Despite being one of the world’s largest nations, Australia is rarely considered in the conversation amongst the world’s largest economies; partly due to being tucked away, miles away from its cultural peers, partly because of having a population smaller than that of Taiwan or Madagascar.
However, Australia is a vitally important member of the global community, being an active member of the G12, as one of the world’s largest economies, therefore understanding its confusing and unique politics is vitally important and relentlessly entertaining.
Political Makeup of Australia
Much like the United States, Australia is made up of a collection of states and territories, ruled together under a Federal Government, with the Prime Minister heading the government. Unlike the US, however (where the executive is separate from the legislature), the Australian system is based on the Westminster model, drawing its executive from whichever party gains the majority in the legislative branch – which comprises of a House of Representatives and a Senate.
The Federal Government
Most of the Australian political system operates akin to the United States, with a Federal Government, which has broad jurisdiction over national and international policies, but with states who have broad degrees of autonomy over more localised policies.
Perhaps the most unique part of the Australian system is the frequency of its elections – roughly every three years – one of the shortest turnarounds in the democratic world. This regularity of elections has been cited by several scholars as the reason for Australia’s turbulent governance, with no Prime Minister managing to face two consecutive elections since Kevin Rudd took the helm in 2007.
The highest court in Australia, the Australian High Court, acts as a supreme court for the nation, serving as the highest appeals court, and also holding powers of judicial review – where the judiciary can interpret the laws that have been passed by the legislature, or memoranda of the executive. Each state also has its own high court, which fall beneath the High Court of Australia,
The high court justices are officially appointed by the governor general of Australia – the Queen’s representative within the nation – and can serve until the age of 70, when they must retire. There are seven justices in the court, with the Chief Justice presiding over the others – currently Susan Kiefel holds the position of Chief Justice.
The House of Representatives acts in the same way as the UK House of Commons, representing individual constituencies, whilst the Senate is there to represent the various states and territories of the nation.
There are 131 members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Australian government, who are elected every three years. The ‘nexus clause’ of the constitution requires there to be approximately twice as many members of this chamber as there are of the Senate, although does not mandate the exact number who should sit in the chamber.
The chamber’s representatives are drawn from the different constituencies they represent, with roughly an equal number of constituents per representative, meaning that some in more rural areas will represent constituencies that are hundreds of square miles wide.
There are 76 Senators in Australia are elected, with an equal representation of 12 from each state, who serve for 6-year terms. The Senators who represent the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – where Canberra is located – and the Northern Territory – where Uluru is located – are elected. concurrently with the House of Representatives
As the upper chamber, the Senate is considered more prestigious, however, the prime minister is not drawn from this chamber, instead being the leader of the largest party in the House of Representatives. The Senate uses a Single Transferable Vote (STV) method for electing Senators (where second preferences are allocated), and as such has seen a number of minor parties represented, including the Australian Motor Enthusiast party, whose 2013 Victoria candidate Ricky Muir, was embroiled in a Kangaroo-poo flinging scandal.
The executive in Australia is not distinct from the legislature, with the prime minister and all ministers of the state being members of the legislature. This gives them significant influence over the parliamentary agenda, allowing the government to dominate the legislative process when in possession of a significant parliamentary majority.
However, the role of the prime minister is not outlined in the constitution, with the official head of state being the Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen, however, is represented in Australia by the Governor-General, who is appointed by her, on the recommendation of the Australian prime minister. The Governor-General has power to appoint diplomats, court justices and act on behalf of the Queen, to give Royal Assent to any legislation passed by the legislature – signing it into law.
The Governor-General is also given the power of Commander in Chief by the constitution; however, the position is largely ceremonial, rather than exercising real power, with any actions largely occurring at the advice of the prime minister.
The prime minister of Australia is almost always the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Representatives, with only one prime minister ever coming from the Senate, John Gorton in 1968.
Political parties of Australia
The turbulence in leadership has largely stemmed from internal fights within the major parties; the Labor Party (drawn from the American spelling for marketing purposes, despite Australia using the British spelling of Labour) and the Liberal Party.
The Labor party, as the name would suggest, prides itself on representing the Australian working class and minorities. Founded in 1901 – the year Australia was federated as a nation – the Labor party is Australia’s oldest political party and has its roots in the various labour movements that sprung up throughout colonial Australia.
The current leader of the party is Anthony Albanese, who became the party leader following the resignation of Bill Shorten, following his parties defeat in the 2019 Australian Federal Elections. Although probably the most important party in the nation’s history, Labor have not been in power since Kevin Rudd was defeated by Tony Abbott in 2013 – three prime ministers ago.
The Liberal Party
The other major player in federal politics is much younger, having only been founded in its current incarnation in 1944, although its roots lie much earlier. The Liberal party, Australia’s major centre-right party, have been in power since 2013 and are currently led by Scott Morrison, the nation’s third PM in 5 years and fifth in 7 years.
The party tend to favour free-market economics and economic liberalism, and have been heavily criticised for being too close to the oil and coal sectors in Australia, which are a major source of export revenue for the nation. They are historically the most successful party in Australia, with the nation’s two longest serving prime ministers, Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard (the last PM to successfully serve more than one full term in office, leaving office in 2007).
