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Australian federal democracy: a chart

The Commonwealth constitution is sometimes called a Washminster system because it combines elements of the Washington (US) and Westminster (UK) systems of government.

From the United States came (1) the federal system with powers divided between central and State governments, (2) a court to settle disputes over their jurisdictions and (3) the structure of the federal legislature, a House of Representatives to represent the people and a Senate to represent the States. From the United Kingdom came responsible government, the practice of ministers being members of parliament and having to obtain majority support from the lower house.

Political scientists have argued over the relative strength of the two elements. The Westminster system provides for a government responsible to the parliament. The Washington system stresses the separation of powers (legislature, executive and judiciary) and checks and balances. Which is the predominant element in our system?

The political scientist Richard Lucy has argued in The Australian Form of Government: Models in Dispute that this argument is misconceived. It does not take account of the parties which exercise such a strong hold on our institutions. Instead of responsible government, we should think of responsible party government (with the government being responsible to the party room rather than to the parliament as a whole). Party government is in tension with those elements of the system which a federal government may not or cannot control – the Senate, the High Court, the States – though it has some influence over them. This he calls the division of powers.

This chart is an elaboration of this idea. It shows on the one side the operation of a party government with tensions between ministers and backbenchers and on the other the institutions which can thwart a party government. Information on the relationships displayed here can be found elsewhere in the book. The relationship between ministers and members in the governing party is discussed in ‘Australian parties’. The operation of the Senate is dealt with in ‘Constitution making’; the High Court in ‘English law in Australia’ and ‘Constitutional law’; the States in ‘Constitutional law’.

Of course the chart does not display all the forces that operate in the political system. It does avoid the unreality of those charts which depict only the formal institutions.

Australia Federal Democracy

Australian federal democracy

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