Australian democracy: an overview
Australia is a representative democracy. In this political system, eligible people vote for candidates to carry out the business of governing on their behalf. Australia’s system of government—its institutions and practices—reflect British and North American traditions combined in a way that is uniquely Australian.
For further reading, see Australia’s System of Government fact sheet.
The Australian democracy has at its heart, the following core defining values:
- freedom of election and being elected;
- freedom of assembly and political participation;
- freedom of speech, expression and religious belief;
- rule of law; and
- other basic human rights.
Australian democracy has at its heart, the following core defining principles:
- Responsible Government since the government is answerable to the parliament for its actions and for those of its departments—as administered by the Public Service.
- Ministerial Responsibility since a minister is expected to accept full responsibility for decisions made by his or her department.
- Rule of Law since all Australian people (including Australian authorities) are equally required to uphold the law and are subject to legal and judicial processes. (See Rule of Law timeline).
- Parliamentary Sovereignty since the government is required to seek the approval of the parliament for many decisions including to create new or to amend existing law.
- Separation of Powers since power is distributed between the Ministry, the courts and the Parliament so as to define discrete and distinct roles and functions and such that a monopoly of power is avoided. The separation, however, is imperfect since ministers are derived from the parliament and belong to both the parliament and the Cabinet at once (this is not the case in some other democracies e.g. the USA). In addition, the prime minister chooses High Court judges. (See the Playing Fair interactive).
Australian democracy has at its heart, the following core defining features:
The Australian Constitution
- The Australian Constitution is a written federal constitution that provides the basic rules for the operation of the nation laid out under three separate titles: the Legislature (the Parliament), the Executive (Governor-General and ministers) and the Judiciary (the High Court and other courts).
- The Australian Constitution contains eight chapters and 128 sections and may be changed by referendum according to the rules set out in section 128 of the Constitution.
The Australian Federation
- Australia is a federation whereby power and authority are shared between federal and state parliaments, governments and courts. In Australia, three levels of government cooperate across many areas e.g. education, health and law enforcement and local government are involved in many others e.g. roads.
- The Australian electoral process provides for each Australian to be represented by one member and up to 12 senators in the federal Parliament. Each Australian is also represented at the state or territory level and at the local level of governance.
- Other federations include Germany, Canada and the United States of America.
There is a total of 9 parliaments across Australia. One federal (or national) parliament, located in Canberra and six state parliaments and two territory legislative assemblies, located in the capital cities of each state or territory. Representatives at each level are selected through regular and frequent popular elections. Most Australian parliaments are bicameral.
Composition of the Federal parliament
The federal House of Representatives has single-member representation—a system designed to elect major parties and support efficient government; while the Senate has multi-member representation. This system elects 12 senators to each state and two to each self-governing territory. It is designed to protect the interests of the states.
Members and senators divide their time between electorate duties and parliamentary duties.
- see Parliament NOW for up-to-date information about the 43rd (current) federal Parliament including composition, role and seating plans.
- The judicature refers to those employed in the administration and dispensation of justice. The High Court of Australia is at the very top of the Australian judicature. It is the final court of appeal. The functions of the High Court of Australia are to interpret and apply the law of Australia; to interpret the Australian Constitution; to resolve legal disputes between Australian parliaments, Australian governments and/or the states; to decide cases of special federal significance including challenges to the constitutional validity of laws; and to hear appeals, by special leave, from state and territory courts.
- Common law may not override an Act of Parliament; however, an Act of Parliament may override existing common law.
Australian democracy has at its heart, the following key defining facts:
- The Australian nation (also known as the Commonwealth of Australia) was created in 1901 when six former British colonies—now Australia’s six states—agreed to join together (federate).
- Australia operates under a Cabinet system of government, even though the Cabinet is not mentioned in the Constitution.
- HM Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia and formally the Australian head of state. The Governor-General represents her in Australia and is in effect the Australian head of state.
- All citizens over the age of 18 must vote in both federal and state government elections.