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Focus question 4: How do the people rule in Australia?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Population and democracy ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: The House of Representatives and the Senate ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Voting ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: More direct democracy for Australia? ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: Stories of Democracy CD ROM ESL Activity 5
Assessment task 1: Interview - How do principles of democracy affect decision making in your life? ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  
Assessment task 2: Class debates  
Assessment criteria  

Aristotle, who saw problems with any one type of government, recommended a mixture. Australia today has one kind of mixture: representative democracy.

Activity 1: Population and democracy

1a Using an up-to-date atlas, a Year Book or information from the local council, find out the size of the population of:

1b What do you think would be some of the main differences between ruling a tiny country with a population of 10,000, 50,000 or even 250,000 people as in ancient Greece, and ruling a large population of 18,000,000 like Australia has? Discuss this question in a group or with the whole class.


Athens was a direct democracy, because citizens voted directly on laws and decisions. Australia is so big in both area and population that it would be impossible to govern it in exactly the same way as was done in ancient Athens.

Australia is what is called a representative democracy. This means that, instead of voting directly on each law or decision, we vote for another person to represent us. Instead of every citizen going to the assembly to vote, we send someone else to do it for us.

Remember that in Athens only men could be citizens, and only if they and their parents had been born in Athens. Slaves could not be citizens.

In Australia today people born here are automatically citizens. Adults who have been permanent legal residents for at least two years are entitled to apply for citizenship. If you are an Australian citizen, you have the right and duty to vote to elect people to represent your views.

Australia is one of the very few countries in the world where voting is compulsory.

1c What other examples of representative democracy do you know? (Where else do people vote for others to represent them?)

The Australian Parliament

The assembly in Australia that makes the decisions for the nation - the Australian (or Commonwealth) Parliament - is located in Canberra. The Australian Parliament is divided into two houses:

The House of Representatives and The Senate maps

House of Representatives

Australia is divided into areas called electorates with about 75,000 voters in each. In this way each voter carries equal importance. The candidate who gets the most votes in each electorate becomes the Member of Parliament for that electorate. The government of Australia is always the group that has the most members in the House of Representatives.


In voting for the Senate, each state, rather than each voter, is counted as equal. Each State elects 12 Senators with the Territories electing two each.

Maps from The House of Representatives and The Senate, The Commonwealth Parliament series, Parliament of Commonwealth of Australia, AGPS, Canberra 1987. Commonwealth of Australia copyright. Reproduced with permission.

Why have two Houses of Parliament?

There are three reasons for having two Houses of Parliament instead of one.

Limiting democracy

You have already seen that some people in ancient Athens did not agree with democracy. In Britain one House of Parliament (called the House of Commons) is democratic, but any new law has to go through another house of parliament (called the House of Lords) which represents an aristocracy. In Australia in the 1800s, some people thought that Australia should develop its own aristocracy.

In the past it was often feared that ordinary people were too stupid to vote for the best people, or that they would be taken in by exaggerated promises, resulting in bad government. One way of controlling the power of ordinary people was to have a second House of Parliament representing only people who owned land. In Australia, until the 1960s, some States continued to have a second House of Parliament representing only people who owned land.

Making sure that small states are not dominated by states with big populations

When the Australian colonies were deciding whether they would agree to join together and become one nation, the colonies with the smaller populations were worried that they would be dominated by the colonies with bigger populations.

This problem was solved by having two Houses of Parliament, with the second House representing the States. This House, as we have seen, is the Senate, where each State has exactly the same number of senators. The two Territories are also represented, but by fewer Senators.

Re-checking new laws

It is often argued that the best reason for having the Senate is to have all proposed laws checked once again to make sure they are good ones.

For any new law to come into force, it must get a majority of votes in both Houses of Parliament.

Activity 2: The House of Representatives and the Senate

2a In your own words, write in your workbook the three main reasons for having two Houses of Parliament.

2b Which of these do you think are good reasons? Explain your answer.

2c Which of these do you think are bad reasons? Explain your answer.

This is a much more complicated system than that in ancient Athens, as you can see by looking at Figure 4.

Figure 4 Democracy in ancient Athens and Australia today

Democracy in ancient Athens and Australia today

Democracy in ancient Athens and Australia today

How we vote

The secret ballot

In ancient Athens, everybody voted on all of the important decisions by raising their hands. Spartans voted by shouting out as loud as they could.

One problem with those methods is that everyone would know how you voted. That would make it easy for other people to threaten or bribe you to vote a certain way.

Australia solved this problem about 150 years ago by having secret ballots, the first time anywhere that governments were elected in this way. This means no-one else need know how you vote. It is now regarded as a very important part of a democracy throughout the world.

