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Our government

These pages have been written to help you discover the background and structure of government in Australia.

Australia's formal name is the Commonwealth of Australia. The form of government used in Australia is a constitutional monarchy – 'constitutional' because the powers and procedures of the Australian Government are defined by a written constitution, and 'monarchy' because Australia's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

Australia's federation

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 when six independent British colonies agreed to join together and become states of a new nation. The rules of government for this new nation were enshrined in the Australian Constitution, which defined how the Australian Government was to operate and what issues it could pass laws on.

The birth of our nation is often referred to as 'federation'. This is because the Constitution created a 'federal' system of government. Under a federal system, powers are divided between a central government and individual states. In Australia, power was divided between the Australian Government and the six state governments.

For more information on Australia's federal system, our Constitution, and the roles of the monarch and the Governor-General, see Australia's federation.

The Australian Government

The Australian Government, sometimes referred to as the Commonwealth Government or the federal government, passes laws which affect the whole country. Section 51 of the Constitution defines a number of issues that the Australian Government can make laws on.

There are three arms' of the Australian Government:

  • the legislature (or parliament) is responsible for debating and voting on new laws to be introduced under the power of section 51.
  • the executive is responsible for enacting and upholding the laws established by the legislature. Certain members of the legislature (called ministers) are also members of the executive, with special responsibilities for certain areas of the law.
  • the judiciary is the legal arm of the Australian Government. It is independent of the other two arms, and is responsible for enforcing the laws and deciding whether the other two arms are acting within their powers.

See The Australian Government for more information on the role and structure of the Australian Government.

State and territory government

Although the six states joined together to form the Commonwealth of Australia and the Australian Government, they still each retain the power to make their own laws over matters not controlled by the Commonwealth under Section 51 of the Constitution. State governments also have their own constitutions, as well as a structure of legislature, executive and judiciary.

Territories are areas within Australia's borders that are not claimed by one of the six states. Territories can be administered by the Australian Government, or they can be granted a right of self-government. Self-government allows a territory to establish its own government in a similar manner to a state. The Constitution of Australia allows territories to become states with the approval of the Commonwealth legislature.

For more information on the six state governments, the State-Commonwealth relationship, and the government of Australia's territories, see State and territory government.

Local government

Constitutional responsibility for local government lies with the state and territory governments. Consequently, the roles and responsibilities of local government differ from state to state. Local governments are also known as local councils.

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