Transcript of Episode 4 – Government and the law in Australia
At the citizenship ceremony, you pledge to uphold and obey the laws of Australia. Australia’s system of government is a parliamentary democracy. It is important for you to understand this system of government, how laws are made and how they are administered.
In this section there is information about:
- how citizens have a say
- our system of government, including how Australia is governed and the responsibilities of each level of government, and
- how laws are made and administered.
How do I have my say?
All Australian citizens aged 18 years or over must enrol to vote in federal, state and territory elections and referenda on constitutional change.
Australian citizens have a say on how Australia is governed by voting for people to represent them in parliament.
Voting in an election is by secret ballot, so you are free and safe to vote for any candidate.
No one is allowed to know whom you have voted for, unless you choose to tell them.
Voting is compulsory and if you do not vote in an election without a good reason, you may have to pay a fine.
Raising matters with your representatives
Australian citizens can contact their elected representative to raise their concerns about government policy.
If an Australian citizen suggests to his or her elected representative that a law needs to be changed, the elected representative should consider what has been suggested.
How did we establish our system of Government?
After British settlement and before 1901, Australia was made up of six separate, self-governing British colonies.
Uniting the nation was a difficult task, but over time, the idea of one Australian nation became a reality.
On the 1st of January 1901, the colonies were united into a federation of states called the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Australian Constitution
On the 1st of January 1901, the Australian Constitution came into effect and the Australian colonies became one independent nation.
The Australian Constitution is the legal document that sets out the basic rules for the government of Australia.
It established the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Constitution also established the High Court of Australia, which has the ultimate power to apply and interpret the laws of Australia.
The Australian people can change the Australian Constitution by voting in a referendum.
How is the power of Government controlled?
The Australian Constitution divides power between the legislative, executive and judicial powers, to stop one person, or one group, from holding all the power.
Legislative power is the power to make laws. Parliament has the power to make and change the laws in Australia, and is made up of representatives who are elected by the people of Australia.
Executive power is the power to put the laws into practice. The Executive includes the Prime Minister, Australian government ministers and the Governor-General.
Judges have the power to interpret and apply the law. Courts and judges are independent of parliament and government.
Who is Australia's Head of State?
Our Head of State is the Queen of Australia, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the second.
The Queen of Australia appoints the Governor-General as her representative in Australia.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the Queen is Australia’s Head of State, but has to act in accordance with the Constitution.
As the Queen does not live in Australia, her powers are delegated to the Governor-General in Australia.
Role of the Governor-General
The Governor-General is the representative of the Head of State in Australia.
The Governor-General’s role includes:
- signing all Bills passed by the Australian Parliament into law
(this is called Royal Assent)
- performing ceremonial duties
- approving the appointment of the Australian Government and its ministers, federal judges and other officials
- starting the process for a federal election, and
- Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force.
Who are some of Australia's leaders?
A Governor is a representative of the Head of State in each Australian state.
The Prime Minister is the leader of the Australian Government.
A Premier is the leader of a state government.
A Chief Minister is the leader of a territory government.
A Government Minister is a Member of Parliament chosen by a government leader to be responsible for an area of government.
A Member of Parliament is an elected representative of the Australian people in the Australian Parliament.
A Senator is an elected representative of a state or territory in the Australian Parliament.
A Mayor or Shire President is the leader of a local government.
A Councillor is an elected member of a local council.
How is Australia governed?
The Australian Government is also called the Federal Government or the Commonwealth Government.
The Government is made up of members of the Australian Parliament, which has two Houses:
- the House of Representatives, and
- the Senate.
In a federal election, Australian citizens vote to elect representatives to each House of Parliament.
House of Representatives
Another name for the House of Representatives is the Lower House or the People’s House.
Australia is divided into federal electorates. Members of Parliament represent the people in their electorate.
Members of Parliament and senators debate proposals for new laws in the Australian Parliament.
The role of the House of Representatives is to consider, debate, and vote on proposals for new laws or changes to the laws, and discuss matters of national importance.
The Senate is the other House in the Australian Parliament. It is sometimes called the Upper House, the House of Review or the States’ House.
Voters from each state and mainland territory elect senators to represent them in
Senators also consider, debate and vote on new laws or changes to the laws, and discuss matters of national importance.
