Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth of Nations, which is headed by the British monarch. Australia recognizes the sovereignty of the British monarch, who is represented in Australia by a governor general. Australia's political system is a parliamentary democracy that operates according to the Westminster model. The main features of the Westminster system are that the majority in the lower house of parliament forms the government and appoints the prime minister, who selects a cabinet accountable to the lower house. The minority parties form a loyal opposition. Australia's government adheres to federalism, whereby power is divided between the national government (also known as the commonwealth) and the states.
Australia's constitution was approved on July 9, 1900, and went into effect on January 1, 1901. It is partly modeled after the U.S. constitution, but it does not include a "bill of rights." The constitution establishes a federal system, whereby the national government, or commonwealth, and the states share power. The constitution clearly defines the powers of the commonwealth, and residual powers reside with the states. In the event that commonwealth law is inconsistent with state law, commonwealth law takes precedence.
The nominal head of state is the governor general, who is appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the British monarch. Although the constitution stipulates that the British monarch shall appoint the governor general, the prime minister actually decides who will serve in this capacity. Australia has a bicameral parliament, consisting of the 76-member Senate and the 150-member House of Representatives. Each state has 12 senators, and each territory has two senators, regardless of population. Seats in the House are apportioned by population, but no state can have fewer than five representatives. The majority party (or party coalition) in the House of Representatives forms the government and appoints its leader as prime minister, whereupon he or she selects cabinet ministers from both chambers of parliament. The ministers are accountable to parliament, which has the right to question them publicly. Both houses of parliament may initiate ordinary legislative proposals, but all revenue bills must originate in the House. A simple majority is needed to adopt a bill in either house. A bill passed by one house is transmitted to the other for concurrence. If passed by both houses, the bill is submitted to the governor general for royal assent in the name of the queen.
Australia has an independent judiciary. Civil and criminal courts exist at the federal, state, and territorial levels. At the pinnacle of the federal court system stands the seven-member High Court, which has ultimate responsibility for appeals and constitutional reviews. State and territorial supreme, district, and county courts handle major cases. Magistrates' and specialists' courts handle minor cases.
Australia is divided into six states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia) and two principal self-governing territories (the Australian Capital Territory, which includes the national capital of Canberra, and the Northern Territory). Australia also administers a number of territories and dependencies, including the Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.
Under the federal system, the commonwealth shares power with the states, and the financial relationship between these two levels of government is a key challenge. The federal government collects 70-80 percent of taxes, but the responsibility for spending is more evenly shared between the commonwealth and the states. A premier heads each of the six states, and a chief minister heads each of the two territories. These figures are the leaders of the governing party in the popularly elected state or territorial legislatures.
Australia has an independent judiciary. The legal system is based on English common law, including the principle of judicial precedent. Defendants are entitled to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and representation by an attorney, and they have the right to appeal decisions and sentences. In general, judges conduct trials, and juries deliver the verdicts.
National elections are held at least every three years because that is the maximum term for any government. Voters rank candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate by number, and these preferences are used to determine the winners. Voters state their preference for House candidates in their district and for Senate candidates in their state. Senators representing each of the six states are elected for six-year terms, and half of them stand for election every three years. Senators representing each of the two territories are elected for three-year terms. All members of the House serve three-year terms. Voting is universal and compulsory at age 18, and small fines are imposed on the less than 10 percent of the electorate that declines to participate. The last national elections were held in October 2004.
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