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How Government Works

Australia's formal name is the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia is both a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's head of state.

Federation

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 when six partly self governing British colonies united to become states of a nation. The rules of government for this new nation were enshrined in the Australian Constitution, which defined how the Commonwealth government was to operate and what issues it could pass laws on.

The birth of our nation is often referred to as 'federation' 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 Commonwealth federal government and the six state governments.

Federal government

The Australian Parliament consists of the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Parliament passes laws which affect the whole country. Section 51 of the Constitution defines a number of issues that the Parliament can make laws on.

There are three arms of government in Australia:
  • the legislature (or Parliament) is responsible for debating and voting on new laws to be introduced under the power of section 51.
  • the executive (the Australian Government) 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 federal 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.

State and territory government

Although the six states joined together to form the Commonwealth of Australia, 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.

The difference between states and territories can be confusing because the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory are often treated like states. These two territories, along with Norfolk Island, are self-governing territories. In these three cases, the Australian Parliament passed a law allowing each territory to convene their own parliament and make their own laws in a similar manner to the states.

Unlike the states, whose powers are defined through the Constitution, the powers of these territories are defined in Commonwealth law which grants them the right of self-government. This also means that the Parliament can alter or revoke these powers at will. Under Section 121 of the Australian Constitution, territories can become states with the approval of the Parliament.

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

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.