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Government and Politics in Australia

Australia is a Parliamentary democracy and a federation of states and territories, much like the USA. It is based on the Westminster system of Government. The states have the power to create many of their own laws in certain areas, but their laws must comply with (and are subordinate to) Federal law. Within the states there are also local authorities (or councils) and these are much like counties in the USA or the UK. However, these councils really only look after low-level community management like roads, rubbish collection, parks and planning.

Composition of the Australian Government

There are three ‘arms’ to the Australian Government, often referred to as the Commonwealth or Federal Government. They are:

  • Federal Legislature
  • Executive Government
  • The Judiciary

Federal Legislature

The first arm of the Australian government is the legislature, which comprises Members of Parliament (politicians) in two Houses of Parliament. The House of Representatives is made up of 150 Members, each representing their own electorate of about 150,000 people. They are elected for three years – the term of Government.

The political party with the most number of MPs in the House controls Government and the MP who leads that party becomes Prime Minister – and therefore also the political leader of Australia.

The other House of Parliament is the senate. This is made up of 12 Senators from each of the six states and two from each of the two territories. Senators are meant to represent their state but in practice, also represent their political party. The Senate, much as the USA Senate or the UK’s House of Lords, is the place where legislation is reviewed. Senators are elected for six years.

British Role in Australian Government

While the Prime Minister is the political leader, the actual head of Australia is the reigning king or queen of the UK. The king or queen is represented in Australia by the Governor-General, can exercise vice-regal powers, including dissolving and dismissing Parliament and issuing assent to legislation. It’s mostly ceremonial but has been used controversially in the past, including the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

All legislation must be in accordance with the Australian Constitution and all Bills must be read three times before be voting into law. The constitution is a reasonably procedural document and contains no Bill of Rights, as in the USA. However, most rights exist by convention, as they do in the UK.

Executive Government

The second arm of Government is the executive. These are the people who are responsible for enacting and upholding the laws established by the legislature. The executive includes the Prime Minister and their Ministers, who are politicians with special responsibilities for certain areas of the law. In practice these politicians usually (but not always) come from the party (or coalition of parties) that holds Government. These politicians make up the Prime Minister’s Cabinet.

The Judiciary

The judiciary is the legal arm of the Government. It is independent completely independent of the legislature and the executive. It is responsible for enforcing and interpreting the laws created by the other two arms – and ensuring they are not making laws outside what is allowable under the constitution. The judiciary refers to the court system and judges.

The Australian legal system is based on the English system and there is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial. Equality before the law is a tenant of the Australian legal system. Everyone has the right to legal representation in a court of law and a right to access the legal system when they need it.

The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the land and has Federal jurisdiction and mostly hears appeals from lower courts. These courts are mostly state-based and deal with specific kinds of matters. They include various Supreme Courts, the Federal Court, the Family Court and – at the lowest level – the Magistrate’s Court. The latter is where criminal matters are first heard. Small misdemeanours are dealt with at this level while others are escalated for trial, and so on.

States and Territories

Australia’s six states and two territories have their own governments. The Constitution leaves them powers to make laws in certain areas, not controlled by the Federal Government. In turn, they each have their own legislatures, executives, judiciaries, governments and constitutions. They also have vice-regal appointments – or governors – who act for the king or queen.

Our Daily Life section has a detailed article on Local Government.

You can find more information about Australian Government and Politics or visit our Life in Australia section for more articles about living in Australia.

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