This is one of the most fundamental terms used to describe the Australian political system, but it is also one of the most misunderstood.
Responsible Government is the term used to describe a political system where the executive government, the Cabinet and Ministry, is drawn from, and accountable to, the legislative branch.
In practice, this means that elections to the Parliament are the means by which we decide who shall govern.
In Australia, as in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and other parliamentary systems, the election outcome in the lower house, the House of Representatives, determines the composition of the government.
The same system applies in all 8 states and territories as well.
For example, John Howard’s Liberal-National Party coalition remained in office after the 2001 elections because they won 82 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives.
Julia Gillard’s government remained in office after the 2010 election despite winning only 73 of the 150 seats because 1 Green and 2 independent members gave the government their support.
In 2013, Tony Abbott’s government took office because the Coalition parties won a comfortable majority of the seats in the House of Representatives.
Similarly, the ALP governed in Victoria after 1999, even though it only held 44 of the 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly, because the three independent members of the House pledged their support to the Bracks government, effectively giving it 47 seats.
Responsible Government was achieved by each of the original Australian colonies on these dates:
|Responsible Government in Australia
|New South Wales
In each case, the achievement of Responsible Government meant that a bicameral, two-chamber parliament was established. A unicameral legislature already existed in most colonies in the form of a Legislative Council but many of these were either not elected, or were only partially elected. Responsible Government led to the creation of a Legislative Assembly in each colony. (In Tasmania and South Australia it is called the House of Assembly.)
The practical effect of Responsible Government was that the power of the Crown, the British monarchy, was now to be exercised in accordance with the will of the people.
No longer were governments run by Governors. No longer were ministries composed of politicians chosen by the Governors. Governments were chosen according to who could command the support of a majority of members of the lower house.
Accompanying this important democratic development was the notion that governments existed only for as long as they could maintain the support of a majority of members of the lower house. A vote of no-confidence by the lower house meant that the government was obliged to resign and could also mean the dissolution of the house and a general election.
Thus, Responsible Government is all about the people’s control of their government, expressed through the lower house, the People’s House.
Governments are held accountable to the people through elections, but in between elections the function of the parliament is to hold the government accountable. This is achieved through such things as parliamentary questions, debate on legislation and parliamentary committee investigations.
Note 1: the United States is not an example of Responsible Government. The President is elected separately from the Congress (the equivalent of the Australian Parliament) and it is possible for one political party to win the presidency without controlling the Congress.
For example, for 6 years during Democratic Party President Bill Clinton’s term of office, the House of Representatives and the Senate were controlled by the Republican Party. In 2012, President Obama, a Democrat, faced a House controlled by the Republicans and a Senate controlled by the Democrats.
During the first two years of the Biden administration (2021-23), the Democrats controlled the House but lost it to the Republicans at the 2022 mid-term elections. The Democrats held the Senate.
Note 2: the term Responsible Government should not be confused with the everyday meaning of responsible. The term is a political concept and has nothing to do with the idea of governments behaving in a correct, proper or responsible manner when making decisions.