The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation of six states, two self-governing mainland territories, and eight additional territories. The six states, each with its own government, are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia. The two self-governing territories are the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory. Australia has governments at federal, state, and territory level. Each state and the two principal mainland territories are represented in the federal Parliament. It is a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

From the beginning of European settlement in 1788, the colonies that make up modern Australia were ruled by the United Kingdom. The Australian constitution (1901) provides for a federal form of government. Today, Australia is an independent country, with the British monarch as the head of state, recognized as queen of Australia. As in the United States, all powers not specifically delegated to the federal (national) government are held by the state governments. The federal government, which consists of the Crown (executive), the Commonwealth Parliament, and the judiciary, deals with national affairs, such as defense, foreign relations, and interstate commerce. It also has concurrent authority with the state governments in certain areas—taxation and immigration, for example. The state governments are responsible for local matters, such as primary and secondary education, law enforcement, and health.

The Crown

The sovereign of Great Britain is the symbolic head of the federal and state governments. The Crown is represented by a governor-general, who is appointed by the British monarch after consultation with the prime minister of Australia. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the government. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the government. The governor general embodies the executive power of the federal government—that is, the power of putting laws into effect. The governor general’s functions in Australia resemble those of the monarch in the United Kingdom, with the power to summon, prorogue (discontinue without dissolving), and dissolve the federal Parliament. The governor general is the commander in chief of the armed forces. In addition, the governor general formally appoints the prime minister and other ministers, and can also dismiss them.

The governor general usually acts on the prime minister’s advice. However, the governor general can act without the advice of the prime minister in times of political uncertainty. There are some occasions when the governor general may have to make a personal decision. For example, the governor general may need to decide which party leader to ask to form a government, if no party commands a clear majority in Parliament. Such a situation may occur as a result of a party split or as a result of an indecisive election. The governor general might refuse a prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament shortly after a general election, if the governor general has reason to believe that another leader may obtain a parliamentary majority.

The Prime Minister

The head of government is the prime minister. The governor general appoints as prime minister the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives, or, if no party has a majority, the leader of a coalition (combination) of parties. The parliamentary parties elect their leaders by ballot. Prime ministers remain in office as long as their party has a majority in the House of Representatives, unless they retire, are replaced as party leader, or leave office for any other reason. The prime minister is the governor general’s chief adviser and takes sole responsibility for major matters, including advising the governor general when to dissolve Parliament.

The prime minister chooses from among members of Parliament of the majority party (or coalition) ministers to head the executive departments. The more important of these ministers make up the cabinet. One of the prime minister’s chief duties is to lead the federal Cabinet, a group of senior ministers. The prime minister plays a leading part in formulating general policy and acts as chief spokesperson of the government, both in Parliament and before the public. The prime minister and the cabinet hold power until their party or coalition loses its majority as the result of an election or is voted down in Parliament, in which case new elections are held.

Major political parties are the Liberal, National, and Labor parties.

The Commonwealth Parliament

The federal legislature is located in Canberra. The federal Cabinet is a group of government ministers who handle most of the policymaking in Australia. The department heads are called ministers. The implementation of government policy and programs is the personal responsibility of ministers. The heads of the major government departments and the prime minister make up the Cabinet.

The Cabinet plays a leading role in parliamentary debates and in passing bills through the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Cabinet or a Cabinet committee makes major decisions on government policy and programs. Cabinet members are responsible collectively for these decisions, and a minister resigns if unable to support them.

Officials known as secretaries, most of whom are professional administrators, administer the government departments. Secretaries of departments serve as the chief official advisers of ministers, and must carry out the policies set by the ministers.

The Cabinet usually establishes a number of standing committees to deal with a variety of matters.

Because there are no fixed guidelines for the Cabinet, it can conduct its business with flexibility, confidentiality, and informality. It concerns itself with policy rather than with the form of actions and legal documents. Cabinet decisions do not have legal force, however, until they are put into legal form. The legal form may be an act passed by Parliament, an Order in Council (decree issued by the sovereign), or a regulation requiring the assent (approval) of the governor general in the Federal Executive Council, a group of ministers who advise the governor general.

In appointing the ministers who make up the federal Cabinet, the governor general follows the advice of the prime minister. The Australian Labor Party elects prospective ministers at a party meeting. The party then leaves it to the prime minister to distribute portfolios (ministerial titles) and responsibilities to each of the individuals elected. Other parties that have formed governments, such as the Liberal Party of Australia, have given their leaders free choice in selecting ministers. It is normal for both houses of Parliament and every state to be represented in a ministry.

