This article is the first in a series that will break down how the Australian government and Constitution operate. In this article, I will provide an overview of the Washminster system, Australia’s system of government. Australia’s government is a hybrid of the British and American systems of government. This is a result of the colonial influence of the British and the inspiration that Australia’s federation movement drew from America.
The Westminster System is a model of government created by the British and used in other members of the Commonwealth of Nations, including Australia. Under it, the Executive branch of government is drawn from the Legislature, except for the Governor-General, who is appointed by the British monarch, except in Britain, where the monarch replaces the Governor-General. Although the Judiciary is independent, the Westminster System does not have a true separation of power, because of the overlap between the Executive and Legislature. The Westminster system gets its name from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament.
Australia’s government has also been influenced by the US government in Washington, DC, hence the ‘Wash’ in ‘Washminster.’ This is evident in Australia’s Legislature, the Parliament, whose makeup is very similar to that of America’s Congress. Both nations have an elected House of Representatives as their lower house, copying Britain. However, Australia has adopted the American upper house, the Senate, with elected Senators, as opposed to the British House of Lords, whose members are not elected.
Federalism is a system developed by America that splits the government’s powers between state governments and a federal government. Prior to what is referred to as ‘Federation,’ which is when the federal system was adopted at independence, Australia was merely a collection of British colonies. Without the federal system, each of those colonies would likely have developed into independent nations. Instead, the Federation of Australia on 1 January 1901, replaced each colony with a state, allowing it to maintain its own cultural identity, and to an extent, a political identity, while also creating a national government that united the states and people.
The hybrid system can be seen outside of the government as well. One example of this is the Australian Constitution. Australia has adopted a written constitution, like America. In contrast, Britain’s unwritten constitution is made up of common law, which is developed by courts, and various pieces of legislation, including the Magna Carta. However, Australia does not have a federal Bill of Rights that enumerates the rights of citizens. Instead, these rights are mostly found in common law and legislation.
Before continuing any further, it is important to define some key words and phrases, especially for non-Australians who are not familiar with Australian politics. These terms will be explored in-depth in subsequent articles, so these definitions will only be brief.
Like Canada and America, Australia has states and territories. The head of government in those states, in both Canada and Australia, is the Premier. However, unlike Canada, the head of government in Australian self-governing territories is referred to as the Chief Minister. The self-governing territories are the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. All other territories are administered by the federal government.
The Governor-General is the personal representative of the Crown in Australia, and therefore is appointed by the monarch. The Governor-General possesses the powers of the British monarch, including appointing the Prime Minister and other ministers, as well as giving royal assent to bills passed by Parliament. The Federal Executive Council, the executive branch of the Australian government, is, therefore, lead by the Governor-General. Each state has a Governor, which is equivalent to the Governor-General. The Northern Territory has an Administrator who is appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the federal government and Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. The Australian Capital Territory does not have a Governor or Administrator; instead, that role is fulfilled by the federal Minister for Home Affairs. For the purposes of this series, the Crown will refer to the British monarchy acting in a legal capacity, often through the Governor-General. For example, Crown land is land that remains owned by the monarchy, and therefore also the Australian government, through the Governor-General.
The Federal Parliament has two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. All states but Queensland also have two houses; however, these two houses are referred to as the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, respectively. Queensland is the only state to have a unicameral system, meaning that it only has one house, the Legislative Assembly. Both self-governing territories, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, also only have a Legislative Assembly. Members of Federal Parliament are referred to as MPs, or Members of Parliament. MP is also used at a state level, although MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) and MLC (Member of the Legislative Council) are also used.
The Commonwealth of Nations is a group made up of Britain and many former British colonies. The Commonwealth also refers to the Commonwealth of Australia, which is Australia’s official name. Therefore, for the purposes of this series, the Commonwealth will collectively refer to the Australian government. The British Commonwealth will refer to the Commonwealth of Nations.
Stuart Jeffery, aka LibertyDownUnder, is the founder of the Australian Liberty Network. He is also the host of the Gumtree of Liberty and Gumtree of Liberty Live podcasts, and is editor of the Liberty Review. Stuart is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations, at the University of Southern Queensland.