State and Territory Government
There are six states and two mainland territories in Australia, which are governed in a similar way to the Australian Government.
Each state has its own parliament, constitution and its own Governor to represent the Queen.
The leader of a state government is the Premier.
The leader of a territory government is the Chief Minister.
The states and the Northern Territory are divided into local government areas which may be called cities, shires, towns or municipalities.
Each area has its own local council. Councils are responsible for planning and delivering services to their local community.
What do the three levels of government do?
The main difference between the three levels of government is that, although some responsibilities may overlap, generally each level of government provides different services.
The Australian Government is responsible for:
- national economic management
- immigration and citizenship
- employment assistance
- postal services and the communications network
- social security (pensions and family support)
- trade and commerce
- airports and air safety, and
- foreign affairs (that is, relations with other countries).
State and territory governments are primarily responsible for:
- hospitals and health services
- roads and railways
- police and ambulance services, and
- public transport.
Local governments and the Australian Capital Territory are responsible for:
- street signs, traffic controls
- local roads, footpaths, bridges
- parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, sports grounds
- camping grounds and caravan parks
- food and meat inspection
- noise and animal control
- rubbish collection
- local libraries, halls and community centres
- certain child-care and aged-care issues
- building permits
- social planning, and
- local environmental issues.
What role do political parties play in the way Australia is governed?
A political party is a group of people who share similar ideas about how a country should be governed.
Most parliamentarians belong to political parties, but some do not belong to any party. They are called independents.
In Australia, people are free to join a political party if they choose.
How is the Australian Government formed?
After a federal election, the Australian Government is generally formed by the party or coalition of parties with the majority of members in the House of Representatives.
The leader of this party becomes the Prime Minister.
The party or coalition of parties with the second largest number of members in the House of Representatives forms the Opposition. Its leader is called the Leader of the Opposition.
The Prime Minister recommends members of the House of Representatives or Senators to become ministers. Ministers are responsible for areas of government such as employment, Indigenous affairs or the Treasury.
How are laws made?
The Australian Parliament has the power to make or change laws in Australia to benefit the nation.
If a member of the Australian Parliament proposes a new law or a change to the law, this proposal is called a Bill.
Members in each House of Parliament debate the Bill and vote on whether they agree with the Bill.
If the majority of members in each House of Parliament agree to the Bill, it goes to the Governor-General.
The Governor-General signs a Bill so that it becomes law. This is called ‘Royal Assent’.
State and territory parliaments make their own laws in a similar way.
How are laws enforced?
The courts in Australia are independent. A court will decide if a person has or has not broken the law and decide the penalty.
Judges and Magistrates
A judge or magistrate is the highest authority in a court. They are independent and no one can tell them what to decide.
In Australia’s court system, people are considered innocent until they are found guilty in a court. A court will use a jury in some cases to decide if a person has broken the law.
The role of a jury is to decide in court if a person is innocent or guilty.
The police maintain peace and order in the community. If the police believe that someone has broken the law, they can arrest them and bring them before a court of law. The police and the community have a good relationship in Australia. You can report crimes and seek assistance from your local police. In Australia, it is a serious crime to bribe the police.
Criminal offences in Australia
It is important for you to be familiar with the laws in Australia. If you break an Australian law that you did not know about, you could be charged, as not knowing the law is no excuse.
Everyone has the right to experience positive and safe relationships with their families, friends and loved ones. As in other countries, violence towards another person is illegal in Australia and is a very serious crime. This includes violence within the home and within marriage, known as domestic or family violence. Domestic and family violence can include hitting, isolating a family member from friends and family, or threatening children or pets. Domestic and family violence is not accepted and is against the law.
A person who commits these crimes can go to jail whether they are a man or a woman.
No one should accept being treated badly or harmed.
Other serious crimes include:
- sexual assault
- violence against people or property
- armed robbery or theft
- having sexual relations with children or young people who are aged below the legal age of consent
- dangerous driving of a motor car
- possession of illegal drugs, and
Road and traffic rules are controlled by state and territory governments. People can be fined or sent to prison for breaking traffic laws. To drive a car in Australia, you must have a local driver’s licence and the car must be registered.
There are many other traffic laws. You must become familiar with them.