The Senate, the upper house, consists of 76 members, 12 from each state and 2 from each territory. The six states are divided into electorates on the basis of population. Each state has the same number of senators, regardless of population, so that the interests of states with fewer people will be protected. Each state forms a single electorate with preferential voting on a proportional system, in which each party gets a number of seats proportional to its share of the total votes cast.

Senators are chosen by direct election for six-year terms. The terms are staggered so that half the body stands for election every three years. Only half of the seats in the Senate are filled at each election. Voters of each state elect six senators for a term of six years. At the next election, they elect another six. If a senator resigns or dies, the Parliament of his or her state nominates a successor from the senator’s own party. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory each elect two senators for a three-year term at each House of Representatives election.

The House of Representatives is the lower house—that is, the branch of Parliament that more directly represents the people. General elections to the House of Representatives are held every three years unless Parliament is dissolved before its three-year term is over. Members are elected to single-member constituencies (voting districts) by a preferential voting system.

The House of Representatives has 150 members. The country is divided into constituencies based primarily on equal quotas, but with a margin of 10 percent for administrative purposes and to allow some grouping to preserve community interests. The Constitution also provides that none of the original six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—should have fewer than five members.

The Constitution further provides that the total number of members of the House of Representatives should number about twice the total number of senators. Two members of the House of Representatives are from the ACT, and two are from the Northern Territory. Since 1974, these two territories have had full voting rights. The ACT and Northern Territory members are not counted when calculating the required proportion between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Powers of Parliament

In general, the two houses of Parliament have similar powers—that is, either house can introduce legislation, express opinions, or carry resolutions on any subject. Both houses must give their assent to a bill before it becomes law. The two houses, however are not coequals. The House of Representatives is the controlling body; the Senate acts primarily as a house of review. If there is a prolonged disagreement between the Senate and the House of Representatives, however, both houses may be dissolved by the governor-general and an entirely new legislature elected.

If the majority party or ruling coalition in the House of Representatives lacks a majority in the Senate, then the Senate may try to block legislation passed by the lower house. If the Senate persists in its blockage, the governor general may dissolve both houses. If the deadlock continues after the subsequent elections, the houses hold a joint sitting to decide the issue. In practice, the Senate’s main work is revising rather than initiating legislation.

The monarch or governor general takes part in meetings of Parliament only at the opening of a session. The governor general reads a speech written by the prime minister that sets out the general policy of the government for that session.

The only way in which the monarch actually takes part in the work of Parliament is by assenting to bills that both houses have passed. The bills then become acts, also called statutes, forming part of the law of the country. The monarch or governor general always assents to bills, if advised to do so by the prime minister.

Statutory authorities are government agencies created by Acts of Parliament. They are not under the direct day-to-day control of ministers, but are subject to ministerial direction or advice concerning general policy. Many statutory authorities have a large degree of independence from government departments. Statutory authorities include the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which regulates television, radio, and the Internet, and the Australian Taxation Office, the national tax-collecting body.

The Judiciary

The High Court of Australia, consisting of a chief justice and six other justices, is the guardian and interpreter of the constitution. The High Court is the nation's court of final appeal. The other federal courts are the Federal Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia.

Division of Powers

The federal government exercises its constitutional power through Parliament. The Constitution specifies that Parliament has power to make laws on particular topics. These topics include overseas and interstate trade and commerce, taxation, telephone and postal services, defense, trading and financial corporations, and external affairs. Parliament has general control over public finance, tariffs, and aspects of commercial law that relate to bankruptcy, checks and money orders, patents, designs, trademarks, and copyrights. It has indirect powers in the areas of wages. The federal Parliament also has plenary (complete and unqualified) power in relation to the federal territories and Commonwealth places.

Each state government has the power to pass laws on almost any matter relevant to that state. Some of the powers of the federal government are exclusive—that is, only the federal government possesses them. Other federal powers are concurrent—that is, possessed by both the federal and the state governments. However, the Constitution provides that if a federal law conflicts with a state law, the federal law prevails, but only over the specific area of conflict.

The framers of the Constitution expected the federal and state governments to operate in largely independent areas, without much direct contact with each other. But the power of the federal government has increased for several reasons. Because the federal Parliament can impose forms of taxation that the states cannot, it quickly gained financial power over the states. The federal government collects nearly all the nation’s taxes and raises more than 70 percent of the total revenue. Each state receives a share of the federal tax income, and the states depend on such federal grants for the majority of their annual revenue. The federal government also gained much influence in deciding the size and distribution of government loans. Its power to arbitrate (act as a judge) in industrial disputes in more than one state has developed into a power to decide indirectly the basic wage standards for the whole country. In times of national emergency, as in war, the federal government controls nearly every feature of national life.

