Politics of Australia: Wikis


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The Politics of Australia take place within the framework of parliamentary democracy. Australia is a federation and a constitutional monarchy, and Australians elect state and territory legislatures based on the Westminster tradition, as well as a bicameral Parliament of Australia, which is a hybrid of Westminster practices with the uniquely federalist element of the Australian Senate.


Legislative branch

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia consists of two chambers:

At the national level, elections are held at least once every three years.[1] The Prime Minister can 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 November 2007.

The voting system for the Senate underwent a significant change in 1948. Prior to that date Senate elections were conducted using a 'first past the post' voting arrangement, and a winner takes all basis, where all seats went to the party with the highest vote in that state. This could result in landslide victories to one political party under relatively small changes in the popular vote, as well as periodically resulting in a Senate with a large majority of opposition Senators. The change to a preferential system of voting has resulted in the numbers of Senators from each party more closely reflecting the numbers of votes the party list received, and a more balanced composition of the chamber. For most of the last quarter of a century, a balance of power situation has existed, whereby neither government nor opposition has controlled the Senate, with governments needing to seek the support of minor parties or independents to secure their legislative agenda.

The ease with which minor parties can secure representation in the Senate compared to the House of Representatives has meant that such parties have focused their efforts on securing representation in the upper house, both at the national and state level (the two territories as well as Queensland are unicameral). They have usually been unable to win seats in the House of Representatives (the Greens won a House seat at the 2002 Cunningham by-election, but lost it in the 2004 general election). Minor parties do however affect lower house politics through their recommendations to voters regarding which party should receive voters' preferences, a strategy regarded as decisive in the outcome of the 1990 federal election.[2] A focus on the upper house has moulded the platforms and politics of minor parties, for which an upper house brokering role is the best opportunity to affect legislative outcomes. The demands placed on parties by this role can cause internal tensions within, and external pressure on, these parties, demonstrated by the splits within, and political decline of, the Australian Democrats.

Because legislation must pass both houses in order to become law, it is possible for there to be disagreements between the houses that can stymie government bills. Such deadlocks are resolved under section 57 of the Constitution, under a procedure called a double dissolution election. Such elections are rare, not because the conditions for holding them are seldom met, but because they can pose a significant political risk to the government that calls them. Of the six double dissolution elections held since federation, half have resulted in the fall of the government that called them. Only once (in 1974) has the full procedure for resolving a deadlock been followed, with a joint sitting of the two houses being held after the election to deliberate upon the bills that originally led to the deadlock.

The executive branch

Reflecting the influence of the Westminster tradition of British government, Australian government Crown ministers are drawn from among the elected members of parliament.[3] The government is formed by the party or parties that have the confidence of the majority of members of the House of Representatives. In practice, this has equated to the party or coalition of parties that holds a majority of seats in that chamber.

By convention, the Prime Minister is always a member of the House of Representatives. On the only occasion that a Senator was made Prime Minister (John Gorton in 1968), Gorton shortly resigned and contested a seat in the House of Representatives.

The same high degree of discipline that characterises Australian party politics extends to the executive, where all ministers individually defend collective government decisions, and individual ministers who cannot undertake the public defence of government actions are generally expected to resign from the ministry. Such resignations are even less common than breaches of cabinet solidarity. The rarity of public disclosure of splits within cabinet reflects the seriousness with which internal party division is regarded in Australian politics.

Political parties and Australian politics

The role of parties in Australian politics

Political parties in government since 1945.      Labor      Liberal      National/Country      Other Coalition      Other      No government

Organised, national political parties have dominated Australia's political environment and parliament since federation. Politics since 1900 can be characterised by the rapid and early rise of a party representing organised, non-revolutionary workers – the Australian Labor Party – and the coalescing of non-Labor political interests into two parties: a centre-right party that has been predominantly socially conservative and with a base in business and the middle class (now the Liberal Party of Australia); and a rural or agrarian conservative party (now the National Party of Australia) (see following sections for more detail). While there are a small number of other political parties that have achieved parliamentary representation, these three parties dominate organised politics in all Australian jurisdictions, and only on rare (and generally short-lived) occasions have any other parties or independents played a role in the formation or maintenance of governments.

