Politics of Australia

Last updated

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The politics of Australia take place within the framework of a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Australians elect parliamentarians to the federal Parliament of Australia, a bicameral body which incorporates elements of the fused executive inherited from the Westminster system, and a strong federalist senate, adopted from the United States Congress. Australia largely operates as a two-party system in which voting is compulsory. [1] The Economist Intelligence Unit has rated Australia as a "full democracy" in 2017. [2]




A large white and cream coloured building with grass on its roof. The building is topped with a large flagpole.
Parliament House, Canberra.

The Parliament of Australia, also known as the Commonwealth Parliament or Federal Parliament, is the legislative branch of the government of Australia. It is bicameral, and has been influenced both by the Westminster system and United States federalism. Under Section 1 of the Constitution of Australia, Parliament consists of three components: the Monarch, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The Australian Parliament is the world's sixth oldest continuous democracy. [3]

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members, each elected for a flexible term of office not exceeding three years, [4] to represent a single electoral division, commonly referred to as an electorate or seat. Voting within each electorate utilizes the instant-runoff system of preferential voting, which has its origins in Australia. The party or coalition of parties which commands the confidence of a majority of members of the House of Representatives forms government. [5]

The Australian Senate has 76 members. The six states return twelve senators each, and the two mainland territories return two senators each, elected through the single transferable voting system. Senators are elected for flexible terms not exceeding six years, with half of the senators contesting at each federal election. The Senate is afforded substantial powers by the Australian Constitution, significantly greater than those of Westminster upper houses such as those of the United Kingdom and Canada, and has the power to block legislation originating in the House as well as supply or monetary bills. As such, the Senate has the power to bring down the government, as occurred during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis.

Because legislation must pass successfully through both houses to become law, it is possible for disagreements between the House of Representatives and the Senate to hold up the progress of government bills indefinitely. Such deadlocks are resolved under section 57 of the Constitution, under a procedure called a double dissolution election. Such elections are rare, not because the conditions for holding them are seldom met, but because they can pose a significant political risk to any government that chooses to call one. Of the six double dissolution elections that have been held since federation, half have resulted in the fall of a government. Only once, in 1974, has the full procedure for resolving a deadlock been followed, with a joint sitting of the two houses being held to deliberate upon the bills that had originally led to the deadlock. The most recent double dissolution election was on 2 July 2016, which resulted in the government of the day retaining a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. The two pieces of legislation that triggered the election did not figure prominently in the eight-week election campaign.


Government House, Canberra, also known as "Yarralumla", is the official residence of the Governor-General.

The role of head of state in Australia is divided between two people: the Monarch of Australia and the Governor-General of Australia. The functions and roles of the Governor-General include appointing ambassadors, ministers, and judges, giving Royal Assent to legislation (also a role of the monarch), issuing writs for elections and bestowing honours. [6] The Governor-General is the President of the Federal Executive Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force. These posts are held under the authority of the Australian Constitution. In practice, barring exceptional circumstances, the Governor-General exercises these powers only on the advice of the Prime Minister. As such, the role of Governor-General is often described as a largely ceremonial position. [7]

The Prime Minister of Australia is Scott Morrison, leader of the Cabinet and head of government, holding office on commission from the Governor-General of Australia. The office of Prime Minister is, in practice, the most powerful political office in Australia. Despite being at the apex of executive government in the country, the office is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia specifically and exists through an unwritten political convention. Barring exceptional circumstances, the prime minister is always the leader of the political party or coalition with majority support in the House of Representatives. The only case where a senator was appointed prime minister was that of John Gorton, who subsequently resigned his Senate position and was elected as a member of the House of Representatives (Senator George Pearce was acting prime minister for seven months in 1916 while Billy Hughes was overseas). [8]

The Cabinet of Australia is the council of senior ministers responsible to Parliament. The Cabinet is appointed by the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister and serves at the former's pleasure. The strictly private Cabinet meetings occur once a week to discuss vital issues and formulate policy. Outside of the cabinet there are a number of junior ministers, responsible for a specific policy area and reporting directly to any senior Cabinet minister. The Constitution of Australia does not recognise the Cabinet as a legal entity, and its decisions have no legal force. All members of the ministry are also members of the Executive Council, a body which is – in theory, though rarely in practice – chaired by the Governor-General, and which meets solely to endorse and give legal force to decisions already made by the Cabinet. For this reason, there is always a member of the ministry holding the title Vice-President of the Executive Council.

