These Territories do not have their own Constitutions. Instead, 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 and the structure of the Parliament of Australia 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, New South Wales and Victoria, as the Senators of the smaller States could form a majority and amend or even reject bills originating in the House of Representatives.

The third level of government after the Commonwealth and the States is local government, in the form of shire, town or city councils. These bodies administer the provision of services such as local roads, sanitation, libraries, dog registration etc. Councils are composed of elected representatives, usually serving on a part time basis.

Separation of Powers

Main article: Separation of powers in Australia

Government is undertaken by three inter-connected arms of government:

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. 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)

Head of state

Because the Australian Constitution dates from 1900, when the Dominions of the British Empire were not independent states in their own right, the term "head of state" is not used in the Australian Constitution. Australia, like the other Dominions, became in practice independent from the United Kingdom following the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 (although the Statute was not adopted in Australia until 1942). The effect of the Statute was to sever all legislative links between the United Kingdom and Australia, leaving the Crown as the only remaining connection, thus formalising Australia's status as an independent state. Recognising this, the Australian Parliament in 1973 gave the Queen the title Queen of Australia, thus confirming her status as Australia's head of state.

Section 2 of the Australian Constitution provides that a Governor-General shall represent the Queen in Australia, and the Governor-General carries out virtually all the functions of a head of state, without reference to the Queen. The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia. The current Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, said in 2004: "Her Majesty is Australia's head of state but I am her representative and to all intents and purposes I carry out the full role." However the Governor-General does not represent Australia internationally. Where he travels, he travels as the representative of the Queen of Australia, and it is she, not he, for example, who is toasted by international leaders at state dinners, etc. While the Queen is Australia's head of state, a sometimes held but completely incorrect view in the community is that the Governor General is the Australian Head of State, and the view of who is the head of state has been debated regardless of the fact that the head of state is clearly the Queen.

Under the conventions of the Westminister system the Governor-General's powers are almost always exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister or other ministers. The Governor-General retains reserve powers similar to those possessed by the Queen in the United Kingdom. These are rarely exercised, but during the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 Governor-General Sir John Kerr demonstrated a willingness to use them independently of the Queen.

Australia has periodically experienced movements seeking to end the monarchy. In a 1999 referendum, the Australian people voted on a proposal to change the Constitution. The proposal would have removed references to the Queen from the Constitution and replaced the Governor-General with a President nominated by the Prime Minister, but subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of both Houses of the Parliament. The proposal was defeated. The Australian Republican Movement continues to campaign for an end to the monarchy in Australia, opposed by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.

For more information, see constitutional history of Australia and Australian republicanism.


Parliament House, Canberra: the seat of the Parliament of Australia
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 the Queen, a 76-member Senate and a 150-member House of Representatives. Twelve Senators from each state are elected for six-year terms and two from each territory are elected for three-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.


The Commonwealth Parliament and all the state and territory legislatures operate within the conventions of the Westminster system, with a recognised Leader of the Opposition, usually the leader of the largest party outside the government, and a Shadow Cabinet of Opposition members who "shadow" each member of the Ministry, asking questions on matters within the Minister's portfolio. Although the government, by virtue of commanding a majority of members in the lower house of the legislature, can usually pass its legislation and control the workings of the house, the Opposition has certain recognised rights, and can considerably delay the passage of legislation and obstruct government business if it chooses. The day-to-day business of the house is usually negotiated between a designated senior Minister, who holds the title Leader of the House, and an Opposition frontbencher known as the Manager of Opposition Business. The current Leader of the Opposition in the federal Parliament is Kim Beazley. The Manager of Opposition Business is Julia Gillard.


Executive Council

Main article: Executive Council of Australia

The Federal Executive Council consists of the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and Ministers. It is a formal body which exists to give legal effect to decisions made by the Cabinet, and to carry out various other functions. Members of the Executive Council are entitled to be styled "The Honourable", a title which they retain for life. The Governor-General usually presides at Council meetings, but a Minister with the title Vice-President of the Executive Council serves as the link between the government and the Council.


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 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.

Cabinet Ministers:

  • Prime Minister
  • Minister for Transport and Regional Services
  • Treasurer
  • Minister for Trade
  • Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • Minister for Defence
  • Minister for Finance and Administration
  • Minister for Health and Ageing
  • Attorney-General
  • 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 also: Australian Commonwealth ministries 1901-2004

R. G. Casey House, the headquarters of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
R. G. Casey House, the headquarters of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Main article: List of Australian Commonwealth Government entities


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.


^  Prior to 1931, the junior status of dominions was shown in the fact that it was British ministers who advised the King, with dominion ministers, if they met the King at all, escorted by the constitutionally superior British minister. After 1931 all dominion ministers met the King as His ministers as of right, equal in Commonwealth status to Britain's ministers, meaning that there was no longer either a requirement for, or an acceptance of , the presence of British ministers. The first state to exercise this both symbolic and real independence was the Irish Free State. Australia and other dominions soon followed.

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