Australia’s political system is confusing
Despite the key features and simplified model outlined in the previous sections, Australia’s system of government is a confusing place where nothing is quite what it seems. At every turn, the basic facts are in dispute:
Who is the head of State: the Queen, the Governor-General or both?
When did Australia become an independent and sovereign nation: 1901, 1919, 1920, 1926, 1931, 1939, 1942, 1986 or are we still waiting for it to happen?
Is Australia a kingdom, a governor-generalate, a commonwealth, a republic, or all of these?
We complete this introduction to Australian politics by exploring five key sources of confusion.
Five sources of confusion
The confusion about Australia’s system of government has its origins in the British system of a constitutional monarchy. The British system of government evolved over hundreds of years through the Westminster Parliament’s many victories over successive kings and queens for the right to make laws; to administer them; and to have them independently interpreted. In these victories, the formal and legal status of the monarch as the head of the realm was largely unchanged. In practice, the monarch has been stripped of her real powers and the United Kingdom is a republic in all but name. Even so, the illusion of an all-powerful monarch at the centre of the nation’s government remains.
As it evolved from an absolute monarchy, the constitutional monarchy became an exercise in subterfuge and face saving. In the second edition of his seminal work on the English Constitution, published in 1873, Walter Bagehot used the phrase “disguised republic” to summarise his description of a constitutional monarchy: a system where the business of government had been republicanised but where the symbols and theatre of government remained imperial. At that time, Bagehot argued that the disguise was necessary because “the masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government;
if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.” Bagehot was not the first to make this observation. In 1748, in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu described Britain as “a nation that may be justly called a republic, disguised under the form of a monarchy” (book V, chapter 19).
As a result, there is a huge gulf separating the theory of government from its actual operation. In theory, at least, it can be argued that the powers of the Queen in the 21st century are almost as extensive as those claimed by Charles I in the 17th century. However, the practice of government today is representative and democratic.
By tradition, the monarch is little more than a puppet in the day-to-day business of government, unable to make decisions or exercise power on her own initiative. Although the business of government is conducted in the Queen’s name, her powers have been usurped completely by an independent judiciary, an executive government accountable (at least in theory) to the parliament, and a parliament accountable to the people through regular elections.
Australia inherited the constitutional monarchy system of government when the states were granted responsible self-government beginning in the 1850s and again at federation in 1901.
A second source of confusion is the text of the Australian Constitution, which gives greater emphasis to the monarchical disguise than the practices of democratic and representative government. In part, the founding fathers simply assumed that these practices would also operate federally as they operated in the then colonies and the Imperial parliament in London. In part, the founding fathers feared ridicule from British experts if they sought to draft a plain-English description of the workings of democratic government.
The Australian Constitution paints a picture of an all-powerful monarch and her representative, the Governor-General, as the central organs of government. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution. More importantly, it does not describe the central Westminster convention of “responsible government”.
Under this convention, the Queen and the Governor-General only act in accord with the advice of the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet of government ministers, all of whom are members of and accountable to the parliament. The parliament is, in turn, representative of and accountable to the people. This convention mediates the language of an all-powerful monarch in the Australian Constitution.
A third source of confusion is that many of our key institutions are drawn from a mixture of British and United States traditions and models of government. This marriage of institutions, traditions and models necessitated many compromises. The resulting mix is a uniquely Australia approach where almost of all of the individual elements differ subtly from their source in the United Kingdom or the United States. Australia’s system of government cannot be explained by simple references to one parent or the other.
A fourth source of confusion is Australia’s post 1901 evolution from a colony to an independent and sovereign nation. In this process, the Queen of Australia became a separate legal entity to the Queen of Great Britain and [Northern] Ireland. The United Kingdom has evolved from the mother country into a foreign power.
The Governor-General has evolved from the Queen’s representative to the Queen’s replacement for most purposes. The Governor-General has also changed from being the ambassador of the British government to a symbolic representative of the Australian people. This has been achieved without one change to the text of the Australian Constitution. Indeed, much of Australia’s evolution to nationhood has depended on the British parliament making implicit amendments to the Australian Constitution. As a result, although the words in the Australian Constitution have not changed all that much, these words mean very different things today to what they meant over 100 years ago.
A fifth source of confusion is the work of the High Court of Australia. Since federation it has ruled on the meaning of the Constitution and the relative powers, roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and states. At times, it has found the Constitution to mean one thing, only to find another (sometimes contradictory) meaning later. On some sections of the Constitution, it has found a series of different meanings over time. For example section 92, which provides free trade between the states, the High Court reinterpreted on a number of occasions as historical circumstances, and prevailing political and economic understandings change.
The High Court has similarly changed the Common Law that applies in Australia. For example, in the 1992 Mabo case on native title, the High Court overturned its own past judgements as well as judgements of state supreme courts and the Privy Council in London. As a result, Indigenous people can seek to have the pre-colonisation title of their ancestors and their own rights over the land recognised, where they can show a continuous connection with the land.
An effective description of Australia’s system of government must operate at a number of levels. It must discuss the monarchical disguise as well as the practice of representative and responsible government. It must navigate the marriage between British and United States institutions, traditions and models. It must work with a Constitution that in isolation has always provided a misleading, inadequate and incorrect description of our system of government – a colonial Constitution that is essentially unchanged yet which has been altered in meaning and effect since 1901 to allow for Australian independence. It must accommodate a Constitution and a legal system that is continually evolving under the husbandry of the High Court.
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