Whether Australia's political system should be characterised as a 'two-party system' is a matter of debate, and can be said to vary to some degree from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Of Australia's three main parties, two (Liberal and National) are in long-standing coalition at the national level – however they are not always in coalition at the state level, and the Liberal Party is not always the senior partner (the National Party predominates in the state of Queensland). However, as the National Party only ever considers a coalition or similar arrangement with one of the other two parties (ie. Liberal),[4] the system might be regarded as a two-party one in terms of choices of government, even though voters in some electorates may have a choice between three candidates with realistic chances of being elected to office.

Despite the entrenched role of formal parties in Australian politics, they are 'almost totally extra-legal and extra-constitutional'.[5] In contrast to some other countries, such as the United States, Australian political parties and their internal operations are relatively unregulated. There is however a system of party registration through the Australian Electoral Commission and its state and territory equivalents, including reporting of some aspects of party activities, principally the receipt of major donations.

Political parties in Australia today

Major parties:

Minor parties include:

The list of political parties in Australia comprises the names and federal leaders of significant political parties as well as the names of other parties, including formerly significant parties.

The history of Australia's political parties

Australian politics operates as a de facto two-party system. Unlike in the United States, however, internal party discipline is extremely tight. Australia's system was not always a two-party system, however, nor was it always as internally stable as in recent decades.

Parties time in federal office

Further information: List of Prime Ministers of Australia.
Party Prime Ministers In Office
Labor 10 12,252 days
Liberal 6 18,281 days
Country 3 83 days
Protectionist 2 2451 days
Nationalist 2 5114 days
Commonwealth Liberal 1 (2) 783 days
United Australia 1 (2) 3508 days
Free Trade 1 328 days
Total 26 42800 days

Contemporary Australian national politics

The Australian Labor Party came to power in the November 2007 election, ending John Howard's 11 years in office as Prime Minister and head of Liberal/National coalition government. The Labor Party now holds a majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, reverted to its prior state, with the balance of power being held by minor parties.

Administrative divisions

In the states and territories, elections are held at least once every four years (except in Queensland, which has three-year terms). In New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, election dates are fixed by legislation. However, the other state premiers and the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory have the same discretion in calling elections as the Prime Minister at the national level. (See Main articles: Australian electoral system, Electoral systems of the Australian states and territories).

Regional or local government within each state is handled by Local Government Areas and unlike other equivalent forms of local government, they have little power compared to the state governments (See Main article: Local government in Australia).

See also


  1. ^ Strictly speaking, the timing of the elections is related to the dissolution or expiry of the parliament, which has a maximum term of three years but no minimum term. In 12 out of 41 cases since Federation, an election has occurred more than three years after the previous election. There is a complex formula for determining the date of elections, which must satisfy section 32 of the Constitution and sections 156-158 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. These provisions do not allow an election to be held less than 33 days or more than 68 days after the dissolution of the parliament. See Next Australian federal election for an example of how the formula applies in practice.
  2. ^ Timothy Doyle and Aynsley Kellow (1995), Environmental Politics and Policy Making in Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne, pp 130-131
  3. ^ Section 64 of the Australian Constitution. Strictly speaking, they may be drawn from outside, but cannot remain a minister unless within three months they become a member of one of the houses of parliament.
  4. ^ Dean Jaensch (1994), Power Politics: Australia's Party System, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 11.
  5. ^ Dean Jaensch (1994), Power Politics: Australia's Party System, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 2.

Further reading

  • Robert Corcoran and Jackie Dickenson (2010), A Dictionary of Australian Politics, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW
  • Department of the Senate, 'Electing Australia’s Senators', Senate Briefs No. 1, 2006, retrieved July 2007
  • Rodney Smith (2001), Australian Political Culture, Longman, Frenchs Forest NSW

External links

  • Australianpolitics.com News, reference articles, and many other resources, maintained by teacher Malcolm Farnsworth

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