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Australia is both one of the Anglo-Saxon settler states and an entire continent located in the South Eastern hemisphere of the globe. Approximately 7.5 million square kilometres in area, Australia is the most urban continent on the planet, with most of its population living in six urban areas. At the same time its population is not especially large. The population is 20.6 million The total number of Australians is only slightly larger than the total population living in the Indian city of Mumbai, a.k.a. Bombay.

The Commonwealth of Australia consists of six states and two mainland territories, located on the continent of Australia and the island of Tasmania, and also has sovereignty over a handful of offshore territories. The Commonwealth administered Papua New Guinea until 1975 and Nauru until 1968.


Political Elites

  • Kevin Rudd Prime Minister, Leader of the Australian Labor Party (social-democrats)
  • Malcolm Turnbull Leader of the Opposition, Liberal Party of Australia
  • Julia Gillard Deputy Prime Minister; Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion
  • Bob Brown, Senator, Australian Greens
  • Stephen Smith Foreign Minister, Australian Labor Party

Political Parties

  • The Australian Labor Party. The ALP is the left-of-centre major party in Australia, and is formally aligned with the labour movement of Australia, with formal relationships with trade unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The ALP last held government from 1983 to 1996, under prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The current leader of the ALP is Kevin Rudd. The ALP was founded in the 1890s and is Australia's oldest surviving political party. The ALP won the federal election of 2006 and now controls the federal government. The ALP also controls all State and Territory Governments in Australia except for the State of Western Australia..
  • The Liberal Party of Australia. The Liberal Party (confusingly for foreigners) is actually Australia's largest conservative party. It was established by Sir Robert Menzies in the 1940s to replace the defeated United Australia Party. The Liberal Party is currently the party of Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, and is in coalition with the National Party of Australia.
  • The National Party of Australia. The National Party is a conservative party with its powerbase in rural areas of Australia. It is the junior coalition party in conservative politics at the federal level, and in WA, NSW and VIC. It is the senior conservative coalition party in Queensland, where its support base is stronger than that of the Liberal Party. It has little or no presence in SA, ACT and Tas. A merged Liberal/National (Country Liberal) party forms the opposition in NT.
  • The Australian Greens. A loose alliance between formally separate Australian Greens and Greens (WA) parties, this is a decidedly left-wing environmentalist party. Their influence has ebbed and flowed since the early 1990s. Currently they seem to be on the upswing with the decline of the Democrats, the high public profile of de-facto leader Senator Bob Brown, and their success at winning a House of Representatives seat in a 2003 by-election (subsequently lost).
  • The Australian Democrats. The Australian Democrats were formed as a centrist breakaway party by ex-Liberal Senator Don Chipp in the 1970s. The party drifted left and their influence grew from the early 1980s to the late 1990s under a succession of leaders. Their powerbase has always been exclusively in the Senate, where the proportional system gives them representation. Their idiosyncratic slogan has always been "Keep the Bastards Honest". The Democrats' support base is strongest in SA, where they have come close to winning House of Representatives seats on several occasions. Since the late-1990s the party seems to have lost its way and has suffered a series of acrimonious splits. No Democrat senator was re-elected at the October 2004 or November 2007 elections.
  • Just as the Liberal Party is actually centre-right, it should be noted that Australian republicans tend to beong to the left or centre-left while the rightwing advocates retaining the monarchy.


  • Population - just over 20 million.
  • Indigenous - The indigenous population, the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, make up 2.2% of the population, according to the 2001 Census.
  • Official Language - English.
  • Other languages - Dozens of indigenous languages, many languages spoken by immigrant communities. Melbourne reputed to be the third largest Greek-speaking city in the world.


  • Major cities - Sydney, NSW, pop ~4 million; Melbourne, Vic, pop ~3.7 million; Brisbane, Qld, pop ~1.8 million; Perth, WA, pop ~1.4 million; Adelaide, SA, pop ~1.1 million.
  • Capital city - Canberra, ACT, pop ~300,000.


  • The Commonwealth of Australia is a Federation of six states. The federal seat of government is Canberra, in the Australian Capital territory.
  • There are six States, which are parties to the Constitution of Australia, and two mainland Territories (ACT, and NT) which are self-governing under powers granted by the Commonwealth Parliament. The external territories have varying degrees of self-government.
  • The State Governments are structured similarly to the Commonwealth Government with occasional significant departures.
  • The Commonwealth Government is based on a Parliamentary system of government. The separation of powers entails a legislative branch, an executive branch which emerges from and is part of the legislative branch, and an independent judiciary, plus a vice-regal component.

Legislative Branch

  • The Parliament of Australia consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate.
  • The House of Representatives consists of 150 members (MHR's), elected from single member electorates of rougly equal size, using the Preferential/IRV system (see Voting Systems). MHR's serve three-year maximum terms.
  • The Senate consists of 76 Senators. Each State elects 12 Senators, and the ACT and NT elect two each. The Senators serve fixed six-year terms with half the Senate contested at each election. Senators are elected on a State-wide basis using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional representation system (see Voting Systems).
  • The House of Representatives has sole power to introduce financial legislation. Assent of both houses is necessary for any legislation to pass.
  • The Parliament has a well developed committee system with subpoena powers, with the Senate's standing and select committees being particularly influential.
  • Federal elections are administered by an independent, neutral and professional body, the Australian Electoral Commission. The AEC, subject to judicial review, also fixes the boundaries for each federal electorate, a process known as redistribution in Australia and redistricting in the US.