Preferential voting

When we vote in Australia, we do not vote for just one person (candidate). We list the candidates in our preferred order. If no-one gets more than half of all the votes, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated but the second preference on those ballot papers is given to the other candidates. The process continues until one candidate wins. This ensures that whoever is elected has some support even among voters who did not put that person first.

Example: Voting results in the electorate of Mill

First preference votes
Frederico Puccini 12,000
Emily Russeau 10,000
Thuy Nguyen 8,000
Total votes cast 30,000

Because Frederico got more votes than anyone else, in many countries he would be the winner. But in Australia, because he did not get more than half of all votes (15,000), the preferences of the lowest scorer, Thuy, are given to Frederico and Emily.

In this case, Frederico got 1,000 of the second preferences of those who voted for Thuy, and Emily got 7,000 of them. You could say that 17,000 voters preferred Emily, but only 13,000 preferred Frederico.

Number of votes, with second preferences
Frederico Puccini 13,000 (12,000 + 1,000)
Emily Russeau 17,000 - the winner (10,000 + 7,000)
Total votes cast 30,000

Activity 3: Voting

3a In other countries, such as Britain, Frederico would be the winner. In Australia, Emily would win. Which system do you think is the fairest?


3b Complete the activity on preferential voting on the Parliament at Work CD ROM.

3c When have you had to vote for something? Describe what happened in one case.

3d Do you think it was a good way of reaching the decision? Explain why.

Direct democracy in Australia

Although Australia is a representative democracy, there are occasions when we use direct democracy. That is, the people are asked directly whether they agree with a proposal for change rather than the decision just being made in a parliament.

Changing the Australian Constitution

When the Australian colonies agreed to join together to form one nation, a constitution was written to set out how the States and the new Commonwealth would be governed. The Constitution sets up the Commonwealth Parliament and the federal courts.

The Constitution can only be changed by a referendum. In Australia a referendum is a process where the parliament proposes a change to the Constitution. The people then vote on the proposal. A majority of voters and a majority of States must agree to the proposal for it to become law. In 1967 the Constitution was amended to include Aboriginal people in the census and to give the Commonwealth Parliament power to legislate on Aboriginal affairs. However, only 8 of 42 referendums have been successful.

State-initiated referendums

Some people say that the States should be able to initiate a referendum to change the Constitution. The suggestion is that the rules would be something like:

  • more than half of the State Parliaments would have to agree to the suggested change
  • the populations of the States proposing the change would have to be a majority of the Australian population.

If these two conditions were met, the suggested changes would need to go to the Australian people to vote on as a referendum within six months. The argument for this is that the States are an important part of the Commonwealth and should be able to propose changes to the Constitution.

Changing State and Territory constitutions

Each State and Territory has its own constitution. How these are changed depends on the State or Territory. For some changes to constitutions in some States and Territories a referendum may be necessary but in many cases these can be changed by a majority vote in one or both Houses of Parliament.

Asking the people about a particular issue

Direct democracy can also be used in Australia when governments want to ask the people directly their views about an issue which is not a change to the Constitution. This is called a plebiscite. A plebiscite was held in 1977 about the national anthem. Australians were asked to choose between ‘God Save the Queen’, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, ‘Song of Australia’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ won after preferences were distributed and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ came second.

Should there be more direct democracy in Australia?

Some people believe that people do not get enough say in our representative democracy. They say that voters only get a choice every few years about their member of parliament and about a package of policies or promises that the member will put into practice if they become part of the new government.

These people argue that citizens cannot directly propose or oppose laws except by putting pressure on their member of parliament and that we should have more direct say in particular issues of decisions.

Citizen-initiated referendums

We cannot all go down to the local town centre as the ancient Athenians did. Our nations and our states are too big for that. Citizen-initiated referendum is one way for citizens to have a direct say in government decisions where there are large populations. Two of the things citizen-initiated referendum can do are:

  • allow citizens to propose a new law
  • allow citizens to vote against laws passed by parliament.

Some countries that have citizen-initiated referendum have one of the above and others have both.

Citizen-initiated referendum in three countries

The Swiss have had citizen-initiated referendum for over 100 years and in that time have voted on more than 300 issues. In 1977 the people rejected a proposal by the government for a new kind of tax. In 1984 they rejected another government proposal to reduce the working week from 42 hours to 38 hours.

United States

In the United States many states have some form of citizen-initiated referendum. In California during the 1990 elections, voters had to deal with a ballot paper with 20 referendum questions and 144 pages containing arguments for and against each referendum proposal.