The federal government has exclusive powers concerning defense and foreign affairs, overseas trade, and finance. In some areas, the federal and state governments have concurrent powers—that is, both levels of government may act. The federal government prevails in case of a conflict. The states have only residual powers—that is, whatever powers are left. Even in their residual powers, the states could find federal actions overriding their powers. But generally, the states have powers in some important social areas that are little affected by federal activities. These areas include the basic civil law, which deals with the rights and obligations people have in their relations with one another. Civil law includes such matters as contracts, property, and civil wrongs, such as liability in vehicle accidents. The states control trade and commerce, except for aspects of commercial law regulated by the federal government, such as banking, insurance, copyright, and patents and trademarks. The states also control the general criminal law, urban planning, prevention of pollution, most forms of health services, and primary and secondary education. College and university education is a federal responsibility. Police and legal services, road maintenance, the regulation of most industrial and agricultural production, and the regulations of trade and professions also come under state control.

State and Territorial Government

Five of the six state parliaments consist of two houses. Queensland abolished its upper house in 1922 and has a single-chambered parliament called the Legislative Assembly. The upper house in each state is called the Legislative Council. The lower house in New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia is called the Legislative Assembly. In South Australia and Tasmania, the lower house is known as the House of Assembly. The Northern Territory and the ACT, like Queensland, have a single-chamber parliament called the Legislative Assembly. The government of each state has essentially the same structure as that of the Commonwealth. The representative of the Crown is called the governor and corresponds to the governor-general. The leader of the majority party or coalition in the legislature becomes the premier. Each state has a supreme court and a system of lower courts. In 1973, South Australia adopted a proportional voting system that uses the whole state as a single electorate for the election of its Legislative Council. New South Wales also adopted this system, phasing it in from 1978 to 1984, for its Legislative Council elections. Victoria, Western Australia, and Tasmania elect their legislatures from constituencies (voting districts within a state) by preferential voting. Tasmania elects its House of Assembly using a system of proportional representation in constituencies that send more than one member to the House. The lower houses of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory—and the Legislative Assembly of Queensland—are elected from single-member constituencies by preferential voting. A form of proportional representation is used to elect the Legislative Assembly in the ACT.

Most of the territories are administered by the federal government. The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory are self-governing.

Local Government

Vast areas of outback Australia are too thinly populated to have local government institutions. There are community councils for small Aboriginal groups living in the sparsely populated interior areas of the Northern Territory. Victoria, Tasmania, and the more densely settled areas of the other states are divided into local government areas.

In May 1989, self-government was established in the ACT. The ACT government is responsible for both state and local government functions and has its own parliament.

The local authorities have power to make local laws called bylaws and to carry on administrative services in relation to a wide range of matters of local concern. The main functions of local government are street building and maintenance; public works; regulation of building standards; public health and prevention of nuisances; garbage collection; local cultural activities; and the local aspects of town and country planning.


Beginning at age 18, citizens are required to vote in elections. Certain groups of people, such as those with mental incapacity or people, who are imprisoned for longer than a set period, are not allowed to vote. British citizens who enrolled as electors in Australia before January 1984 remain eligible voters. All eligible voters are required to register as electors and to vote. In every state except South Australia, those who do not vote may be fined. Women were given the right to vote by the federal government in 1902 and by all states by 1908. Australia originated the system of voting by official, secret ballot. This method was first put into effect by the Victoria legislature in 1856. By 1870 it was general in all Australian parliamentary elections, and it became known throughout the world as the Australian ballot.

Any citizen who is eligible to vote is also eligible to run for office, though citizens with dual nationality cannot become members of the federal Parliament. Candidates may be independents (members not belonging to a specific political party), but most belong to a political party, which gives its own candidates its endorsement and support. Parties receive some public funding to support their campaigns. The number of votes a party receives determines how much support it gets from public funds.

The period between one general election and the next is called a parliament. This use of the word is misleading because general elections affect only the House of Representatives and half the Senate. A parliament is usually divided into sessions, but the law does not require this division. Sessions vary greatly in length. Both houses must sit at least once a year. As a rule, the House of Representatives sits (is in session) from 15 to 40 weeks a year, in two main periods. These periods extend from February to March, May to June, and from August to December. The Senate sits at roughly the same times as the House of Representatives and often sits for slightly longer periods.


Australia maintains a regular army, navy, and air force. In addition, all three services have reserve forces. Compulsory military service was in effect until 1972, when conscription was ended.