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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


INTRODUCTION

Australia pioneered the printed secret ballot, now used for elections around the world, in the colony of Victoria in 1855. However, it was only in 1962 that Aborigines gained the right to vote.

The current Australian political system is not as old as that of Britain [click here] or the United States [click here] - elements of both of which have been borrowed - but it is older than that of many other countries in the world, dating from the constitution which created the nation in 1901. If Australia can be said to have a 'founding father', then it was Henry Parkes (1815-1896) who was Premier of New South Wales for five terms and led the movement towards a federal state which in fact he never lived to see.

THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

Like Canada [click here], The Commonwealth of Australia - to use the country's full name - is a constitutional monarchy so the Head of State is the monarch of the United Kingdom, currently Queen Elizabeth II. There is a growing movement in Australia to change this and turn the country into a republic. Meanwhile the monarch's power is mainly symbolic and it is usually exercised through a Governor-General at federal level and Governors at state level.

The Governor-General is advised by the current Prime Minister and the Federal Executive Council and by convention acts on this advice. All past and current Ministers are members of the Council, although in practice only current Ministers attend meetings.

Normally the Governor-General and the Governors would act in a non-political fashion under the advice of federal or state ministers respectively. However, in the constitutional crisis of October 1975, the Governor-General used reserve powers granted by the Constitution of Australia to dismiss the government led by Gough Whitlam. These powers remain in force.

For practical purposes, the head of the executive is the Prime Minister who by convention is the leader of the political party or combination of parties with the most seats in the House of Representatives. The current Prime Minister is Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party who leads a coalition of the Liberal and National Parties. He is Australia's fourth prime minister since 2013.

The Prime Minister appoints Ministers from members of the legislature (either the House of Representatives or the Senate). Currently the Inner Ministry has 19 Ministers (including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister), the Outer Ministry has 11 Ministers, and there are 12 Parliamentary Secretaries, making 42 Ministers in all.

Like the United States, Australia is one of the few countries that locates its parliament and government in a political capital that is not its major city, so it is in Canberra and not Sydney (from 1901-1927 it was in Melbourne).

Link: constitutional crisis of 1975 click here

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

In the Australian political system, the lower chamber is the House of Representatives. The constitution requires that 'as nearly as practicable' the House has double the number of seats as the Senate which has 76 seats.

Therefore the House has 150 members elected from single-member electoral divisions, commonly known as "electorates" or "seats", allocated to states on the basis of population, with each original state guaranteed a minimum of five seats.

The biggest parliamentary electorate is the Western Australian district of Durack which is roughly three times the size of France. It covers 1.5 million square kilometres (580,000 sq miles).

Elections to the House of Representatives are held at least every three years with all members being up for election each time. The Prime Minister chooses when the election is to be held but the maximum term is three years. Elections to the House are held at the same time as elections to the Senate. Elections are always held on a Saturday because traditionally that is the day most people are not at work or church. The next election has to be held by November 2019.

Voting in House elections is by the preferential system - also known as the alternative vote or instant-runoff voting - whereby candidates are listed in order of preference. If the top candidate secures a majority of the first preferences, then that candidate wins the seat; otherwise the second preferences of the lowest candidate are allocated among the remaining candidates and so on until a candidate secures a majority of preferences. A full allocation of preferences is required for a vote to be considered formal.

Since 1994, an interesting feature of the House of Representatives has been its Main Committee which is designed to be an alternative debating chamber. It is modelled after what is called the Committee of the Whole that exists in several different legislatures, particularly the lower houses in both the UK and the USA. Matters considered to be relatively uncontroversial can be referred by the entire House to the Main Committee, where substantive debate can take place. The Main Committee cannot, however, initiate nor make a final decision on any parliamentary business, although it can perform all tasks in between.

Parliament House is surmounted by a flag mast that rises 266 feet (81 metres).

Link: House of Representatives click here

THE SENATE

In the Australian political system, the upper chamber is the Senate. There are 76 senators: 12 each from the six states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia) and two each from the two mainland territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory).

Elections to the Senate are held at least every three years but only half of the membership comes up for election each time. Senators have overlapping six-year terms except for those from the territories, whose terms are not fixed but are tied to the electoral cycle for the House of Representatives, so only 40 of the 76 places in the Senate are put to each election (unless the cycle is interrupted by what is called a double dissolution when all Senators are up for election as well as all members of the House).

