In a Westminster-based parliamentary system, the Parliament is not the same as the Government.
It is an important distinction in the Australian political system. To be a member of Parliament is not the same as being a member of the Government, although all members of the government are also members of parliament.
The Parliament is the name given to the two houses of Parliament, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It includes all the elected members in both houses from all parties, government and opposition.
According to the Australian Constitution, the Australian Parliament also includes the Queen. Section 1 states that ‘the legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called “The Parliament,” or “The Parliament of the Commonwealth”.’
The Government comprises the group of ministers, led by the Prime Minister, who form the executive government of the nation.
Section 64 of the Constitution requires that all ministers be members of parliament, or become members of parliament within 3 months of being appointed. In practice, only members of parliament are appointed as ministers. Also, in practice, only members of parliament who support the party or parties that have a majority of seats in the lower house are appointed as ministers.
Some Examples (2015):
- Malcolm Turnbull is a member of Parliament (Wentworth, House of Representatives), as well as a member of the government (Prime Minister).
- Bill Shorten is a member of Parliament (Maribyrnong, House of Representatives), but is not a member of the government. He is Leader of the Opposition.
- Senator Richard Di Natale is a member of Parliament (Senate, Tasmania) but is not a member of the government. He is leader of the Australian Greens.
- Senator George Brandis is a member of Parliament (Senate, Queensland) and is also a member of the government (Leader of the Government in the Senate, Attorney-General).
- Bob Katter is a member of Parliament (Kennedy, House of Representatives), but is not a member of the government. As an independent, he is not a member of any political party.
Hence, members of Parliament wear different “hats”. They are even paid in accordance with the “hats” they wear. For example, Malcolm Turnbull is paid a salary as the member for Wentworth, but earns extra money because he is also Prime Minister. All ministers earn additional money on top of their backbench member’s salary. Similarly, Bill Shorten is paid a salary as the member for Maribyrnong, but earns extra money because he is also the Leader of the Opposition.
PARLIAMENT HOLDS THE GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABLE
When Parliament meets, it is important to understand the distinction between it and the Government. For example, there is a Question Time conducted every day that each House meets. The government ministers in the House and the Senate take questions from non-government members about their portfolios and decisions. Questions may be asked by anyone from the Opposition parties, independent members or backbench members of the government. What we see here is the institution of Parliament holding the government accountable for its actions.
SOME RELATED TERMS
MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING PARTY – this is the term often used to describe a backbench member of parliament who is not a government minister, but who belongs to the same party.
For example, Sarah Henderson, the Liberal member for Corangamite, is a member of the governing party. She is a member of Parliament, but not a member of the Government.
PARTY ROOM – this term describes the meeting of all members of a particular party in both houses of Parliament. These include:
- Liberal Party Room
- National Party Room
- Joint Party Room – meetings of the Liberal and National Party
- ALP Party Room – better known as Caucus
- Australian Greens Party Room
The party rooms are important, especially to the Government, because they provide the “numbers” for each side in votes in Parliament. Party discipline, a system of rewards and punishments imposed on MPs by their parties, usually ensures that the government is supported by its members in votes in both houses.
The party rooms also elect the leaders of each party. This is the single most important power of the party room. Prime Ministers Rudd (2010), Gillard (2013) and Abbott (2015) were all brought down by their respective party rooms. [An exception to this was the Australian Democrats (1977-2008) where leaders were chosen by party members around the nation.]