Created | Updated Aug 12, 2004
If there's one thing that fails to get the blood of the ordinary bloke pumping, it's the thought of how Australians are represented in government; if it did, they might get more interesting representation. But the fact of the matter is that, like most Western democracies, the biggest challenge facing members of Australian representative assemblies is apathy. Civics education in Australian schools is at present fairly rudimentary, and so, for the average enfranchised resident, the effect of his or her vote can be a complete mystery. Here then, for the edification of Australians and other interested students of politics, is a basic guide to Australian politics. There is a Political Terminology section at the end, which covers the names of major political parties and some major issues in Australian politics. Links for more detailed information on many of the structures, bodies and issues discussed are also provided.
Tiers of Government
Australia has three tiers of government: Federal (National), State and Local. Most of this entry will focus on Federal structures and procedures, but it is worth touching on the other two, as the three are interrelated.
State (and Territorial) Governments
The six Australian states (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia) were British colonies, and were joined by Federation in 1901 to become the Commonwealth of Australia. Each state has a bicameral (two house) parliament modelled on the Westminster system of a lower and upper house, except Queensland, which has a unicameral parliament. Almost all state parliaments serve four year terms. The two mainland territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) also have unicameral legislative assemblies, but since they perform the duties of both a territorial and a municipal representative body, their roles differ from the state parliaments somewhat. External territories, such as Christmas Island and Norfolk Island, have Administrators appointed by the Federal Government. The leader of the majority party in a state legislature is called the Premier. The leader of the majority party in a territorial legislative assembly is called the Chief Minister.
The powers exercised by state and territorial governments are largely defined by exclusion - that is, any power which is not reserved for the Federal Government in the Australian Constitution (see below) is pretty much the preserve of the states. They are responsible for, among other things, health services, education (except tertiary education), policing, transport, gambling, and energy. States devolve other responsibilities to local or municipal government under their own largely uniform local government laws.
Local governments are formed by elected councillors representing defined divisions within municipal boundaries. There is sometimes a separate election for the position of Mayor. Local governments deal with issues such as land usage, raising revenue through land rates, utilities such as water and sewerage, regulation of parking, and so on. Although they raise part of their own revenue, they also compete for grants of funds from state governments, and in some policy areas, from the Federal Government.
Too Much Government?
For some time there has been debate in Australia over whether we are 'overgoverned'. Three tiers of government seems to many people to be at least two too many. More level-headed people contend that the State governments are probably superfluous. However, in a vigorous democratic country like Australia the likelihood of any legislature voting itself out of existence is remote. Interestingly, this was actually attempted in the late 1980s when the Australian Capital Territory was granted self-government. Previously it had been administered by a federal department. After two referenda were held to decide whether self-government should be adopted, with the result in both cases being a resounding 'No', the territory was granted self-government anyway. In the ensuing election campaign for the new legislative assembly an 'Abolish Self-Government' party ran candidates, with the sole policy of immediately voting itself out of existence. Unfortunately they didn't win any seats. See the Edited Guide Entry on Canberra for more on the introduction of self-government in the ACT.
The Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900 is an Act of the UK Parliament, effectively ending the colonial period in Australia. The Act includes a Constitution drafted by the Australian delegates to a Federation Convention which met through the late 1890s. Section 51 of the Australian Constitution defines the powers to be exercised by the new Federal Government. These powers include external trade, taxation (but not to the detriment of taxation by states), telecommunications, defence, external affairs, immigration, quarantine, currency, marriage, and importantly, any powers referred to the Federal Government by a state.
Section 128 establishes that the Constitution can only be changed through a referendum at which a majority of voters in a majority of States, and an overall majority of voters nationwide, must agree to the proposed change. This formula has been very difficult to satisfy over the past 100 years - only eight of 44 proposed amendments to the Constitution have ever been approved at a referendum. The most recent referendum, in 1999, asked whether Australia should be a republic, and the 'No' vote prevailed.
Separation of Powers
The Constitution also establishes the separation of powers into three arms: the Parliament, the Executive, and the Judiciary.
The Australian Parliament is modelled on the British (Westminster) system, with an upper house borrowed from the American system. The overall result has sometimes been amusingly described as the 'Washminster' system.
