Focus question 1: What role do political parties have in parliament and government?
Teaching and learning activities
Are you looking forward to being able to vote?
When you turn 18 the Australian Electoral Commission will remind you that you should enrol as a voter for Commonwealth, State and local elections. You will be reminded that voting is compulsory in Australia for all citizens aged between 18 and 70.
When you finally go to the polling booth in the local school or hall one Saturday to vote for, say, the Commonwealth Parliament, the first people you are likely to meet are members of the various political parties who are handing out how-to-vote cards which show you how to vote for their party's candidate or list of candidates.
Parties are important in our political system. They provide voters with alternative views about how the country should be governed. They put forward candidates to run for parliament. They shape the way the country is governed.
1a As a class, list the Australian political parties you know of. Include the names of any party leaders you know.
1b Individually, write in your workbook a list of issues, big and small, that concern you about the society you live in or the world around you.
1c Contribute one of your issues to a class list which your teacher may put on the board.
1d As a class, discuss which issues in your class list are ones that political parties are likely to have a view about. For example, is any political party likely to have a view about the magazines that are stocked in your school library? What about whether Australia should be trading with a country that does not respect the human rights of citizens?
Policies of political parties
What political parties decide to do about an issue is called their policy. The major parties each put forward policies on a range of issues such as some of those you discussed. Their policies are influenced by their basic beliefs about what makes a good society and by their desire to win as many votes as possible so that they can get into government and put their views into practice.
Along with the major parties who present policies on a range of issues, are small and single-issue parties whose main purpose in gaining a seat in parliament is to press a particular issue such as the environment. Outside the political parties are independent candidates who, if they become Members of Parliament, sometimes speak and vote with the government and sometimes against it according to how they see the issue.
When you come to cast your vote you may be influenced by:
- which party's policies improve the country
- which party's policies will make you or your group better off financially
- what you think of the party leaders.
But how do parties fit into the whole business of government?
People, parliament and political parties
In Australia there are three main steps in the forming of a democratic parliamentary government. The process described here is for the national or Commonwealth Government. Similar processes take place at State level. Refer to The Commonwealth Government poster as you read through this briefing.
1. The people elect a parliament
At a general election, citizens over 18 vote for candidates to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
House of Representatives
For the House of Representatives, a district of about 75,000 people, called an electorate, elects one person as its representative for one parliamentary term - usually of three years. There are therefore more members in the House of Representatives from States with big populations than from States with small populations. Voters usually choose the candidate from the party they think will best represent their interests. Although they often know little about their candidates, they choose them on the basis of the party they represent and what the party says it will do in government. The elected representative in the parliament must therefore support the interests of their electorate and the views of their party.
The Senate has 12 Senators elected from every State, no matter how big or small the State's population, and 2 from each Territory. Senators are elected to Parliament for twice the length of time as members of the House of Representatives, usually for six years. At each federal election, only half the total number of Senators is elected.
Because the two Houses are elected in different ways and for different lengths of time, it often happens that one party or coalition has a majority in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate.
It is also possible for an independent member of the parliament - or a small party - to have the 'balance of power'. This means that the government depends on the small party or independent member to vote with it to get enough votes in parliament to pass new laws. This is more likely to occur in the Senate than in the House of Representatives because of the voting system used to elect Senators.
2. The parliament forms a government
The group with the most candidates elected to the House of Representatives forms the government. This majority group can be a single party, such as the Australian Labor Party, or a coalition of two or more parties, such as the Liberal Party and the National Party, who agree to join together to form the government. Since the 1940s Australia has had either a Labor Party government or a coalition (Liberal and National parties) government.
The largest minority party or coalition becomes the opposition.
The leader of the governing party becomes the prime minister who chooses a small number of members as ministers to take charge of government departments that administer areas such as education, defence and health. The senior ministers form a cabinet, which meets regularly to make most of the decisions of
government such as deciding what Bills will be introduced to Parliament, how to respond to crises, how to get the government message through to the electorate, or deciding how to handle a debate in parliament.
The opposition leader chooses 'shadow' ministers from among the party's elected members.
3. The government governs the nation
The government turns its party policies into legislation to be passed by parliament. It also ensures the government departments, each headed by a minister, continue to do their work and implement any new government policies.
