The Australian federal government is divided into three arms: legislature, executive and judiciary.
The legislature, also known as the Parliament of Australia, or simply Parliament, is made up of democratically-elected representatives from around Australia.
These representatives meet at Parliament House in Canberra to discuss legislation and make laws for the benefit of the nation. The issues that they can make laws on are defined by sections 51 and 122 of the Constitution.
- the House of Representatives (or 'the lower house')
- the Senate (or 'the upper house')
The House of Representatives has 150 members, each representing a different area of the country ('electorate'). Each electorate has roughly the same number of registered voters within its boundary, meaning that states with larger populations have more electorates and therefore more representatives in the House.
The Senate is composed of 76 members. Unlike the House of Representatives, membership of the Senate is divided evenly between the states. Each state has 12 senators, and the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have 2 senators each. The Senate was established this way to ensure that the larger states could not use their majority in the House of Representatives to pass laws that disadvantaged the smaller states.
The Constitution is silent on the role of political parties in Parliament. It does not make any reference to a government party, an opposition party or minor parties, or to roles like Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. These are conventions that have been adopted to assist the smooth operation of the legislature.
The executive is the administrative arm of government. The Australian Government is formed by the party or coalition of parties with the support of a majority of members in the House of Representatives.
A government minister is a member of the legislature who has been chosen to also work as part of the executive, usually with responsibility for matters on a specific topic (his/her portfolio). The main roles of the Government are to make important national decisions, develop policy, introduce bills (proposed laws), implement laws and manage government departments.
The public service, working in departments and agencies, puts those laws into operation and upholds those laws once they have begun to operate. Canberra, located in the Australian Capital Territory, is Australia's national capital. The Parliament of Australia is located in Canberra, as is most of the Australian Government public service.
The judiciary is the legal arm of the government. Independent of the legislature and the executive, it is the role of the judiciary to enforce Australia's laws. It must also ensure that the other arms of government do not act beyond the powers granted to them by the Constitution or by Parliament.
The High Court of Australia is, as its name suggests, Australia's highest court. Underneath the High Court are a number of other federal courts.