Executive Branch

  • The government of the day, the executive branch, is determined by which party has a majority of - or best chance of passing legislation through - the House of Representatives.
  • The executive consists of Ministers, led by the Prime Minister. Ministers must be members of Parliament, from either house. They are known as "front benchers", due to where they sit in the parliamentary chambers.
  • The role of ministers is defined in the Constitution, but that of the Prime Minister is not. The Prime Minister derives his/her authority on the basis of the loyalty of his/her party, and is - legally speaking - simply the Minister for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  • The most senior ministers meet together in "Cabinet" which is the de-facto executive decision making body. Some Labor governments have done away with the distinction between Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers.
  • The executive is supported by the Commonwealth Public Service, with over 120,000 employees.

Judicial Branch

  • The judicial branch of the Commonwealth is independent of the other branches under the Constitution of Australia, but judges are appointed by the Prime Minister, acting through the Governor-General.
  • The highest court in the land is the High Court of Australia. There are also Federal Courts, the Family Court and other courts for matters under Commonwealth jurisdiction.
  • The Commonwealth has a number of law-enforcement arms including the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Customs, and the National Crime Commission.


  • Like Canada and New Zealand, Australia's head of State is Elizabeth II and her heirs and successors. This is the legacy of having been granted self-governing status within the British empire at federation in 1901.
  • The Queen's powers are excercised in Australia by the Governor-General, who is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister. Each State also has a Governor appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Premier.
  • The Governor-General's most significant powers are those of appointing and dismissing Governments. By convention, following an election the Governor-General will appoint to Government the party which holds a majority of the House of Representatives. The power of dismissal has been used once, in 1975 to dismiss Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, in what is known as the "Constitutional Crisis.
  • All legislation which is passed by Parliament requires "royal assent" (the signature of the Governor General). This is, by convention, a formality and the Governor-General will "rubber stamp" all legislation presented by the Parliament.
  • Royal assent is done through the "Executive Council" consisting of Ministers of the Government, who advise the Governor-General.
  • The Governor-General is the nominal head of Australia's Armed Forces. Again, by convention, these powers are used only on the advice of the prime minister of the day.


  • The Constitution of Australia is the founding document of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was agreed upon and ratified by the six British colonies who federated and became States of Australia in 1901.
  • The main functions of the Consitution are to set out the division of powers between the branches of Government, and to set out the division of powers between the Commonwealth and the States.
  • The Constitution contains no Bill of Rights. This is a misconception that many foreigners - and increasingly, Australians - have. Democratic rights in Australia are the result of convention, evolution, legislation and some liberal judicial interpretation of the constitution. The only substantial rights set out by the Constitution are the right to free trade between States, and the prohibition upon the Commonwealth establishing a State religion. The High Court has read a narrowly-defined right of political communication into the constitution.
  • Apart from the lack of a presidency and a bill of rights, the Constitution follows the US cosntitution very closely, sometimes word for word.
  • Amendments to the Constitution require a referendum where a nationwide majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of States, vote in favour of the change.

Armed Forces

  • Australia's military, the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), consists of the Australian Army, the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force.
  • The ADF is small, with a little under 60,000 uniformed troops, but highly trained.
  • The Army's main capabilities are mechanised infantry operating ALAVs, an Australian version of the US LAV, artillery and mobility divisions. There is an airborne wing operating Black Hawk, Chinook and Iroquois helicopters, and an armoured unit that operates Leopard tanks. The Army also has the elite Special Air Service (SAS) batallion, with extremely highly trained long range reconnaissance and anti-terrorism capabilities.
  • The Navy operates squadrons of Canberra-class FFG frigates, Anzac-class frigates, advanced but bug-prone Collins class submarines, infantry and vehicle landing ships, and minesweepers. It also operates large troop & helicopter landing ships and supply ships.
  • The Air Force operates F-111C long range fighter/bombers, F/A18 fighter/bombers and Hercules transport aircraft, and is procuring new air-to-air refuelling tankers and Airborne Early Warning aircraft.
  • The ADF is currently deployed to a number of areas, with the largest deployments being to East Timor, the Solomons, and to Afghanistan. The Labor Government withdrew Australian forces from Iraq in 2008,

Subnational Units of Government

States: (in order of population size)


Offshore Territories:

  • Australian Antarctic Territory
  • Cocos and Keeling Islands
  • Christmas Island
  • Norfolk Island
  • Coral Sea Islands
  • Heard and McDonald Islands
  • New South Wales - ALP Government. Premier - Morris Iemma. Legislative Assembly - Landslide majority. Legislative Council - balance of power held by minor parties & independents. Elected 1995, re-elected 1999, 2003.
  • Queensland - ALP Government. Premier - Peter Beattie. unicameral Legislatie Assembly - Landslide majority. Queensland has no Legislative Council. Elected 1998, re-elected 2001, 2004.
  • Victoria - ALP Government. Premier - Steve Bracks. Legislative Assembly - Landslide majority. Legislative Council - majority. Elected 1999, re-elected 2002.
  • Western Australia - ALP Government. Premier - Geoff Gallop. Legislative Assembly - majority. Legislative Council - Balance of power held by minor parties. Elected 2001, re-elected 2005.
  • Tasmania - ALP Government. Premier - Paul Lennon. House of Assembly - majority. Legisaltive Council - independents hold majority.
  • South Australia - ALP Government. Premier - Mike Rann. House of Assembly - minority government, supported by independents. Legislative Council - balance of power held by minor parties.
  • Australian Capital Territory - ALP Government. Chief Minister - John Stanhope. Unicameral legislative assembly - majority, re-elected in 2004.
  • Northern Territory - ALP Government. Chief Minister - Clare Martin. Unicameral legislative assembly - landslide majority, re-elected in 2005,

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