The lower house is called the House of Representatives. After the November 2001 election it numbers 150 members, each representing an electorate of between 50 - 100,000 voters. The smallest electorate, Grayndler, covers about 29 square kilometres in inner Sydney. The largest, Kalgoorlie, covers about 2.3 million square kilometres, ie, most of Western Australia, which tells you a lot about population density and distribution in Australia. The House of Representatives operates much like the British one, with a Speaker being nominated at the commencement of each term. Members are elected for three-year terms.
At the time of Federation the less populous states were paranoid about having their interests ignored because the majority of members in the House of Representatives would come from the more populous states. In an attempt to remedy this the upper house was created as 'the States' House', and named the Senate. The Senate is currently made up of 12 members each from the six states plus two members each from the two mainland territories, to make a total of 76. Senators serve staggered eight-year terms, with half of them coming up for re-election every four years. However, the Senators from the two territories serve terms that match those of their House of Representatives counterparts, ie, a maximum of three years, but possibly shorter, depending on when elections are held. The Senate elects a President from among its number to chair proceedings.
The Executive is headed by the Governor-General, who is appointed for a five-year term by the British Sovereign on the recommendation of the Australian Prime Minister. The Constitution reads as if the Governor-General is the Head of State, and formally this is the case. In practical terms the Governor-General has 'reserve powers' which are never exercised as a matter of convention (though see 'The Dismissal', under 'Political Terminology', below). The Executive also includes the 'Executive Council', which is meant to advise the Governor-General and is composed of the Governor-General as President, a Vice-President, who is usually a senior government Minister, and at least two other Ministers. It meets roughly twice a month. The 'Governor-General-in-Council' formally approves laws, regulations and some appointments. Without the Governor-General's assent, no Bill which has been passed in the Parliament can become law. In practice, assent is a formality. The continued existence of the Executive Council and the position of Governor-General are a testimony to the difficulty of changing a Constitution framed by high-minded colonials with a rather quaint idea of what executive government should be.
In practice, executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the majority in the House of Representatives. There may be up to 30 Ministers with portfolios. The Governor-General appoints Ministers on the Prime Minister's recommendation, and upon swearing in Ministers also become members of the Executive Council. The Prime Minister chooses a Cabinet from among the Ministers, and it is this core group which deals with policy, programme and crisis management, usually meeting at least once every week throughout the year. The Cabinet is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.
Finally, the Constitution provides for a High Court to be established. It has a bench of Justices, headed by a Chief Justice, and has jurisdiction to hear appeals in criminal and civil matters from the states' Supreme Courts, and is the court of first instance on Constitutional matters.
Within certain limitations, the timetable for a Federal election is set into motion when the Prime Minister recommends to the Governor-General that the Parliament (part or whole - see below) be dissolved for an election to be held on a certain date. The Governor-General then issues 'writs' to 'prorogue' (cease meeting) the Parliament and to dissolve one or both houses, and the election campaign goes on until the polling date.
Let's deal with the easy bits first. Senators serve eight-year terms with half of them coming up for election every four years. However, elections for the Senate are made to coincide with elections for the House of Representatives, for administrative convenience. For example, there was an election on 10 November, 2001, at which half the state-based Senators and all the territory-based Senators were up for re-election. The term of the state-based Senators does not expire until 30 June, 2002. Regardless of whether those Senators were re-elected, they will continue to sit in the Senate until the end of their term, at which time those Senators elected on 10 November will take their seats.
Now for the tricky part. The Constitution establishes that the term of the House of Representatives will be no more than three years. An election must be held within three months of the end of that three year period, and all 150 seats are contested. However, the government may call an earlier election under certain circumstances. If the Senate refuses to pass the same Bill (draft legislation) twice, the government has what is known as a 'trigger' for a 'double-dissolution' (ie, both houses are completely dissolved, and elections held for all 150 House of Representatives and 76 Senate seats). Constitutionally, if the government cannot implement its programmes (through enacting laws in the Parliament) due to the disagreement of the Parliament, that is considered reason enough to dissolve both houses ahead of the three-year expiry date, to break the deadlock and refresh the Parliament. Governments have been known to purposely introduce very contentious legislation, knowing that it won't be passed by the Senate, and then shelve it for submitting again when the time is considered right for an early election. In this way they secure their 'trigger', and are able to leave their options open.
Election campaigns in Australia are much like those everywhere else in the world - obligatory baby kissing and hand shaking, claim and counter-claim, the leaders making appearances in the electorates held by the narrowest margins. The leaders conduct themselves in a US presidential style, as if voting for the local candidate in the same party as the leader will ensure that that leader becomes Prime Minister. In a country where voting is compulsory, parties don't need to 'activate' voters - instead they concentrate on winning the votes of constituents in the most marginal electorates. At the same time they have to be careful about not alienating the 'safe' electorates.
