Primer On Politics In Australia

This primer on politics in Australia is meant to be used as a starting point to help you get a better understanding of who can do what.

While not meant to be exhaustive, this page will be added to and updated, depending on the questions that are asked, etc.

The Westminster System

The Westminster System is one of the oldest and most stable systems of government in existence today.

The system gets its name from Westminster Palace, where Britain’s parliament meet.

Like the government in Britain, Australia has a bicameral system, featuring two houses of parliament.

An Upper House called the Senate, and a Lower called the House of Representatives.

Though, unlike the British version, members of both houses are popularly elected.

Queensland is the only state of Australia to feature a unicameral system. (Unicameral means one chamber. Other states are bicameral, meaning two chambers).

The Commonwealth of Australia

The Commonwealth of Australia, as it is officially known, is made up of six independent self-governing States. Prior to Federation in 1901, the States were separate colonies. While the two territories are self-governing with their own parliaments, the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to repeal or modify any legislation passed by a territorial parliament.


The Commonwealth’s “power”, ability to make laws, comes from section 51 of the Australian Constitution.

If it is not mentioned in those sections, any laws passed with regards to that area would be deemed unconstitutional, and most likely dismissed if challenged in the High Court.

For example, the Commonwealth has no power to pass laws relating to motor vehicles. Heavy vehicles like trucks and trailers are different, due to the States agreeing to hand that power over to the Commonwealth.

Though, the Commonwealth is able to pass laws relating to marriage as that is mentioned in s51(xxi). Along with unemployment benefits due to being mentioned in s51(xxiiiA).

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the “lower house”, and is where the government is formed.

This is usually made up of the party or coalition of parties that have at least 76 members. To remain in power, the party or coalition of parties must maintain a majority in the house. (There are 150 seats in the House).

The leader of the party who controls the lower house becomes the Prime Minister. (This is effectively a ceremonial position as they don’t have any constitutional “power”. The role of Prime Minister isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, though is accepted through convention).

The current term of the House of Representatives expires 3 years after its first meeting but can be dissolved earlier by the Governor-General under advice from the government of the day.

The exception is where “supply” has been blocked by the Senate, and the Governor-General dismisses the parliament. (This is what happened to the Whitlam Government).

The Senate

The Senate is the Upper House and is thought of like a house of review.

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate’s membership is based on state representation. Each state has 12 senators and each of the two territories has 2, giving a total of 76.

Senators serve fixed six-year terms, with each term beginning on July 1 and ending on June 30 six years later.

The Constitution stipulates that Senate elections take place every three years and that elections for the Senate can only take place in the 12 months prior to the expiry of senators’ terms.

This means that the Senate has a rotating membership, with half of each state’s representation facing the electorate every three years in a half-Senate election.

The Senate may be dissolved, along with the House of Representatives in the event of a deadlock between the two houses.

This is called a Double Dissolution Election

The States

As mentioned above, prior to Federation, the States were separate, self-governing colonies.

Queensland by only having a lower house differs from the other states that have both an upper and lower house of parliament.

Unlike the Commonwealth, the State’s Lower House is called the Legislative Assembly, with the upper house being the Legislative Council.

Members of the houses are either called Members of Parliament (MP) or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), or Member of Legislative Council (MLC). They are not Senators.


As mentioned early, the States have the power to pass a law relating to any area, unless it is listed in s51 or has been handed to the Commonwealth. Examples of this would be heavy vehicle licensing and registration, and industrial relations.

While the states are essentially self-governing, the Commonwealth doesn’t have any constitutional authority to overrule legislation passed in a State Parliament.

The exception to this is certain matters relating to areas where Australia is a signatory to and ratified an international treaty. For more information on this, I recommend looking at the Franklin Dam High Court case.