Australia's system of government is a representative parliamentary democracy. Although it combines democracy with monarchy, sovereignty (the power to make decisions about how we are governed) resides with the people. All members of both Houses of Parliament are elected by the people. Our system of government derived largely from the British system which itself evolved as the power to govern shifted from the monarch to the parliament. The shift began around the time of King John.
King John reigned in England from 1199 to 1216. At this time parliament did not exist and John tried to rule as an absolute monarch. He could pass laws or levy taxes on his own authority. Many circumstances, but mostly the imposition of heavy taxes, created discontent among John's barons who eventually exacted from him a grant of liberties that the king could not lawfully violate. The document detailing these rights became known as Magna Carta or the Great Charter. It was signed and sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215, and is a major historical symbol of the curtailment of the governing power of the monarch. The rights protected by Magna Carta were essentially those of the upper classes.
The power of the monarchy was more seriously challenged in seventeenth-century England. King Charles I (reigned 1625-49) ruled by 'divine right' (the right given by God to the monarch to rule) and by 'the ancient constitution' (ancient customs and traditions but never written down). Charles precipitated dissent in his parliament by imposing taxes without parliament's consent and by advocating adherence to the ceremony and ritual of high-church Anglicanism in opposition to the Puritan majority of the House of Commons, who wanted a less ritualised religious observance.
A political impasse arose because parliament regularly endeavoured to gain more control of government and to become more powerful than the king. In 1642 civil war erupted. This ended with a revolution, the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of a republic under the guardianship of Oliver Cromwell in 1649. The power of parliament barely survived Cromwell's death, but with the restoration of the monarchy came new problems centred largely on the issue of Catholic emancipation and the likelihood of a Catholic succession. When the Protestant William of Orange peacefully invaded England its Catholic king, James II, fled. In the constitutional crisis that followed, parliament resolved to make William the king and his wife Mary, James II's daughter, queen. The parliament also devised and presented to William and Mary, before their coronation, a Declaration of Rights that altered the power of the monarchy forever. William and Mary became 'constitutional monarchs', which meant that the monarch remained the head of state but power now rested with the parliament.
To read more about the ideas in this unit refer to Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia.
Links to other learning areas