Australians disagree about whether voting should be compulsory. Many are affronted that they are legally obliged to vote, when that right should include the right not to vote. On the other side are those who say that compulsory voting ensures that the voices of even the most marginalised, poorest and least educated are heard. The penalty for failing to vote is A$20 (approx US$10, or £7). If you contest the penalty and are found guilty the fine is still only A$50 (approx US$25 or £17.50). Importantly, there is no penalty for voting 'informally', ie, spoiling your ballot or not marking it at all before placing it in the ballot box, but there is a penalty for promoting such behaviour. Furthermore, if you haven't enrolled to vote, the authorities can't possibly know that you haven't voted. Let's not labour the point here - if someone can't be bothered visiting their local primary school on polling day to put a blank ballot in a box to avoid a $20 fine, then they are beyond help.
Astute observers will have noted that House of Representatives electorates have only one member each, while several Senators are elected in each state and territory. A quick word on voting systems is required here - this part is going to get a little technical, so if you're not interested, skip to the next section.
For the House of Representatives a preferential system is used. To be successful a candidate must win 50% plus one of the votes cast in his or her electorate. Voters must number their ballots in order of preference, placing a '1' against their first preference, a '2' against their second, and so on. This way, if no candidate has 50%+1 after all votes are counted, the ballots cast for the least popular candidate are redistributed according to second preferences. This process continues until there is a winner.
In the Senate there is a proportional representation system. In the states, with six members being elected, to be successful a candidate must win a quota of votes, which is calculated by dividing the number of votes cast by the number of candidates plus one (eg, 100 divided by (6+1) = 14.2%). Again, voters nominate preferences on their ballot, and as a candidate reaches a quota, surplus primary votes are redistributed to subsequent preferences. This process continues until the required number of Senators is elected. Before you get too worried, a formula is used when redistributing 'surplus' votes, to ensure that there is no inherent bias introduced by simply grabbing a pile of uncounted ballots. This is a simplified explanation - for more detail visit the Australian Electoral Commission website.
This is not an official party title in Australia, though most members of the Liberal Party would be prepared to acknowledge that they are 'Conservative', and someone describing themselves as 'Liberal' would be understood to be 'Conservative' in Australia. Conservatives are not by definition opposed to change, but contend that change should occur with respect to precedent and tradition.
This is the official title for the system of government in Australia - the UK's Queen Elizabeth II is also Queen of Australia, but there is a Constitution establishing virtual autonomy - thus 'Constitutional Monarchy'. The Queen's representative in Australia is the Governor-General who is also, officially, the Australian Head of State. In debates about whether Australia should be a republic, Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy are the conservative force.
Every politician would like to claim to be a democrat, but there is actually a political party called the Australian Democrats (or just 'Democrats'), a centre party which currently holds the balance of power in the Senate. Their ideology bears little resemblance to the US Democratic Party. The Democrats were formed in the 1970s as an alternative to the traditional right and left parties, with the slogan 'Keep the b*****ds honest!' They voted with the government in the Senate two years ago (at the time of writing) to introduce a consumption tax, so the independence they profess is a little tarnished in the eyes of the average voter.
The Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam faced a crisis in 1975. The Senate, controlled by the Liberal opposition, refused to pass the government's budget legislation, effectively restricting its ability to collect tax and pay for services. The crisis dragged on until 11 November, when the Governor-General summoned the Prime Minister and unilaterally dismissed him, thus exercising powers for the first time that had always been considered 'reserved'. The Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, was appointed caretaker Prime Minister, Parliament was dissolved and the Liberal-National coalition was returned to government at the election.
The Australian Labor Party (see below) has always considered the Dismissal a betrayal, both of the legitimacy of an elected government, and of the independence of the Governor-General's office. The Liberals, who couldn't believe their luck, have mostly stayed silent on the deeper constitutional issues raised by the incident. The Dismissal still has the power to start a pub-brawl, but most importantly it delivered the most memorable piece of Australian political oratory. After the Governor-General's official secretary read the proclamation dissolving the Parliament, ending with the words 'God Save the Queen', Gough Whitlam stepped up to the microphone and opened with the words 'May well we say 'God Save the Queen' - because nothing will save the Governor-General.' The crowd erupted, and history was made.