The government also appoints judges and advises the monarch on the appointment of the governor-general.
A government that does not have a majority in the Senate has to negotiate with the opposition or smaller parties or independents and accept that some government legislation will be amended, delayed or rejected in the Senate.
Activity 2: Who forms the government?
2a Party strength in the two Houses is shown below for two separate occasions, in each case just after an election for all members of the House of Representatives and for half the members of the Senate.
2b Work out which party or parties will form the government:
2c Can the government be sure that its Bills will pass in the Senate:
2d What are the benefits to the Liberal and National parties of forming a coalition?
2e Why does each State have equal numbers in the Senate? Is this democratic? Explain your answer.
2f The Senate has the power to recommend changes to proposed legislation and also eventually to reject proposed legislation from the House of Representatives. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Senate having the power to reject proposed legislation from the House of Representatives?
Activity 3: Who does what in government?
3a In your workbook define the following terms: electorate, party, government, prime minister, minister, cabinet, House of Representatives, Senate.
3b List who performs each of the following ten important political activities: the people, all parties, a single party, the prime minister or the cabinet. Write your answers as, for example, 1 Single party.
- Select and support a candidate to stand for the House of Representatives or the Senate.
- Elect members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- Choose the prime minister.
- Make most of the decisions of government such as converting party policy into proposed laws (Bills) for debate in parliament.
- Choose ministers.
- Decide how Members of Parliament should vote.
- Succeed in having legislation passed.
- Change the prime minister.
- Dismiss a minister.
- Decide how the government should deal with a particular issue in the parliament.
3c Discuss your answers in class.
Why have political parties?
Political parties began as groups of parliamentarians who agreed to vote the same way. In the twentieth century, parties developed organisations outside the parliament. The party organisations select their candidates to stand for parliament (a process called pre-selection) and organise campaigns to win elections. Political parties expect their members in parliament (the 'parliamentary party') to stick to party policies.
Parties ensure that the government does not keep changing. In a parliament without a strong party system, no one group consistently has the numbers to pass legislation, which means lots of elections, frequent changes in the governing group and unstable government of the country. For example, before Federation, when the Australian colonies came together to create the Australian national government, colonial governments changed frequently. In South Australia there were 42 governments in the 45 years between 1856 and 1901.
Because of the support they get from party branches, party candidates do not have to be wealthy in order to stand for parliament.
Parties make it easy for voters to know what policies a candidate is likely to support and, if the party wins, who will be prime minister.
A government can ignore criticism in the House of Representatives because it will always have the numbers to defeat the opposition.
Decisions are often made in the party room and not in the chamber.
The practice of members always voting with their party (particularly strong in Australia) means that, if necessary, members will put their party views ahead of the interests of the people in their electorate.
Because members depend on the party for pre-selection and support, they can be more concerned with surviving in the party than representing the people of their electorate.
Activity 4: Defining and explaining
4a Enter the list of advantages and disadvantages in your workbook, explaining each in your own words.
4b Think of catchy ways to sum up each point, for example, 'Parties mean stable government'.
Australian political parties are noted for their discipline. While parliamentary members of any party may argue their views about an issue or proposed policy among themselves, once in parliament they nearly always vote the same way. Once a decision has been made within the party room, all members are expected to present a uniform view on the issue in public - even if they do not personally agree with it and have argued against it within the party room.
Only occasionally do parties let members vote according to their own individual position. In these cases the party does not have a view. This is called a 'conscience vote'. For example, in 1996, federal parliamentarians voted as individuals on the question of euthanasia.
Parties are able to enforce discipline for several reasons:
- When joining a political party, members pledge or promise to support the principles and policies of that party. Members who regularly disagree with their party usually leave it. A member of the Labor Party who votes against the party in parliament is expelled.
- At each election, the parties select and endorse candidates. A member who had not voted with the party during the previous parliament would probably not be re-endorsed. It is very hard to win a seat in parliament without being an endorsed party candidate.
- A minister who disagrees publicly with a party decision is expected to resign as a minister and take a place on the 'back benches'.
(The prime minister and ministers sit on the front benches on one side of the parliament. The opposition, including the shadow ministers, sit on the front benches of the other side. Other parliamentarians, who sit further back are called 'backbenchers'. They have more freedom to express their opinions or to criticise their party leadership.)
