Ministers meet together as the cabinet. In the Commonwealth government where there are a large number of ministers, there is an inner and outer ministry. Only the members of the inner group constitute the cabinet. If it is to work effectively it cannot be too large; at more than 13 or 14 members it becomes a meeting rather than a working body. Ministers who are outside the cabinet are called in to meetings when a decision has to be taken in the area of their portfolio (the name of a ministers responsibility). In the States and Territories all ministers are members of the cabinet.
The meetings of a cabinet are where the decisions of the executive government are taken. To execute means simply to carry out, but the executive now does much more than administer the laws passed by parliament.
It decides what bills will be introduced into parliament. Theoretically any member may introduce a bill for a new law, but except in very rare circumstances only those bills introduced and backed by the government have any chance of becoming law. This is the effect of the government having a guaranteed majority in at least the lower house due to the strength of party discipline. This kills off bills coming from any other quarter: the opposition or minor parties. Unless the government controls both houses, it cannot be sure its bills will become law. It can be sure that no one elses will.
On moral questions sometimes both major parties will agree to give their members a free vote. Then a law on abortion or euthanasia, for example, may be introduced by a backbencher and become law. This is called a private members bill.
Modern laws delegate much power to ministers which is exercised by the issuing of regulations. So ministers individually or meeting together as cabinet can vary laws by issuing new regulations. Sometimes if a government bill has been defeated in the upper house, the minister may announce that some of the changes it was going to make will be done instead by regulation.
The administration of the law is performed by public servants who work in the various government departments. A department also advises its minister about policy; it may explain that a policy that the minister has advocated cannot be made to work or will cost much more than was expected. It will also advise the minister on how proposals being put forward by other ministers will affect the matters dealt with by his or her department. This will enable the minister to be better informed for a debate in cabinet.
In order that public servants could give impartial advice to ministers, and if necessary speak against their policies, they used to enjoy security in their job. The department remained the same and ministers came and went. Now the public service is run more like a business. Ministers appoint the people to be in charge of their departments and expect them to carry out their wishes. Senior public servants no longer enjoy security in their job.
The leading members of the chief opposition party form a shadow cabinet with individual members being appointed as shadow ministers. They watch or shadow the real ministers. A shadow minister must learn about the responsibilities of the real minister and be able to criticise the ministers actions and show that the opposition party would handle matters better. The shadow ministry is one of the great strengths of the parliamentary system. Electors and the media can watch and assess the alternative government and decide whether it would be better than the ministers who hold office.
The courts are the third arm of government. The legislature (parliament) passes the laws; the executive (the ministers) carries them out; the judiciary (the judges) assesses whether the laws are being obeyed. If the laws have been broken, the courts may punish the offender or issue orders that the law must be obeyed.
Governments (that is, the ministers) have to obey the law like everyone else. That goes without saying for their private actions; the more important principle is that in their governing they must also obey the law. If they dont they can be taken to court and the court will order them to obey the law. This is the principle of the rule of law. The government has its own lawyers, the law officers, to advise on the legality of their actions.
The rule of law is a daily miracle. The government is subject to a higher power, the law. The judges, who interpret the law, are appointed by the government, but in order that they may be independent of the ministers they cannot be sacked by the government. They can be dismissed only by a vote of both houses of parliament. It is very rare for a judge to be dismissed.
Our legal system is part of the common law system which originated in England and is followed by many countries colonised by England, including the United States. In this system parts of the law have been developed by the judges, who are constantly adjusting and amending it. This part of the law is called common law and is distinct from statute law which is the law as passed by parliament.
In criminal trials the judges over the centuries have developed the rules to ensure a fair trial. The most important of these is that the accused is innocent until proved guilty. The jury system was also introduced by judges many centuries ago in England as the body which would determine guilt or innocence.
Parliament is the supreme law-making body. That is, statute law prevails over common law. Parliament can alter the common law and remove rights established by it. Some parliaments have changed the law on juries to allow for majority verdicts and to remove the jury from some trials.
The High Court, as its name suggests, is the highest court in the land. As well as interpreting the constitution it is the final court of appeal from other courts.
The head of state
The head of state for the Commonwealth and the States is the Queen of the United Kingdom whose title for these functions is Queen of Australia. The actual duties of the office are carried out for the Commonwealth by the governor-general and for the States by governors. The governor-general is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. A State governor is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the premier.
The governor-general and the governors are formally the head of the executive government. They appoint the ministers and the prime minister or premier. They meet with ministers in the Executive Council which formalises those decisions of cabinet which need to be put in legal form, as in the issuing of new regulations or the appointment of a judge. The governor-general and the governors here act on the advice of ministers, though they have the right to call for more information and query what the ministers are doing. Their signature is also required on a bill before it can become law. This is called the royal assent. Again, they sign the bill if they are advised to do so by ministers.
The practice of governor-general and governors acting on advice of ministers is a convention, not a law. In strict legal terms their powers are still extensive, and by convention sometimes they can use their powers without the advice of ministers or even against the advice of ministers. These are called the reserve powers. These include the right to dismiss a government which is acting illegally or unconstitutionally, to refuse an early election to a prime minister or premier who has lost majority support in the lower house, and to choose a prime minister where no one party has a clear majority in the house (if the prime minister so chosen could not acquire majority support, he or she would have to resign). In such situations the governor-general and the governors are the stabilisers and protectors of the system.
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