In the 1960s the Californian government passed a law that real estate agents and owners of apartment houses could not use racial discrimination against people who wanted to rent or buy apartments or houses. The real estate agents initiated a referendum to overturn this law so that they could discriminate against people in this way. The real estate agents won.

Four states have voted to bring back the death penalty through referendum. Anti-gun laws have been introduced in several states.


In Italy the citizens can only initiate a referendum to vote against a law passed by the government. They cannot initiate a referendum to propose a law. In 1991 Italian people voted to remove a law which prohibited divorce.

How citizen-initiated referendum could work

This is how citizen-initiated referendum could work in a state or a nation:

Step 1

Some people in the community want a new law or to remove an existing law. They collect a number of petitions of registered voters and take them to the electoral office (say 1 per cent of voters in a majority of electorates in order to move to the next step).

Step 2

Parliamentary officers prepare a proposed law.

Step 3

The proposed law is debated in the parliament. If the parliament does not pass the proposal, it moves to Step 4.

Step 4

A referendum is held and if a majority of voters in a majority of electorates support the proposal, it becomes law.

Computer voting?

In an age of the televised debate, phone-in casting of votes and computer technology the possibilities for more direct citizen say and involvement in popular debate are certainly here. But some say that there is no way to ensure that people are able to cast their votes in private and without being influenced by other people. So the will or views of all the voters cannot be known by this means.

What other problems might be associated with this? What might the positive aspects be?

Figure 5 Should Australia have more direct democracy?

Arguments against more direct democracy
Arguments for more direct democracy
People already have a choice between members of parliament and the government programs they support. People have more say about particular issues. Sometimes politicians of opposite sides agree among themselves on a policy they know the people don’t support.
People already have to vote for federal, state and local governments. They don’t want to have to go to polling booths more often. Electronic voting is not a realistic option; it has too many problems. Electronic media allows debate and voting among large populations without any need for people to come to one place.
People have an opportunity, apart from elections through community and lobby groups to influence governments and governments are often guided by opinion polls. Governments and parties can still play a role as they do today.
Citizen campaigns can more easily be led by people or groups with money - meaning wealthy groups have too much influence. Individual citizens or groups of citizens who propose change may not have the interest or the ability to make proposals in the best interests of all the different groups in the country or state. Politicians are not the only people who are expert in making decisions for the nation as a whole. As people become more involved they become more expert.
Representative governments should look after the interests of minorities as well as the majority that voted for them. The people may be more influenced by prejudice or less concerned about minority rights. Representative governments have not always looked after the interests of minority groups.
Once the people had voted on a citizen-initiated referendum it would have to become law. There would be no opportunity for the parliament to review the proposed legislation or make changes before it became law. There is no reason to think that citizens will be any better or worse than governments.

Activity 4: More direct democracy for Australia?

4a Contribute to a class discussion about whether we should have more direct democracy in Australia. Use the examples from the countries with citizen-initiated referendums and the arguments for and against more direct democracy in Figure 5 to assist your discussion.

4b Write one paragraph stating your view clearly and using examples to support your view.

4c Look back to Focus question 2, Activity 1 where some arguments are given against democracy in ancient Athens. Are any of those arguments used in the table above?

Activity 5: Stories of Democracy CD ROM


Complete the ‘Should the People Rule?’ activity on the Stories of Democracy CD ROM to revise work done so far in this unit.

Assessment task 1: Interview - How do principles of democracy affect decision making in your life?

What groups do you belong to? How do they make decisions?

1 Find out about one of these groups in your local area by interviewing a member who understands how the group is organised.

If you don’t know of somebody in one of these groups, look for a group in the phone book. Ring them up and ask if it would be possible to interview someone who knows how the group makes decisions.

Your teacher will help you prepare what you will need to say to organise the interview. It is a good idea to use a tape recorder as well as writing notes, because it is often much too hard to get everything written down. If you plan to use a tape recorder, always obtain permission to do so from the person you are to interview.

How to do the interview

You need a list of questions before you begin. Each question should be very clear, so that the person you are interviewing understands exactly what it is you wish to know. You should sometimes ask for examples, because these give more detail and often make the point easier to understand. Here are some sample questions to get you started:

You could also ask other questions such as why that person enjoys being a member.

2 Report on your interview. You should now write a summary of what you found out from your interview. This can then be presented to the class as a talk or in written form.

Assessment criteria

You will be assessed on:

Assessment task 2: Class debates

Your teacher will divide you into teams of three for this task. Each team will debate against one other team on one of the following topics:

One team should argue for the statement and the other team argue against the statement. There may need to be a toss of a coin to decide which team is on which side.

Use what you have learned from this unit to help you prepare your speeches.

Assessment criteria

Your team and its individuals will be assessed on:

ESL activities

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