Australia's political system

Australia's formal name is the Commonwealth of Australia. It is both a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's head of state.

Federation

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 when six partly self-governing British colonies united to become states of a nation.

The birth of Australia is often referred to as 'federation' because the Constitution created a 'federal' system of government. Under a federal system, powers are divided between a central government and individual states. In Australia, power was divided between the Commonwealth federal government and the six state governments.

Federal government

The Australian Parliament- external site consists of the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Parliament passes laws which affect the whole country.

Australia's federal legislature consists of a House of Representatives made up of 147 members, elected on a preferential voting system, and a Senate comprised of 12 members from each State and two members from each Territory, elected by proportional representation.

The party with the majority in the House of Representatives provides government by forming a ministry from its members in both houses, with the nation's political leader, the Prime Minister, traditionally coming from the House of Representatives. Elections must be held every three years, but generally occur more often.

There are three arms of government in Australia:

The legislature (or Parliament) is responsible for debating and voting on new laws.
The executive (the Australian Government) is responsible for enacting and upholding the laws established by the legislature. Certain members of the legislature (called ministers) are also members of the executive, with special responsibilities for certain areas of the law.
The judiciary is the legal arm of the federal government. It is independent of the other two arms, and is responsible for enforcing the laws and deciding whether the other two arms are acting within their powers.
The judiciary is the legal arm of the federal government. It is independent of the other two arms, and is responsible for enforcing the laws and deciding whether the other two arms are acting within their powers.


State and territory government

Although the six states joined together to form the Commonwealth of Australia, they still each retain the power to make their own laws over matters not controlled by the Commonwealth. State governments also have their own constitutions, as well as a structure of legislature, executive and judiciary. Territories are areas within Australia's borders that are not claimed by one of the six states. Territories can be administered by the Australian Government, or they can be granted a right of self-government.

There are eight Australian territories in addition to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Northern Territory (NT): Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Australian Antarctic Territory, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Coral Sea Islands, Jervis Bay Territory, Norfolk Island and Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. These territories are governed according to Commonwealth law and the laws of a state, the ACT or NT. Most have an appointed Administrator. Unlike the states, whose powers are defined through the Constitution, the powers of these territories are defined in Commonwealth law which grants them the right of self-government.

Local government

Constitutional responsibility for local government lies with the state and territory governments. Consequently, the roles and responsibilities of local government differ from state to state. Local governments are also known as local councils.

Visit the Parliamentary Education Office to learn more about Parliament and governance.