The Commonwealth of Australia is a democratic constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. It is a federation of six states which joined together in 1901 after a series of referendums which approved a new constitution. The Australian system of government is based in the liberal democratic tradition and reflects the influence of both the British and American models with some uniquely Australian characteristics, especially in its electoral system.
The Australian constitution recognizes the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth, as Sovereign. The Governor-General, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, is the Sovereign's representative. In practice, the Governor-General carries out the functions usually performed by a head of state.
Under the federal system of government established in 1901 powers are divided between a federal government and those of the six states: New South Wales , Victoria , South Australia , Queensland , Tasmania and Western Australia . Three territories, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island are self-governing with the national parliament retaining the final say over local legislation.
The federal constitution vests legislative powers in the Parliament of the Commonwealth consisting of the British monarch, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of both the Senate and The House of Representatives are popularly elected. The number of representatives from each state in the House is based on population. For example, heavily populated New South Wales is represented by 50 members in the House of Representatives, while sparsely populated Tasmania is represented by only 5. The Senate has 76 members, 12 from each federal state and 2 each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory . Norfolk Island is not represented in the federal parliament.
Australia gained legislative independence from Great Britain through the Statute of Westminister 1931 which was adopted by Australia in 1942.
By accepted convention of the Westminister system the powers of the Governor-General, equivalent to those of the British monarch in the United Kingdom , are almost always exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. A significant exception to this rule took place during the constitutional crisis of 1975 when the Governor-General actually dismissed the Prime Minister and appointed a caretaker Prime Minister in order to break a deadlock and force parliament to approve appropriation bills and fund the workings of government. "The Dismissal," as the predicament was called, is considered the gravest crisis the Australian democracy has ever endured.
There have been periodic movements in Australia to end the monarch's role in the country's political life. In 1999, for example, Australia voted on a proposal to change the constitution and to remove any reference to the monarch. According to the proposal the Governor-General would have been replaced by a President appointed by the Prime-Minister. The proposal was defeated by Australian voters.
Despite the role of the constitution in the creation of the modern Australian state, Australians themselves are notoriously indifferent to their constitution. In Australia the constitution is not widely read, is poorly understood and is not revered or quoted as it is in the United States . Interestingly, neither the office of Prime Minister nor the role of the Cabinet is mentioned in the constitution.
One of the more unusual features of Australian political life is the compulsory nature of voting. Australian citizens eligible to vote are required to do so and risk being fined if they do not vote. Despite the nominal nature of the fine, Australia enjoys extremely high voter turnout in comparison with most other democracies such as the United States .
Another interesting feature of Australian electoral practice is the use of "preferential voting" for most elections. In this system voters number the candidates in the order of their preference or allow the political party of their choice to allocate their vote according to a pre-determined order of preference.
Historically Australia was in the forefront of voter reform even during colonial days. Australia had inherited the British electoral tradition of limited franchise as well as public and plural voting. In response to electoral abuses the secret ballot was introduced in Victoria in 1855 and became known as the "Australian ballot." The next year South Australia eliminated professional and property qualifications for voting and in 1894 gave women the right to vote. In the 1890s the colonies stopped the practice of plural voting and adopted the practice of one man - one vote.
Australia has four main political parties: the Australian Labor Party (ALP), a Social-democratic party founded by the labor movement; the Liberal Party, a center-right grouping; the National Party of Australia, a conservative party representing rural interests and the Australian Greens, a left-wing environmentalist party that increased its share of the national vote in 2007 to just over 9%. These political parties function at both the national and state levels.
In November 2007 the opposition Australian Labor Party defeated the center-right coalition government of the Liberal and National parties led by Prime Minister John Howard. The coalition government had been in power since 1996. Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, became Prime Minister.
Environmental issues have gained importance in Australia in recent years as concern over climate change has grown. Persistent drought in some areas has threatened traditional water sources for populated areas. Australia has the highest per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world primarily because of its use of coal to generate electricity. Immediately upon assuming power in December 2007 Prime Minister Rudd signed the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol intended to stabilize greenhouse emissions. His predecessor had refused to do so.
Since the national elections in 2007, however, the economy has become the most important issue for the Australian voter. As Australians focus more on jobs and home mortgages, other issues such as health, national security, global warming, water planning and the environment have declined in importance according to the most recent polls.
Australia 's Western market economy has been prosperous in recent years, however, with high per capita GDP (slightly higher than the U.K. , Germany and France ) and low unemployment and inflation. Australia is rich in natural resources and has significant exports of agricultural commodities, minerals, liquefied natural gas and coal. Australia 's main trading partners include the United States , China , Japan and South Korea .