Australia Political System: Government

Australia is a federation of six states and two territories. Under the written Constitution, which came into force on I January 1901 when the colonies joined to form the Commonwealth of Australia, the Federal government is mainly responsible for the national economy and Reserve Bank, customs and excise, immigration, defense, foreign policy and the postal system. The state governments are chiefly responsible for health, education, housing, transport and justice. There are both federal and state police forces.

Australia has a parliamentary system of government based on that of the UK, and the state and federal structures are broadly similar. In Federal parliament, the lower house is the House of Representatives, the upper house the Senate. The House of Representatives has 147 members, divided among the states on a population basis (NSW 50, Victoria 38, Queensland 25, South Australia 12, Western Australia 14, Tasmania five, ACT two and Northern Territory one).

Elections for the House of Representatives are held at least every three years. The Senate has 12 senators from each state, and two each from the ACT and the Northern Territory. State senators serve six-year terms, with elections for half of them every three years; territory senators serve only three years, their terms coinciding with elections for the House of Representatives.

Queensland's upper house was abolished in 1922. The federal government is run by a prime minister, while the state governments are led by a premier and the Northern Territory by a chief minister. The party holding the greatest number of lower house seats forms the government.

Australia is a monarchy, but although Britain's king or queen is also Australia's, Australia is fully autonomous. The British sovereign is represented by the governor-general and state governors, whose nominations for their posts by the respective governments are ratified by the monarch of the day.

Federal parliament is based in Canberra, the capital of the nation. Like Washington DC in the USA, Canberra is in its own separate area of land, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and is not under the rule of one of the states. Geographically, however, the ACT is completely surrounded by New South Wales. The state parliaments are in each state capital.

The Federal government is elected for a maximum of three years but elections can be (and often are) called earlier. Voting is by secret ballot and is compulsory for persons 18 years of age and over. Voting can be somewhat complicated as a preferential system is used whereby each candidate has to be listed in order of preference. This can result, for example, in Senate elections with 50 or more candidates to be ranked.

The Constitution can only be changed by referendum, and only if a majority of voters in at least four states favor it. Since federation in 1901, of the 42 proposals that have been put to referendum, only eight have been approved.

The Cabinet, presided over by the prime minister, is the government's major policy-making body, and it comprises about half of the full ministry. It's a somewhat secretive body which meets in private (usually in Canberra) and its decisions are ratified by the Executive Council, a formal body presided over by the governor-general.

The Australian flag has the British flag in the top left-hand corner and shows the stars of the Southern Cross in white on a blue field.