whitlamdismissal.com         Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-75 Sir John Kerr, Governor-General of Australia 1974-77 Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia 1975-83
  Saturday April 30, 2016

Choosing Governments in the Westminster System

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:

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 really responsible to the Parliament. 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 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.

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