Australia is a federation of six states which, together with two self-governing territories, have their own constitutions, parliaments, governments and laws. This infosheet is about the national or central government, usually called the Federal Government, Commonwealth Government or Australian Government. However, state and territory governments are also based on the same principle of parliamentary government.
The Australian Constitution of 1901 established a federal system of government. Under this system, powers are distributed between a national government (the Commonwealth) and the six States (The Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have self-government arrangements). The Constitution defines the boundaries of law-making powers between the Commonwealth and the States/Territories.
Australia is made up of 8 major states & territories:
- States & Territories
- New South Wales
- Australian Capital Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
- Northern Territory
The Constitution of Australia establishes the Federal Government by providing for the Parliament, the Executive Government and the Judicature (more usually called the Judiciary)—sometimes referred to as the ‘three arms of government’. However, some of the central features of Australia’s system of government (described as parliamentary, or responsible government) are not set down in the Constitution but are based on custom and convention.
Political theory recognises three powers of government—the legislative power to make laws; the executive power to carry out and enforce the laws; and the judicial power to interpret laws and to judge whether they apply in individual cases.
The principle of the separation of powers is that, in order to prevent oppressive government, the three powers of government should be held by separate bodies—the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary—which can act as checks and balances on each other.
With parliamentary government the legislative and executive functions overlap, as the members of the Executive Government—the Ministers—are drawn from the Parliament. However, in the Australian system there are still checks and balances between the Executive and Legislature—Ministers are subject to the scrutiny of other Members of the Parliament led by an officially recognised opposition. In addition, the Executive does not necessarily control both Houses of the Parliament (see below).
The Constitution gives the legislative power of the Commonwealth—the power to make laws—to the Parliament.
The Parliament consists of the Queen, represented by the Governor-General, and two Houses—the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Parliament passes legislation. Proposed laws have to be agreed to by both Houses of Parliament to become law. The two Houses have equal powers, except that there are restrictions on the power of the Senate to introduce or directly amend some kinds of financial legislation. Infosheet No. 7 Making laws describes the parliamentary processes for the passage of legislation. The Governor-General has a role in the legislative process by assenting to Acts. See later in this infosheet for more information about the role of the Governor-General.
The Constitution states that the executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative. However, a realistic understanding of Australia’s Executive Government cannot be obtained from the Constitution alone, and in fact a literal reading of the Constitution can be misleading.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet are mentioned in the Constitution—the framers of the Constitution took their existence for granted, as they did the various conventions of the Westminster system of government inherited from the United Kingdom.
The role of the Queen
Australia is a constitutional monarchy. A monarchy is a country where the position of head of state is inherited. A constitutional monarchy is one where the powers of the monarch or sovereign—the King or Queen—are limited by law or convention, and generally exercised only according to the advice of an elected government.
The head of state is a formal, symbolic and ceremonial position, as opposed to the position of head of government, which has the administrative power to govern the country. In some systems of government the head of state and head of government are the same person—for example, in the United States the President has both functions.
Australia’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth is also Queen of the United Kingdom and several other countries which used to be part of the former British Empire. The Queen’s role as Queen of Australia is quite separate from her role as Queen of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Government plays no part in the Queen’s role as Queen of Australia.
In Australia the powers of the Queen have been delegated by the Australian Constitution to her representative in Australia, the Governor-General. That is, while Australia’s head of state is the Queen, the functions of head of state are performed by the Governor-General. The Queen’s only necessary constitutional function is to appoint the Governor-General, and in doing this the Queen acts as advised by the Australian Prime Minister. The Constitution gives the Queen the power to disallow an Australian Act of Parliament, but this has never been done and it is extremely unlikely that it would ever be done.
It is recommended that this infosheet be read with Infosheet No. 13 The Constitution and Infosheet No. 19 The House, government and opposition.
Watch the video to learn about the three levels of government in Australia and how laws are made. Then, test your understanding with the following activity.
Which of these statements are true and which are false? You’ll find the answers at the bottom of this resource.
1. There are four levels of government in Australia – federal, national, state and local.
2. The federal parliament meets in Sydney.
3. The federal parliament has power to make laws that affect everyone who lives in Australia.
4. At the state level, there are a total of nine parliaments.
5. Parliaments at the state or territory level make laws that are enforced within their own state or territory.
6. Laws made at the state level are covered by the Australian Constitution.
7. State and territory governments can make decisions on schools, roads and water.
8. If there’s a clash between federal and state laws over state-based issues, then the federal law overrides the state one.
9. There are less than 560 councils across Australia.
10. If there’s a problem with the road in your local area, you should contact your state government.
READ THE ANSWERS AFTER THE VIDEO
1. False. There are three levels of government in Australia. They are:
Federal (or national)
2. False. The federal parliament meets in Canberra at Parliament House.
3. True. The federal Parliament has the power to make laws for the whole country.
4. False. At the state level, there are a total of eight parliaments – six state and two territory parliaments.
5. True. Parliaments at the state or territory level make laws that are implemented within their own state or territory.
6. False. Laws made at the state level are not covered by Australia’s Constitution.
7. True. State and territory governments can make decisions on things like schools, hospitals, roads, railways, electricity, water, mining and agriculture.
8. True. On some issues, federal and state parliaments both have the power to make laws. If federal and state laws conflict on these issues, then the federal law will override the state one.
9. False. There are more than 560 councils in Australia.
10. False. You should contact your local council if there’s a problem with a road in your local area.