Reflecting the influence of the Westminster system, Ministers are selected from elected members of Parliament. [9] All ministers are expected individually to defend collective government decisions. Individual ministers who cannot undertake the public defence of government actions are expected to resign. Such resignations are rare; and the rarity also of public disclosure of splits within cabinet reflects the seriousness with which internal party loyalty is regarded in Australian politics.


High Court building, view from the lake

The High Court of Australia is the supreme court in the Australian court hierarchy and the final court of appeal in Australia. It has both original and appellate jurisdiction, has the power of judicial review over laws passed by the Parliament of Australia and the parliaments of the States, and interprets the Constitution of Australia. The High Court is mandated by section 71 of the Constitution, which vests in it the judicial power of the Commonwealth of Australia. The High Court was constituted by the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth). The High Court is composed of seven Justices: the Chief Justice of Australia, presently The Hon. Susan Kiefel AC, and six other Justices.

The state supreme courts are also considered to be superior courts, those with unlimited jurisdiction to hear disputes and which are the pinnacle of the court hierarchy within their jurisdictions. They were created by means of the constitutions of their respective states or the Self Government Acts for the ACT and the Northern Territory. Appeals may be made from state supreme courts to the High Court of Australia.

Inferior Courts are secondary to Superior Courts. Their existence stems from legislation and they only have the power to decide on matters which Parliament has granted them. Decisions in inferior courts can be appealed to the Superior Court in that area, and then to the High Court of Australia.


Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia from 2010–2013 and the first female Prime Minister of the country.

At a national level, elections are held at least once every three years. [4] The Prime Minister can advise the Governor-General to call an election for the House of Representatives at any time, but Senate elections can only be held within certain periods prescribed in the Australian Constitution. The most recent Australian federal election took place on 2 July 2016.

The House of Representatives is elected using the Australian instant-runoff voting system, which results in the preferences which flow from minor party voters to the two major parties being significant in electoral outcomes. The Senate is elected using the single transferable voting system, which has resulted in a greater presence of minor parties in the Senate. For most of the last thirty years a balance of power has existed, whereby neither government nor opposition has had overall control of the Senate. This limitation to its power has required governments to frequently seek the support of minor parties or independent Senators to secure their legislative agenda. The ease with which minor parties can secure representation in the Senate compared to the House of Representatives, a result of proportional representation in the Senate, has meant that these parties have often focused their efforts on securing representation in the upper house. This is true also at state level (only the two territories and Queensland are unicameral). Minor parties have only rarely been able to win seats in the House of Representatives, though five minor party members or independents won seats at the 2016 election.

State and local government

States and territories of Australia

Australia's six states and two territories are structured within a political framework similar to that of the Commonwealth. Each state has its own bicameral Parliament, with the exception of Queensland and the two territories, whose Parliaments are unicameral. Each state has a Governor, who undertakes a role equivalent to that of the Governor-General at the federal level, and a Premier, who is the head of government and is equivalent to the Prime Minister. Each state also has its own supreme court, from which appeals can be made to the High Court of Australia.

Elections in the six Australian states and two territories are held at least once every four years. In New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, election dates are fixed by legislation. However, the other state premiers and the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory have the same discretion in calling elections as the Prime Minister at national level.

Local government in Australia is the third (and lowest) tier of government, administered by the states and territories which in turn are beneath the federal tier. Unlike the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand, there is only one level of local government in all states, with no distinction such as counties and cities. Today, most local governments have equivalent powers within a state, and styles such as "shire" or "city" refer to the nature of the settlements they are based around.

Ideology in Australian politics

Sir Robert Menzies of the Liberal party, Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister

In Australian political culture, the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) is considered centre-right and the Australian Labor Party is considered centre-left. Australian conservatism is largely represented by the Coalition, along with Australian liberalism. The Labor Party categorises itself as social democratic, [10] although it has pursued a liberal economic policy since the prime ministership of Bob Hawke. [11]

Queensland, in particular, along with the Northern Territory and Western Australia are regarded as comparatively conservative. [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory are regarded as comparatively left of centre. [18] [19] [15] [20] [21] New South Wales, the largest state by population, has often been regarded as a politically moderate bellwether state. [21] [18]

Since the 2007 elections, the voting patterns of the Australian electorate have shifted. There is more volatility in the Australian electorate than ever before. More Australian voters are swinging between the two major parties or are voting for third parties, with one in four Australians voting for a minor party. [22]

Political parties

Organised, national political parties have dominated Australia's political landscape since federation. The late 19th century saw the rise of the Australian Labor Party, which represented organised workers. Opposing interests coalesced into two main parties: a centre-right party with a base in business and the middle classes that has been predominantly conservative and moderate, now the Liberal Party of Australia; and a rural or agrarian conservative party, now the National Party of Australia. While there are a small number of other political parties that have achieved parliamentary representation, these main three dominate organised politics everywhere in Australia and only on rare occasions have any other parties or independent members of parliament played any role at all in the formation or maintenance of governments.

