So, there’s a federal election campaign taking place at the moment. While many people know the structure of the Australian Government and how it works, there are others who don’t.
If you’re one of those who don’t know, read on, because I’m going to explain it to you. It will be useful for you to know for when you vote.
The Australian Constitution, written during the 1890s and passed in 1900, is the most fundamental law in the country. Like all other constitutions, it sets out the basic rules for the government.
Chapter One of the Constitution confers legislative power (the power to make laws) onto the Parliament, Chapter Two confers executive power (the power to administer laws and conduct the government’s business) onto the Executive Government, and Chapter Three confers judicial power (the power to determine legal disputes conclusively) onto the Judicature (otherwise called the ‘judiciary’).
The Executive Government
Head of State
Because Australia is a constitutional monarchy, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is our head of state. But because she lives in the UK, her powers and duties are exercised by a “representative” here, known as the Governor-General.
Governors-General are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Constitution does not impose any term limits on Governors-General, though the unofficial length of a single term is five years. So far, no Governor-General has served more than one five-year term.
Governors-General open new sessions of federal Parliament; give new laws Royal Assent (the method used by a monarch to officially approve new laws); swear in government officials; represent Australia at big events; appoint new federal judges; and are the Commanders-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force. He/she also has the power to fire government ministers (so far, this has only happened once, when Governor-General Sir John Kerr gave 21st Prime Minister Gough Whitlam the flick in 1975). They also have to receive foreign leaders, Ambassadors, and High Commissioners who visit Australia.
Because the Governor-General is an important role, it comes with a few perks. Governors-General have their own jet and fleet of cars to travel in, a mansion to live in, and even a holiday house. They also get a decent salary ($425,000), which can’t be changed during their time in office.
The Prime Minister
The role of Prime Minister isn’t mentioned in the Constitution. Therefore, according to Kevin Rudd, “it is as large an office, or as small an office, as you choose to make it”.
Despite this, the Prime Minister is the official head of government. He or she appoints members of their political party to ministerial positions. They also decide when elections are to take place, and is also the public face of the government. Prime Ministers earn a very attractive salary as well ($527,852 a year).
But there are also restraints on Prime Ministers. For example, they need to maintain support from their colleagues. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull all lost the support of their colleagues, and so were ousted as Prime Minister.
No-one actually votes for Prime Ministers during elections. We vote for political parties instead. A party becomes the ruling party when they gain a majority in the House of Representatives, and the leader of the party then becomes Prime Minister. A person can only become the leader of a party by being elected by party members.
The Federal Executive Council
The Federal Executive Council meets every two weeks. Its official purpose is to “advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth”. The Council consists of all senior federal government ministers. The Governor-General is President of the Council and presides at meetings. According to the Parliament of Australia website, ‘the matters dealt with at each meeting are recommendations by Ministers, for the approval of the Governor-General in Council, that something be done – for example, that a regulation be made, a treaty be ratified, or a person be appointed to a position’.
The Cabinet, made up of senior government ministers, makes all the important decisions of the government. The Cabinet is chaired by the Prime Minister, who is also responsible for appointing ministers to serve on it.
The Cabinet isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, but it has been ratified by the Executive Council, therefore granting it legal effect.
Cabinet ministers earn $350,000 a year.
Ministers and Members of Parliament
The Prime Minister selects all government ministers. There can only be up to 30 ministers at a time under current legislation. Some senior ministers are in charge of major departments, while others administer specific areas within each department.
Members of Parliament (MPs) are the official representatives of the Australian people, all elected to office. The income of a backbench MP is currently $203,020 a year.
The Parliament of Australia is bicameral (which means it consists of two chambers), and is modelled on the United States Congress. It consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. All bills of law have to pass both the House and the Senate, and be signed by the Governor-General on the Queen’s behalf, in order to take effect.
The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives currently consists of 150 members, each of whom represents an electoral division. There will be 151 divisions at this year’s election.
They’re elected by preferential voting (people vote for candidates in order of preference), and serve three-year terms.
The Constitution states that each state shall have an equal number of Senators, regardless of population. This is different to the allocation system in the House of Representatives.
There currently 76 Senators. Each state has twelve senators, and the territories only have two. The twelve Senators are elected to six-year terms, while the remaining Senators have to retire after three years due to a system of rotation.
The Constitution states that judicial power is to be vested in the High Court of Australia. Its roles include, but are not limited to: interpreting the Constitution; and reviewing laws passed by Parliament (this is called judicial review).
The High Court is headed by a Chief Justice. The current Chief Justice is the Honourable Susan Kiefal. She’s the first woman to hold the position.
There can be no less than two justices on the High Court at a time.
There’s no set term length for justices, though it’s compulsory for them to retire at seventy years of age.
Words by Callum J Jones