The Australian political system has been
strongly influenced by the U.S. federal system as well as by the British
cabinet system. Its legal basis is the Commonwealth of Australia Act of
1900, which went into effect in 1901. Until 1973 official usage was "Commonwealth
Government"; thereafter it was "Australian Government."
The federal government possesses both exclusive
and shared powers. The former include foreign affairs, defense, coinage,
customs and excise, and posts and telegraphs. Powers not definitely delegated
to the federal government, which include health, education, and transportation,
involve varying degrees of cooperation with the governments of the states
Parliament is composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The House of Representatives has 148 members elected in single-member constituencies by a system of preferential voting designed to ensure the election of the candidate with the highest overall degree of support. House seats are allocated to the states in proportion to their population, except that each state must have at least five; the Australian Capital Territory has two and the Northern Territory one. House members are elected for simultaneous three-year terms. The Senate has 76 members, with each state forming a 12-member constituency and each territory a two-member constituency. A form of proportional representation prevents any party from electing a larger proportion of senators than it can command of votes. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with half the Senate seats being vacated every three years. The houses have equal legislative power, except in relation to finances. The Senate may not initiate or amend money bills. The Senate may, however, suggest that the House pass certain amendments, and it may reject a money bill passed by the House. If a bill passed by one house is rejected by the other in two consecutive sessions, both houses may be dissolved. After the election the bill may be submitted to a joint session of the houses for a decision.
The formal executive power is exercised by a governorgeneral representing the British monarch. Under normal circumstances the governor-general acts on the advice of the cabinet of ministers, headed by a prime minister, who is usually the head of the majority party in the House of Representatives. Ministers must be members of Parliament, and a cabinet must possess the confidence of a majority of the House to remain in office. The governor-general names as prime minister only someone able to command the support of the House majority and withdraws the prime minister's commission to head the government only when the cabinet loses that support. When a prime minister loses office in this way, elections must be called. Elections may also be called if the prime minister, in the hope of increasing the government's majority in the House, asks the governor-general to dissolve Parliament. In 1975 a governor-general ousted a prime minister who had the support of a House majority but could not get a budget through the opposition-controlled Senate. Such action by a governor-general was unprecedented. In 1991 a prime minister was replaced from within his own party, a move necessitating no public election.
The Commonwealth Act provides for a supreme court known as the High Court of Australia. The state courts are invested with federal jurisdiction, and appeals may be made from state courts to the High Court.
When the commonwealth was established, the states lost the right to levy customs, excise, and sales taxes. In 1942 the uniform taxation system was introduced, imposing a single, uniform tax rate, forbidding the states to levy income tax, and providing for grants to the states instead. The federal treasurer controls bank credit to the state governments. Although federal subsidies have been quite generous, state governments have found their policies dependent on federal financial aid.
The states and the two territories have exclusive
power to legislate in matters not specifically delegated to the federal
government and shared power to legislate in areas such as health, labor,
and social services. In each state there is a parliament from which a premier
(chief minister) and cabinet are chosen. Queensland and both territories
have unicameral parliaments; the other states have bicameral parliaments
in which the lower houses are the dominant legislative bodies. The lower
houses are popularly elected; the upper houses are elected in a variety
of ways and have often been more conservative.
The responsibilities of local governments are few. They do not include police or education, which lie within the domain of the states. They do include sanitation and highways, but the most important local functions relate to building regulations and town planning. Some of the large interior areas that are not organized for local government are directly controlled by the states. Many government functions, such as harbor services and the supply of electricity, gas, and water, are carried out by ad hoc authorities.
Australia has a basically two-party political system, for, although there are several minor parties, the major groupings are either prolabor or antilabor. The main political parties are as follows:
Australian Labor Party
Politically organized labor elected representatives
to colonial parliaments before 1890, but the Australian Labor Party (ALP)
grew up only after 1891, with trade union support. Marxian ideas played
little part in its program. It believed in creating a society where all
could live the "good life," and regarded protection, labor legislation,
and the exclusion of non-European labor as the means of making this possible.
It developed a system of party discipline that enabled it to act effectively
in attaining its goals. In each electorate there is a party branch that
selects local candidates and chooses delegates to a conference of the State
Labor League. The conference writes the platform. On the national level,
a conference of representatives from the party's state executives exercises
The ALP is divided on ideological grounds between well-organized "right," "center," and "left" factions. The divisions emerge into public view most noticeably during the process of selecting electoral candidates, at state and national conferences, and in the allocation of ministerial positions. Parliamentary tactics are decided in a caucus of members of both houses of the parliament concerned. By means of the caucus, the Labor Party, when it is in a majority, chooses the premier or prime minister and cabinet members.
The ALP has held federal power since 1983, retaining it through elections in 1984, 1987, 1990, and 1993. It used this period to implement many reforms, though these often favored business interests, traditionally the main supporters of the conservative anti-Labor parties. During the 1980's the ALP privatized the ownership of various public interests, a policy its members would have regarded as heretical in earlier decades. Although the ALP thus took over the middle ground once occupied by the Liberal Party of Australia, the main conservative party, it retains belief in maintaining a broad array of social services.
National Party. Founded as the Country Party in 1919 to defend agrarian interests, the party has been known as the National Country Party since 1982. It has worked to ensure lower tariffs on imported farm machinery and to promote effective marketing of agricultural products, to extend irrigation, and to provide aid and subsidies to rural dwellers. It has often been the junior partner in anti-Labor coalitions with the Liberal Party.
Liberal Party of Australia
The Liberal Party is the main opposition to the Labor Party. It formed during World War II, espousing free enterprise, individual rights, and the maintenance of the federal system. Prime ministers of the Liberal Party governed between 1949 and 1972 and between 1975 and 1983.
Australian Democrats Party
This party was founded in 1977 by a former Liberal minister, Donald Chipp. Though small, it has often held the balance of power between the major parties, and supports progressive environmental and social welfare policies.
Australia is a member of the Commonwealth
of Nations. It began to have its own diplomatic representation abroad after
1940. In its diplomacy, Australia has often supported its long-standing
allies, the United States and Great Britain, but in recent decades has
sought to strengthen its links with nearby nations of East and Southeast
Asia, where it aims chiefly to maintain good relations with its neighbor
Indonesia and key trading partner, Japan, while still relying on U.S. assistance.
In recent years, a series of international developments has forced Australia to readjust its foreign policy. These include the increasing preoccupation of Great Britain with the European Union (formerly European Economic Community) and its involvement in the movement toward European union; the breaking up of the Communist bloc; the declining importance to the United States of defense installations in Australia; and the growing economic strength of the nations of Asia's Pacific rim.
The United States maintained a naval radio
communications base, an air base, and satellite tracking facilities in
Australia from the early 1960's. Some of these have been handed over to
Australian control since the end of the cold war. Australia gave naval
support to the U.S.-led military intervention against Iraq in Kuwait in
1990-1991 and in 1992 sent troops to support the U.N. and U.S. peace-keeping
mission in Somalia.
In 1991 the effective strength of the Australian Regular Army was 31,140. The Royal Australian Navy, with 15,900 persons in 1991, has three guided missile carriers, a number of smaller vessels, and a small fleet of submarines. The Royal Australian Air Force had a total strength of 22,120 in 1991. Air Force units include 16 squadrons with a total of 158 combat aircraft. Military scientific research and development is conducted by Australia in cooperation with Great Britain and United States. In 1991-1992 Australia's defense expenditure was $9.4 billion, or 10.2 percent of the national budget.