Not what you eat your meat and potatoes with. Like a lot of European countries, Australia has a political party dedicated to the promotion of ecologically sustainable economic activity, and they are known as The Greens. Before the 2001 election they had only one representative in the Federal Parliament, Senator Bob Brown, from Tasmania - following the election they have won more Senate seats but not enough to hold the balance of power in their own right.
Tasmania (and to a lesser extent, Western Australia) is the Green heartland - the fight in the early 1980s to stop the building of a hydro-electric scheme on the Franklin River, in what is now a World Heritage listed area in south-western Tasmania, got the Green movement on the map in Australia. Although their representation is small, Senator Brown has teamed up with the Democrats and the Opposition on occasion, to defeat Government legislation in the Senate.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP), together with the trade unions, is known as the Labor Movement. It corresponds broadly with similarly named parties in other countries. Although ideologically aligned with workers' socialist movements, and taking in some middle and extreme left wing factions, the public face of the ALP can be difficult to distinguish from the Liberal Party, positioning itself just left of centre (see the Edited Guide Entry on The Ideology of the Australian Labor Party). The ALP formed the Federal Government from 1983 to 1996, led by successive Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, but following their failure to win government in the 2001 election, their tenure in opposition could now extend to up to eight years. Interestingly, 'labour' (with a 'u') is still used normally in Australian English - just drop the 'u' and the context becomes political.
A tortured word in Australia, and the name of the party from which the current Prime Minister, a 'Conservative', comes. Traditionally the Liberal Party forms government in coalition with the National Party (see below), as they are ideological fellow travellers, and neither usually has the numbers to form government in its own right. The party name was taken in the 1950s when the long-serving Prime Minister Robert Menzies used it to resurrect his discredited United Australia Party. In its original meaning, liberal is meant to be 'befitting a free-thinking person'. Because of the potential for confusion it is common to hear people refer to 'big-L Liberal' and 'small-L liberal', to distinguish the proper noun from the generic term. The Liberal Party positions itself right of centre, in political terms.
This is the accepted Australian term for what people everywhere else understand as 'pluralism' ie, a tolerant society made up of many different communities, each with a distinct ethnic, social or religious character. Many waves of immigration have contributed to multicultural Australia over the last 200 odd years - the original British arrivals, the Chinese during the gold rush of the mid-1800s, more Europeans following World War I, an influx of southern Europeans following World War II, then Asian immigration from the 1960s onwards. Australia is a target for the people-smuggling schemes that have arisen over the past few years, though not in the huge numbers experienced elsewhere in the world (see 'Unauthorised Arrivals', below).
The National Party used to be called the 'Country Party', 'country' being a term recognised in Australia as a synonym for rural and regional areas. The old Country Party represented the interests of Australia's landed gentry, the rural cousins of the people who founded and supported the Liberal Party (see above), and the two parties traditionally form coalition governments. The change in name was meant to give the party a broader appeal, and evoke less of a hick image. Australians aren't easily fooled by such cosmetic changes - everyone still knows what the Nationals stand for. In recent times, traditional Nationals voters have strayed further right, to parties like Pauline Hanson's One Nation (see 'One Nation', below).
One Nation, is a populist political party that grew out of the disaffection of rural and regional voters. In the 1996 Federal Election, Pauline Hanson was a Liberal candidate for the Federal House of Representatives seat of Oxley, in south-east Queensland. She lost the party's endorsement after making racially inflammatory statements to her local paper, but went on to win the seat as an independent candidate. Her maiden speech in the Parliament was an overnight sensation for all the wrong reasons - references to the threat of invasion from Indonesia, anger at the way minorities seemed to be favoured over 'traditional family values' - in effect, a backlash against the politically correct early 1990s. The intelligentsia were offended, but did not consider her a threat. However, she mined a deep vein of frustration among the disaffected, unemployed and under-educated.
Encouraged by a pair of political opportunists, a fringe party formed around Pauline Hanson, patriotically named One Nation. For political advertising she actually wrapped herself in the Australian flag - no metaphors necessary. One Nation candidates went on to win a handful of seats in the Queensland Parliament, but they all ended up defecting from the party within a year. One candidate, Len Harris, was elected to the Senate in the 1998 election. Pauline herself failed to retain her seat in the 1998 Federal election, and she failed in her attempt to be elected to the Senate in the 2001 Federal election. On 14 January, 2002, Ms Hanson resigned as leader of the party, to 'concentrate on defending the seven legal proceedings' against her. There is speculation that she jumped before she was pushed.