Australian politics operates as a two-party system, as a result of the permanent coalition between the Liberal Party and National Party. Internal party discipline has historically been tight, unlike the situation in other countries such as the United States. Australia's political system has not always been a two-party system, but nor has it always been as internally stable as in recent decades.[ when? ]

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) is a self-described social democratic party, it is a left leaning party with tendency towards social welfare and government assistance programs. It was founded by the Australian labour movement and broadly represents the urban working and middle classes.

The Liberal Party of Australia is a party of the centre-right which broadly represents businesses, the urban middle classes and many rural people. Its permanent coalition partner at national level is the National Party of Australia, formerly known as the Country Party, a conservative party which represents rural interests. These two parties are collectively known as the Coalition. In Queensland, and more recently in NSW, the two parties have officially merged to form the Liberal National Party, and in the Northern Territory, the National Party is known as the Country Liberal Party.

Minor parties in Australian politics include a green party, the Australian Greens, the largest of the minor parties; a centrist party, Centre Alliance; a nationalist party, Pauline Hanson's One Nation; and an anti-privatisation party, Katter's Australian Party. Other significant parties in recent years have included the Palmer United Party, the socially conservative Family First Party, and the socially liberal Australian Democrats, among others.


Since federation, there have been 30 Prime Ministers of Australia. The longest-serving Prime Minister was Sir Robert Menzies of the Liberal Party, who served for 19 years from 1939–41, and again from 1949–66. The only other Prime Minister to serve for longer than a decade was John Howard, also of the Liberal Party, who led for more than 11 years from 1996–2007. The Coalition and its direct predecessors have governed at the federal level for a large majority of Australia's history since federation: 30,548 days as compared to Labor's 12,252 days.

Prime ministers' parties by time in office

House of Representatives primary, two-party and seat results

A two-party system has existed in the Australian House of Representatives since the two non-Labor parties merged in 1909. The 1910 election was the first to elect a majority government, with the Australian Labor Party concurrently winning the first Senate majority. Prior to 1909 a three-party system existed in the chamber. A two-party-preferred vote (2PP) has been calculated since the 1919 change from first-past-the-post to preferential voting and subsequent introduction of the Coalition. ALP = Australian Labor Party, L+NP = grouping of Liberal/National/LNP/CLP Coalition parties (and predecessors), Oth = other parties and independents.

