Representative Government

Australia's Parliament House, Canberra, the symbol and practical expression of Representative Government

The political idea of representation is based on the idea that some person or institution acts on behalf of the people, by re-presenting their beliefs, attitudes and perspectives.

The Australian political system is one in which the people elect members of Parliament to represent them, hence we have a system of representative government.

These representatives meet in Parliament and perform a number of functions:

  • they decide who will govern.
  • they make laws.
  • they debate issues.
  • they make representations on behalf of their constituents to the government and the public service.
  • they monitor the expenditure of public money and the actions of the government.

The Parliament is the practical expression of a simple reality: it isn’t feasible for all of the people to be involved all of the time, even if they were so inclined, in the business of government.

Representative government exists where the people delegate the task of government to representatives chosen at regular elections.

It has been said that:

The achievement of representative government is the central achievement of modern politics. In its European homeland, it took several centuries (and as often as not a revolution) to consolidate representative institutions. Monarchs had to be brought under the control of the assembly. Then parliament, in its turn, had to be subjected to democratic election. Democratic elements had to be grafted onto ancient pre-democratic institutions of representation.

- “Comparative Government and Politics”, Hague, Harrop & Breslin, (Macmillan, 1998), p22.

Representative government exists at a number of levels in Australia:

Federal

  • A House of Representatives made up of members who each represent approximately the same number of people (currently around 80,000 voters each).
  • A Senate made up of an equal number of members per State (currently 12), plus representation of the two territories (currently two senators each).

State

  • Each State has a Legislative Assembly or House of Assembly representative of the people in the same manner as the House of Representatives.
  • All States, except Queensland, have a second chamber of Parliament, often mostly elected in a different manner to the lower house, with the aim of providing different representation, particularly of minority interests.

Territories

  • The Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory each have a single-chamber Parliament representative of people in the same way as the Federal and State lower houses.

Local

  • There are several hundred local government areas in Australia, known as municipalities, cities and shires. These local governments are elected on a regular basis using a variety of election methods.

The powers of the representative bodies differ. For example, the Federal Parliament represents the nation in matters such as defence, whereas local government represents people in matters such as garbage collection.

A Problem of Representation

The big advantage of representative government is that it allows the citizens of even very large countries, such as India or the United States, to have some influence on their rulers.

However, there is the problem of whether elected representatives should act merely as a relay mechanism for the views of their constituents, or whether they should act more independently, utilising their knowledge and skills to lead their constituents to a more informed decision that is better for the greater good of the community.

Note: it is not sufficient to simply describe Australia as having a system of representative government. A more complete explanation will contain details of other aspects of the representative system.

For example, Australia has also adopted a system of responsible government, whereas the United States of America is a presidential republic with an elected Congress.

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