Australia is a predominantly a two-party system, however, there are several smaller parties who are still influential, particularly in state and local precincts. The National Party of Australia (formerly known as the Country Party) are the other major centre-right party and are closely aligned with the Liberals, usually forming a coalition government with the Liberals. They have governed as part of the Liberal-National coalition since 2013, but have had an almost unbroken partnership since 1946, with the party predominantly representing the rural parts of the nation and the Liberal party representing urban and suburban areas.
The Green Party are also growing in significance, more closely aligned to the Labor party and heavily critical of the centre right governing alliance. Akin to much of the world, there is also a significant growth in right-wing populism in Australia, with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (aptly named after its leader) offering a controversial and often racist brand of national-populism which has seen Pauline Hanson walk into the nation’s parliament wearing a Burka to criticise immigration in the nation.
The States and Territories
Australia is made up of six states:
- New South Wales
- South Australia
- Western Australia
And three internal territories:
- Northern Territory
- Australian Capital Territory
- Jervis Bay Territory
As well as numerous offshore territories
The States of Australia are considered full members of the federation, having full representation and voting rights within the national government. However, the territories have different arrangements, often having no say in the governance of the nation.
The Northern Territory, which contains major areas such as Darwin and Alice Springs, and a population of around 250,000 have very little ability to influence the national direction, with just two Senators (states have twelve) and extremely little ability to influence the national agenda. Territories are also not covered by the constitution; therefore, the citizens of territories can be discriminated against as they do not have any of the protections guaranteed by the constitution.
Each state and territory has massive jurisdiction over its internal government, with everything from energy policy to driving tests falling to the state governments. The Australian Capital Territory contains Canberra, which has been the nation’s capital since 1911, after being selected as a compromise between the nation’s two major cities; Melbourne and Sydney which were both competing to be the nation’s major city and capital.
Brief History of Australian politics
As a young nation, Australia has had relatively few Prime Ministers, with just 29 men and one woman serving the position. However, recent years have seen a huge swathe of different leaders. Since 2007 Australia has had five PM’s: Kevin Rudd (2007-10 and 2013), Julia Gillard (2010-2013), Tony Abbott (2013-2015) Malcolm Turnbull (2015-18) and Scott Morrison (2018-present).
This recent turbulence has seen no Prime Minister face two consecutive elections since before Kevin Rudd took office in 2007. This turbulence has been caused by internal party fighting which has resulted in successive leadership spills; the Aussie term for a change in leadership. The most recent of these occurred back in August when Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull was ousted by a right-wing faction within the party, with Peter Dutton forcing him out to fulfil his own ambitions. The ensuing leadership election (which Turnbull was not allowed to contest) saw Morrison prevail as a compromise candidate given Dutton’s right-wing positions condemning him as unelectable according to the Australian media.
However, despite Morrison’s greater electability, he lags significantly behind Labor in the polls, meaning that when Australia next cast ballots in 2019, the nation can probably expect its sixth leader in twelve years.
But Australia has not always been so turbulent, with several Prime Ministers serving for more than a decade. John Howard served for 11 years between 1996 and 2007, whilst Robert Menzies, perhaps the nation’s most famous ever leader, lasted for 17 years between 1949 and 1966.
However, Australia has also been littered with scandals that are perhaps unbelievable outside of the nation. The most infamous of which saw Robert Menzies successor, Harold Holt, disappear whilst in office. The nation’s largest-ever political scandal saw the Prime Minister disappear whilst swimming off the Mornington Peninsula (near Melbourne) in 1967. Perhaps the strangest part about the disappearance is the way the nation chose to immortalise the likely drowned leader – naming a swimming pool after him in Melbourne.
Australia’s dark secret
Perhaps the most unique and certainly the most shocking part of Australia’s politics is the way it deals with the indigenous population. For the first centuries of Australia’s settlement (before it was federated in 1901), the Aboriginal people were actively massacred, both literally and approximately. Genocide, starvation and disease saw swathes of the indigenous population killed during settlement, a dark mark that still impacts the nation today.
Until as recently as the 1970s Australia actively engaged in the White Australia Policy, which saw active discrimination against any none-whites, particularly the indigenous people.
In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology which promised a change for the indigenous peoples who were still being discriminated against, however, in 2018, many indigenous people are more likely to go to prison than graduate from high school.
Even though only 2-3% of the population is indigenous, around 25% of the prison population is from the aboriginal community. Even today, Australia’s politics are blighted with how to deal with such a horrifically marginalised community and the ways to rectify the wrongs of this dark stain on their past.
Australia today grapples with many of the issues of the modern world. With an economy increasingly reliant on Asian nations -mostly China – Australia faces a wave of nationalism that has swept much of the world in recent years. 2018 has seen the government gripped by yet another leadership spill, with another leadership change on the horizon when the nation goes to the polls again next year.
Whatever happens down under, if history is anything to go by then it should be another extremely interesting year for politics. For anyone fascinated in the political shenanigans of the western world, there is no better place to immerse yourself than Oz.