House of Representatives results and polling
Labour Free Trade Protectionist Independent Other
1st 19011428312 75
Labour Free Trade Protectionist Independent Other
2nd 1903232526 1 Revenue Tariff 75
Labour Anti-Socialist Protectionist Independent Other
3rd 190626262111 Western Australian 75
Primary vote 2PP vote Seats
13 April 1910 election 50.0%45.1%4.9%4231275
31 May 1913 election 48.5%48.9%2.6%3738075
5 September 1914 election 50.9%47.2%1.9%4232175
5 May 1917 election 43.9%54.2%1.9%2253075
13 December 1919 election 42.5%54.3%3.2%45.9%54.1%2538275
16 December 1922 election 42.3%47.8%9.9%48.8%51.2%2940675
14 November 1925 election 45.0%53.2%1.8%46.2%53.8%2350275
17 November 1928 election 44.6%49.6%5.8%48.4%51.6%3142275
12 October 1929 election 48.8%44.2%7.0%56.7%43.3%4624575
19 December 1931 election 27.1%48.4%24.5%41.5%58.5%14501175
15 September 1934 election 26.8%45.6%27.6%46.5%53.5%18421474
23 October 1937 election 43.2%49.3%7.5%49.4%50.6%2943274
21 September 1940 election 40.2%43.9%15.9%50.3%49.7%3236674
21 August 1943 election 49.9%23.0%27.1%58.2%41.8%4919674
28 September 1946 election 49.7%39.3%11.0%54.1%45.9%4326574
10 December 1949 election 46.0%50.3%3.7%49.0%51.0%47740121
28 April 1951 election 47.6%50.3%2.1%49.3%50.7%52690121
29 May 1954 election 50.0%46.8%3.2%50.7%49.3%57640121
10 December 1955 election 44.6%47.6%7.8%45.8%54.2%47750122
22 November 1958 election 42.8%46.6%10.6%45.9%54.1%45770122
9 December 1961 election 47.9%42.1%10.0%50.5%49.5%60620122
30 November 1963 election 45.5%46.0%8.5%47.4%52.6%50720122
26 November 1966 election 40.0%50.0%10.0%43.1%56.9%41821124
25 October 1969 election 47.0%43.3%9.7%50.2%49.8%59660125
2 December 1972 election 49.6%41.5%8.9%52.7%47.3%67580125
18 May 1974 election 49.3%44.9%5.8%51.7%48.3%66610127
13 December 1975 election 42.8%53.1%4.1%44.3%55.7%36910127
10 December 1977 election 39.7%48.1%12.2%45.4%54.6%38860124
18 October 1980 election 45.2%46.3%8.5%49.6%50.4%51740125
5 March 1983 election 49.5%43.6%6.9%53.2%46.8%75500125
1 December 1984 election 47.6%45.0%7.4%51.8%48.2%82660148
11 July 1987 election 45.8%46.1%8.1%50.8%49.2%86620148
24 March 1990 election 39.4%43.5%17.1%49.9%50.1%78691148
11 Mar 1993 Newspoll44%45%11%49.5%50.5%
13 March 1993 election 44.9%44.3%10.7%51.4%48.6%80652147
28–29 Feb 1996 Newspoll40.5%48%11.5%46.5%53.5%
2 March 1996 election 38.7%47.3%14.0%46.4%53.6%49945148
30 Sep – 1 Oct 1998 Newspoll44%40%16%53%47%
3 October 1998 election 40.1%39.5%20.4%51.0%49.0%67801148
7–8 Nov 2001 Newspoll38.5%46%15.5%47%53%
10 November 2001 election 37.8%43.0%19.2%49.0%51.0%65823150
6–7 Oct 2004 Newspoll39%45%16%50%50%
9 October 2004 election 37.6%46.7%15.7%47.3%52.7%60873150
20–22 Nov 2007 Newspoll44%43%13%52%48%
24 November 2007 election 43.4%42.1%14.5%52.7%47.3%83652150
17–19 Aug 2010 Newspoll36.2%43.4%20.4%50.2%49.8%
21 August 2010 election 38.0%43.3%18.7%50.1%49.9%72726150
3–5 Sep 2013 Newspoll33%46%21%46%54%
7 September 2013 election 33.4%45.6%21.0%46.5%53.5%55905150
28 Jun – 1 Jul 2016 Newspoll35%42%23%49.5%50.5%
2 July 2016 election 34.7%42.0%23.3%49.6%50.4%69765150
Polling conducted by Newspoll and published in The Australian. Three percent margin of error.

Historical party composition of the Senate

The Senate has included representatives from a range of political parties, including several parties that have seldom or never had representation in the House of Representatives, but which have consistently secured a small but significant level of electoral support, as the table shows.

Results represent the composition of the Senate after the elections. The full Senate has been contested on eight occasions; the inaugural election and seven double dissolutions. These are underlined and highlighted in puce. [23]

Labor Liberal [lower-alpha 1] National [lower-alpha 2] Democratic
Democrats Greens CLP Independent Other
1st 1901811 [lower-alpha 3] 17       36 Plurality-at-large voting
2nd 1903812 [lower-alpha 3] 14     11 Revenue Tariff 36Plurality-at-large voting
3rd 1906156 [lower-alpha 3] 13     2 36Plurality-at-large voting
4th 19102214       36Plurality-at-large voting
5th 1913297       36Plurality-at-large voting
6th 1914315       36Plurality-at-large voting
7th 19171224       36Plurality-at-large voting
8th 1919135       36 Preferential block voting
9th 19221224       36Preferential block voting
10th 19258253      36Preferential block voting
11th 19287245      36Preferential block voting
12th 193110215      36Preferential block voting
13th 19343267      36Preferential block voting
14th 193716164      36Preferential block voting
15th 194017154      36Preferential block voting
16th 194322122      36Preferential block voting
17th 19463321      36Preferential block voting
18th 194934215      60 Single transferable vote
19th 195128266      60Single transferable vote
20th 195329265      60Single transferable vote
21st 1955282462     60Single transferable vote
22nd 1958262572     60Single transferable vote
23rd 1961282461   1 60Single transferable vote
24th 1964272372   1 60Single transferable vote
25th 1967272174   1 60Single transferable vote
26th 1970262155   3 60Single transferable vote
27th 197429236    11 Liberal Movement 60Single transferable vote
28th 197527266   111 Liberal Movement 64Single transferable vote
29th 197727276 2 11 64Single transferable vote
30th 198027283 5 11 64Single transferable vote
31st 198330234 5 11 64Single transferable vote
32nd 198434275 7 111 Nuclear Disarmament 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
33rd 198732267 7 121 Nuclear Disarmament 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
34th 199032285 8 111 Greens (WA) 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
35th 199330296 7 112 Greens (WA) (2)76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
36th 199629315 7 112 Greens (WA), Greens (Tas) 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
37th 199829313 91111 One Nation 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
38th 200128313 82121 One Nation 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
39th 200428335 441 1 Family First 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
40th 200732324  5111 Family First 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
41st 20103128 + (3 LNP)21 911 76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
42nd 20132523 + (5 LNP)3 + (1 LNP)1 10116 Family First,
Liberal Democrats,
Motoring Enthusiast,
Palmer United (3)
76Single transferable vote (Group voting ticket)
43rd 20162621 + (3 LNP)3 + (2 LNP) 9111 Family First,
Liberal Democrats,
Jacqui Lambie,
Justice Party,
Centre Alliance (3),
One Nation (4)
76Single transferable vote (Optional preferential voting)