Unlike senators from the six states, who serve a six year term, senators from the two territories must face the voters every half-Senate election (as mentioned previously, this is about every three years) and run simultaneously with the election for the House of Representatives). The practical reason for this is that it is more representative for the territories to have one Conservative senator and one Labour senator at any given time. The electoral system is such that this is always the result when two senators are elected, but this would not be the case if only a single senator were to be elected every six years.

Elections to the Senate are usually held at the same time as elections to the House of Representatives. There is no constitutional requirement that elections be held simultaneously, but they mostly are - partly to avoid the obvious duplication of costs and partly because it is felt that voters would not look kindly upon a government that called separate elections. The last time only a half-Senate election was held was in 1970.

Voting in Senate elections has historically used three different systems. The original arrangement in 1901 involved the 'first past the post' or 'winner takes all' system on a state-by-state basis. This was replaced in 1919 by preferential block voting, again on a state-by-state basis. Such block voting tended to grant landslide majorities and even 'wipeouts' very easily.

Therefore, in 1948, a system of proportional representation called the single transferable vote (STV), again on a state-by-state basis, became the method for electing the Senate. This has had the effect - especially when all Senate seats are up in a double dissolution - of enabling minor parties to gain representation. For the double dissolution election of 2016, there was a further change in the voting system from a full-preference single transferable vote with group voting tickets to an optional-preferential single transferable vote.

As in most bicameral legislatures, the assent of both chambers is required for legislation to be carried but, whereas in many countries the lower chamber is in practice more powerful than the upper chamber, in Australia the Senate has law-making powers almost equal to those of the House of Representatives. Also the Senate can block passage of appropriation bills, or supply, which finance governmental operations. Historically the majority party in the House has often not had a majority in the Senate which makes votes in the upper house particularly vital and the position of minority parties crucial.

Indeed, in the infamous constitutional crisis of October 1975, the Opposition used its control of the Senate to defer passage of appropriation bills which had been passed by the House of Representatives.

Link: Senate click here

POLITICAL PARTIES

There are three major political parties:

Other political parties include the Greens but only five seats in the plus parties that operate only at a state level. Currently, outside of the three major parties, there are only five members of the House.

In federal elections, the Liberal and National Parties usually run as a coalition in opposition to Labor - a practice which has operated since 1923.

Normally Labor or the Coalition forms a government with an overall majority in the lower house. The exception - the first for 70 years - was the general election of August 2010 when neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition won an overall majority. Following negotiations, the Labor Party formed a minority administration with support from a Green member and two Independent members.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

The High Court of Australia is the supreme court in the Australian court hierarchy and the final court of appeal in Australia. It has both original and appellate jurisdiction, has the power of judicial review over laws passed by both the federal and state parliaments, and interprets the Constitution.

Membership of the High Court is seven justices - one the Lord Chief Justice - each of whom is appointed by the Governor-General to serve until the age of 70.

The second highest court in Australia is called the Federal Court which covers almost all civil and some criminal matters arising under federal law. Membership consists of 45 justices appointed by the Governor-General to serve until the age of 70.

THE STATES

Australia is huge country - it is the size of the 48 states in the continental USA - and has a federal political system (in fact, the states preceeded the federation). The six states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The states are sovereign entities, although subject to certain powers of the Commonwealth as defined by the Constitution.

Each state and major mainland territory has its own parliament. This is unicameral in the case of the two mainland territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) and the state of Queensland, but bicameral in the case of the other five states. The lower houses are known as the Legislative Assembly (the House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania), while the upper houses are known as the Legislative Council. State elections are held every four years (a contrast to the federal elections which are (at least) every three years.

The head of the government in each state is called the Premier and in each territory is known as the Chief Minister.

CONCLUSION

The Australian political system is an interesting version of democracy - for several reasons.

First, voting is compulsory, although the penalty for non-compliance is only a fine of up to A$170 (100), and turnouts of more than 90% are routine in both federal and state elections.

Second, federal elections are held at least every three years, whereas in most countries general elections are every four or five years (it is true that American congressional elections are every two years but the US is a Presidential system whereas Australia is a Prime Ministerial system).

Third, the culture of Australian politics is robust, even rough. The language used in debate is frequently strong and colourful and rivalries are often bitter. Most recently, in both 2010 and 2013, the Labor Party changed leader in especially fractious circumstances and in 2015 the Liberal Party changed leader while in government which meant a different prime minister.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 11 September 2017

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