Choosing Governments in the Westminster System

The question of how governments are chosen is a crucial issue arising from the Dismissal of the Whitlam government.

The Australian Constitution sets out the way in which our political system operates. It consists of 128 sections.

Australia is a Federal system: we have a National Government (can also be called Federal, Commonwealth or Australian) and six state Governments, plus two territory governments.

Australia’s Federal Parliament consists of:

  • House of Representatives (lower house, 150 members)
  • Senate (upper house, 76 members)

The House of Representatives is elected for a three year term, whereas Senators are elected for six year terms, with half of the Senate being elected every three years.

Parliament in Operation

The Australian Parliament is defined in the Constitution (Section 1) as consisting of the Queen, a House of Representatives and a Senate.

The Parliament is the only means by which laws may be passed.

The Parliament is able to:

  • pass legislation (laws)
  • debate issues
  • appropriate money (authorise and allocate the spending of taxes)

All legislation must be passed by both Houses of Parliament.

All legislation requires the signature of the Governor-General – royal assent – before it becomes law (Section 58.

Where is the Government decided?

Because of the wording of the Constitution, and in accordance with British practice, the Australian government is the group which is able to control the House of Representatives.

In practice, this means the political party or parties which can gain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

An Australian government may normally be defeated in two ways:

  1. Losing an election.
  2. Losing the confidence of the House of Representatives.

It is normally the case that Australian governments change in elections, although the Fadden government was defeated “on the floor” of the House of Representatives in 1941 and was replaced by the Curtin government without an election being held.

This is because our system operates on the principle that the parliament is a representative body. Whilst the Parliament is RESPONSIBLE to the electorate at regular elections, the government is responsible to the Parliament between elections.

If the Parliament wishes to change the government in-between elections, it is perfectly entitled to do so. In the same way a party can elect a new leader who becomes Prime Minister (as Paul Keating did in December 1991) without the need for an election by the people.

Thus, our political system disperses power amongst the individually-elected members of the lower house. The government and the Prime Minister are indirectly chosen by the people’s representatives.

The problem created by our political system is simply this:

  • Is the government responsible to the House of Representatives alone, or to the Senate as well? What should happen if the Senate obstructs the government by rejecting its legislation and blocking its money supply?

In the 1890s, when the Australian Constitution was being drawn up, a process known as Federation, the six colonies were jealous of their rights as self-governing units and insisted on a political system that protected their rights. Hence:

  • the Senate has equal representation (12 Senators) from all States.
  • the Senate has equal power with the House of Representatives over all legislation, except in the case of money bills.

Money Bills

A money bill (also known as a Supply Bill or Appropriation Bill) is usually passed through the Parliament twice a year. This is necessary in order to carry on the “ordinary annual services of the Government” (Section 54) such as paying the salaries of public servants, the armed services, etc. It is important to understand that even when the government has been elected it still has to get all its legislation, including money bills, passed through both Houses of Parliament.

The Constitutional Dilemma of the Whitlam Dismissal

The Constitution deals with the powers of the Senate in regard to money bills in this way:

Section 53: “Proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys, or imposing taxation, shall not originate in the Senate… The Senate may not amend proposed laws imposing taxation, or proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the Government… The Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people… Except as provided in this section, the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws.”

It can be seen from this that the Senate is intended to have the power of reviewing legislation submitted to it from the House of Representatives. The Senate may also introduce legislation of its own which may then be passed by the House of Representatives. However, the responsibility for introducing legislation which imposes taxation, or appropriates money, lies entirely with the House of Representatives.

The Constitution also says:

Section 24: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth… the number of members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective numbers of their people.”

Hence, the House of Representatives is often called the directly-elected house, or the People’s House. The Senate is a States House, where the smallest State has the same number of Senators as the largest.

Part of the problem posed by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government is related to the fact that the government is formed by the majority party in the House of Representatives, but often faces a Senate where it does not have a majority. The Senate is elected by a different voting system (proportional representation) which means that it is very rare for any one party to have a majority. In addition to this, the numbers in the Senate never totally reflect what people want because all states, regardless of size, elect 12 Senators.

In 1975, Malcolm Fraser argued that the government was responsible to both Houses of Parliament, whereas Whitlam claimed that a government should only be held accountable to the House of Representatives, the People’s House.

The Whitlam Dismissal raises the question of whether the Senate should be able to bring down a government democratically chosen by the people in the House of Representatives.

Gough Whitlam argued that only the House can decide the government, whereas Malcolm Fraser argued that the Senate’s power to reject money bills gave it the right to send the House to an election.

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