The administration of the party itself has attracted some controversy - it was initially run by a committee of three and it wasn't registered properly (resulting in fines and the withdrawal of electoral funding by the Australian Electoral Commission). With mass defection from its ranks and its recent failure to be represented in Australian parliaments its appeal seems to be waning.
The buzzword of indigenous politics in Australia, reconciliation is meant to be the process by which modern Australia makes amends for injustices done to the indigenous population over the past 213 years of European settlement. Attempts were made to complete the process of reconciliation for the Centenary of Federation (2001), but indigenous leadership forums have mostly maintained that there can be no reconciliation without an unequivocal apology from the Federal Government. The more hard-line indigenous groups insist that there must also be a treaty signed between the Federal Government and indigenous leaders, which would formally allow European settlement (and which would conveniently ignore the fact of the last two centuries). The word 'sorry' is the one that they want to hear pass the Prime Minister's lips, but so far he has only expressed 'sincere regret'. For the pop-culture gurus out there, you might have noticed that the clothes worn by Australian group Midnight Oil at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games bore the word 'Sorry' in white against a black background. In this way they gained global exposure for the issue of reconciliation.
The reluctance of Australian political leaders to commit to full reconciliation can be traced to the likely legal and financial impact that an unequivocal apology would have. By admitting responsibility for past injustices the Federal Government may be liable in countless law suits, and in all likelihood, very large class actions: Australian taxpayers might have to finance huge compensation pay outs and turn over land title on huge tracts of what is quaintly known as 'Crown Land'. Overseas experience, particularly in Canada, has led Australian leaders to think like this.
This is not the title of a political party in Australia - a 'Republican' is someone who advocates the idea that Australia's head of state should be a President rather than a representative of a foreign monarch. Republicans are somewhat internally disorganised. In the 1999 referendum on the republic question, the inabilty of the Republicans to agree on a good republican system to support resulted in a very wishy-washy model being put up, and it's no wonder the constitutional monarchists only had to show up to win. The Australian Republican Movement is the peak organisation advocating an Australian president.
Australia is full of swinging voters, and before you get too excited, we're not talking about enfranchised wife-swappers. A swinging voter is one who has no lasting party allegiance, and may vote one way at one election and another at the next. The way political parties conduct election campaigns tends to focus on capturing swinging voters, as well as buttering up marginal electorates.
A measure of political courage, for example, 'I don't think he's got the ticker to be associated with that policy'. It was introduced in political parlance in parliamentary debate during 2000, and is a reference to the heart ie, the ticker. Some would say that Prime Minister John Howard hasn't got the ticker to say 'Sorry' (see 'Reconciliation').
Being an island-continent, Australia is both blessed and cursed when it comes to protecting its borders - blessed in that it is physically difficult for people to cross our borders, cursed in that it's a bloody long coastline to monitor for a country that has a population of only 20 million or so.
There is at present a debate raging in Australia about unauthorised arrivals/asylum seekers. Through 2001 a steady stream of leaky boats has crossed from south-east Asia to the northern territorial waters of Australia. In general they are intercepted by the Australian Navy (there is no 'Coast Guard') and diverted to places like Christmas Island, Nauru or Papua New Guinea for initial processing. Australian authorities attempt to identify and establish the credentials of people claiming political asylum as refugees, but until their status is settled, they are held separate from the general population in remote detention centres.
The debate boils down to those who contend that it is our right to decide who may enter Australia, and the circumstances in which they may do so, and those who say that it is simply inhumane to treat people who have endured terrible physical hardship to get there in the manner that the Australian government does. Another example of the debate is the description of unauthorised arrivals as 'queue-jumpers'. Australia has a humanitarian immigration programme, and some say that those who arrive on the northern beaches unannounced are taking the places of those who have gone through the proper channels by applying for humanitarian immigration at Australian diplomatic missions overseas. The opposing argument points out that legitimate political refugees would attract the unwanted attention of authorities in their home countries by going through the 'proper process', and besides, Australia often does not have representation in the countries from which people are trying to escape.
For more on the Australian government's position on unauthorised arrivals, visit the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs website. For the other side of the coin, a good place to start is the home page of the Refugee Action Committee, a community advocacy group for unauthorised arrivals in detention centres.
Related BBC Links
Find out more about Australia with this handy country profile.
Find out more about why the leader of Australia's hardline One Nation party has quit politics.