Activity 5: Loyalty to party or electorate?
Should the first loyalty of elected representatives be to their political party or to the electorate? Read the following fictitious scenario.
In groups, use the process outlined below to work out what you, as MP for Mill, would do in this situation. At the end of the group session, one of your group should state their position to the class. Other members of the group should explain the reasons for the MP's decision.
First discuss the following questions in your small group:
- Is it a good policy for the needs of the city as a whole?
- Do most people vote for a candidate because of the policies of their party or because of the candidate's ability to represent the electorate in parliament? (Refer to Briefing 1a, point 1.)
- What is likely to happen to the member's political career if they do not support the party policy? What would be their prospects of becoming a minister? (Refer to Briefing 1c.)
- Are the interests of the electorate best served by the member staying in parliament and trying to get the best deal for their people? Or are they best served by the member taking a stand against their party and the government. This will undoubtedly create lots of media attention and perhaps cause the government to change the policy or the route of the train line.
Now decide what to do. Some options are:
- Support the party but try to make sure that those affected in the electorate are well compensated.
- Support the party publicly but work behind the scenes to change the route of the train.
- Oppose the party publicly, arguing that the train line should not be going through the electorate.
- Resign from the party in order to oppose the party policy.
Can you think of any other courses of action?
Activity 6: Is the party in government an elected dictatorship?
The party in government always has the numbers to outvote the opposition in the House of Representatives. If you visit the House of Representatives in Canberra when parliament is sitting, you may find very few members there. But, when a vote is to be taken, bells ring and members flood in. Even though most members haven't heard the speeches, all the Liberal Party and National Party members vote one way and all the Labor Party members vote the other way. The votes are entirely predictable.
Does that mean that the government party can do anything? Is it in fact an elected dictatorship?
6a After looking at the following newspaper clippings, make a list of the different ways in which the government must answer to the public for its policies. (Note: these clippings have been created for this exercise.)
6b Contribute your answers to a blackboard list.
6c As a class discuss other ways that governments can be influenced to change their policies. Add these measures to your blackboard list. Keep a copy of the list in your workbook.
Activity 7: How diverse are the voices in parliament?
Because of a special voting system for the Senate, small parties and independent members have a much stronger representation in the Senate than they do in the House of Representatives.
7a Undertake the activity 'Pass the Bill' on the Parliament at Work CD ROM.
7b Investigate and write a report on which parties are currently represented in the Senate and which of them in the House of Representatives. Your investigation should cover the items below. Turn each item into a separate section of your report, with a subheading for each section.
- Work out the number of members of each party in (a) the Senate and (b) the House of Representatives; and also the number of independent members.
- Choose two parties that have (or have had) a seat in the Senate but not in the House of Representatives. What do these two parties stand for?
- Who are the independent members in the Senate and what do they stand for?
- When a vote is taken in the Senate, are alliances forged between any small parties or independents and the major parties? (Draw on your experience with the 'Pass the Bill' interactive on the Parliament at Work CD ROM.
- If the House of Representatives were more like the Senate, would the government more clearly represent the different interest groups in the community?
- If the House of Representatives were more like the Senate, would it be able to pass its proposed legislation?
Use the database on the Parliament at Work CD ROM and the website to undertake research for your report. Useful Internet sites include:
The Parliamentary Education Office: http://www.peo.gov.au/
The Parliament of Australia: http://www.aph.gov.au/
This site includes a variety of links to other sites including all major political parties.
7c Undertake the parliamentary quiz on the Parliament at Work CD ROM.
Write a report on a topic approved by your teacher about the political parties in another country. Use encyclopedias, books, websites and the Stories of Democracy CD ROM.
Develop a pamphlet for new citizens of Australia. It should outline:
- how the government is elected and the prime minister selected
- the role of parties in Australia's political system, for example:
their role at elections
their role in parliament
the role of the party or parties in government and the party or parties in
- how parties influence government action.
Your work will be assessed on:
- clear, accurate and complete explanations
- appropriate use of all briefings and activities within this section (1) of the unit.
Back to 'Parties Control Parliament - At a glance'