Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Australia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: July 2013

Government and Politics

Australia is a Commonwealth country. It is a constitutional monarchy and its head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, who is also Queen of the United Kingdom. The Queen is represented in Australia by the Governor-General, currently Ms Quentin Bryce. The Governor-General acts on Elizabeth II’s behalf, and in theory wields executive powers. However, the last time such powers were used was in 1975, when the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister. The Governor-General is usually limited to advising the prime minister and other officials on a particular course of action. It is the prime minister and other members of the Federal Executive Council who decide what executive measures will be taken; the Governor-General then gives her consent to these measures.

The Commonwealth Government, the national government for all of Australia, sits in the national capital, Canberra.  The head of the Australian government is the prime minister, who is almost always the leader of the largest party in a general election. He or she selects the other members of the Cabinet, and together they form the Australian executive. The current Prime Minister is Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party.

The federal Australian legislative branch is bicameral. The House of Representatives comprises 150 Members of Parliament (MPs), elected in a general election. The number of MPs that each state elects reflects the state’s population; New South Wales elects 48 MPs, Tasmania only 5. After an election, the largest party in the House of Representatives will become the governing party and its leader the prime minister. The government propose most of the laws in Parliament, though other MPs can do so too. One power that the House of Representative has that the Senate does not have is the ability to make changes to federal taxation levels.

The Senate consists of 76 senators, 12 from each state and two from each self-governing mainland territory. The two chambers share the ability to propose, debate and pass laws; to be enacted, a bill (a proposed law) must be passed by both houses. Hence the Senate acts chiefly as a check to the government. The Senate is elected by proportional representation; this allows independent senators who represent diverse interests to be represented in Parliament.

Australia originally consisted of colonies and was federated in 1901. Hence, there has always been a state level of government in addition to the federal one. The eight state and territory governments may pass laws in any area except those reserved for the Commonwealth Government, as listed in Section 51 of the national Constitution here:

In addition, there are some areas of law that both federal and state governments can make laws on. In these cases, if the two laws conflict, the federal law always has precedence over the state one.

The most important political parties in Australia are the Liberal Party (centre-left), the Labor Party (centre-right) and the National Party (centre-right.)

Legal Systems

Australian law is based on the common law system, which originated in England. Common law is largely based on precedents and case law, that is, the law that is based on previous judges’ decisions. If a similar case to the one being tried already exists, the judge is bound to make the same decision as the previous case. Rulings on contentious issues related to federal law are adjudicated at the High Court of Australia.

In addition to the federal law, which applies throughout Australia, each state and territory has its own constitution and, to some extent, its own laws. This means that there are effectively nine legal systems in Australia.



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