See also


  1. Includes results for the Free Trade Party for 1901 and 1903, the Anti-Socialist Party for 1906, the Commonwealth Liberal Party for 1910—1914, the Nationalist Party for 1917—1929, and the United Australia Party for 1931—1943.
  2. Includes results for the Country Party for 1919—1974 and the National Country Party for 1975—1980.
  3. 1 2 3 Protectionist Party


  1. "Is voting compulsory?". Voting within Australia – Frequently Asked Questions. Australian Electoral Commission. 2015. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  2. solutions, EIU digital. "Democracy Index 2016 - The Economist Intelligence Unit". www.eiu.com. Retrieved 2017-11-29.
  3. Hardgrave, Gary (2 March 2015). "Commonwealth Day 2015". Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Government of Australia. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  4. 1 2 The timing of elections is related to the dissolution or expiry of the House of Representatives, which extends for a maximum period of three years from the date of its first sitting, not the date of the election of its members. The house can be dissolved and a new election called at any time. In 12 out of 41 parliaments since Federation, more than three years have elapsed between elections. There is a complex formula for determining the date of such elections, which must satisfy section 32 of the Constitution of Australia and sections 156–8 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. These provisions do not allow an election to be held less than 33 days or more than 68 days after the dissolution of the House of Representatives. See Australian federal election, 2010 for an example of how the formula applies in practice.
  5. Cited by: 1 ePDFPDF "Politics, media and democracy in Australia: public and producer perceptions of the political public sphere" Check |url= value (help). Democratic Representation and the Property Franchise in Australian Local Government. October 2016.
  6. "Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia: Governor-General's role". Archived from the original on 18 July 2010. Retrieved 13 January 2012.
  7. Uhr, Gregory; Uhr, John. Deliberative Democracy in Australia: The Changing Place of Parliament. Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–37. ISBN   9780521624657.
  8. "Pearce, Sir George Foster (1870–1952)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2010.
  9. Section 64 of the Australian Constitution. Strictly speaking, ministers in the Australian government may be drawn from outside parliament, but cannot remain as ministers unless they have become a member of one of the houses of parliament within three months.
  10. "Australian Labor- Australian Labor". Alp.org.au:6020. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  11. Lavelle, A. The Death of Social Democracy. 2008. Ashgate Publishing.
  12. Daly, Margo (2003). The Rough Guide To Australia. Rough Guides Ltd. p. 397. ISBN   9781843530909.
  13. Penrith, Deborah (2008). Live & Work in Australia. Crimson Publishing. p. 478. ISBN   9781854584182.
  14. Georgia Waters. "Why Labor struggles in Queensland". Brisbanetimes.com.au. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  15. 1 2 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-04/vote-compass-left-right-electorates/4929064
  16. "Australia ready for first female leader". BBC News. 25 June 2010.
  17. "How the west will stay won for the Coalition". The Sydney Morning Herald. 18 August 2010.
  18. 1 2 3 George Megalogenis, "The Green and the Grey", Quarterly Essay, Vol. 40, 2010, p69.
  19. "Victoria: the left-leaning state". The Age. Melbourne. 8 August 2010.
  20. "Victoria not likely to lose its mantle as the state most progressive". The Age. Melbourne. 29 November 2010.
  21. 1 2 Megalogenis, George (23 August 2010). "Poll divides the nation into three zones". The Australian.
  22. Clare Blumer. "Rise of the minor parties: How the 2016 election stacks up historically". Australian Broadcasting Corporation . Retrieved 2016-07-03.
  23. "A database of elections, governments, parties and representation for Australian state and federal parliaments since 1890". University of Western Australia. Retrieved 2009-02-15.

Further reading