Australia’s political system is based on the Westminster system used in Great Britain.
In essence, Westminster is the name given to the system of parliamentary democracy used in countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Key Features of the Westminster System
The essential features of the system are:
The Government is chosen by the democratically elected lower house. The government requires the continuing support of a majority of members of that chamber to stay in office.
The head of government is the Prime Minister, who leads a Cabinet which is responsible to the lower house.
A loyal Opposition exists, led by the leader of the party or parties with the second largest number of seats in the lower house.
A constitutional monarch, if one exists, who is “above politics” and acts on the advice of the prime minister.
There is a career public service which impartially serves the government of the day.
The armed services are outside of politics and act on the instructions of the government.
The rule of law prevails, with an independent judiciary, subject to the Constitution.
The Westminster system is otherwise known as Responsible Government. The term should not be confused with “behaving responsibly”. It refers instead to the concept of a government being responsible and accountable to parliament.
The Westminster system varies from country to country, depending on local conditions and history.
For example, Britain has a second chamber of Parliament, known as the House of Lords, whose members are either hereditary Lords or Lords appointed for life. The Blair Labour Government instituted reforms to the system of appointment, notably abolishing further hereditary positions.
By contrast, Australia has a second chamber of Parliament, known as the Senate, whose members represent the States of the Commonwealth, in fulfillment of the concept of federalism.
New Zealand, however, has a unicameral, or single-chamber, Parliament. Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory also have unicameral parliaments.
All these variations follow the principles of the Westminster system, in that governments are derived from the popularly-elected lower house.
Origins of Westminster
The word derives from the London municipality of Westminster which is home to the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons and the House of Lords both meet in the Palace of Westminster.
Originally, the Palace was the principal residence of the kings of England from the middle of the 11th century until 1512. Much of the original building was destroyed, following a major fire in 1834.
Westminster Hall is the only part of the original building that remains. It narrowly missed destruction during the German bombing of 1941.