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Understanding the Aussie Election

“New and Old Parliament Houses, seen from the northeast across Lake Burley Griffin.” (Photo by flickr user Joseph Younis, Oct. 10, 2008.)

Elections for Australia’s federal Parliament will be held this weekend on September 7, 2013.  Initially, in January of this year, the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced that September 14 would be the election date.  But in June a new prime minister, Kevin Rudd (who is also a former prime minister), took over and in early August announced the new election date, officially kicking off a one month campaign period.  He took over not as a result of a popular vote but due to a leadership challenge within the majority party in Parliament.  Confused yet?  Clearly, the system in Australia is very different from the presidential system and congressional elections here in the United States.

Here are some of the interesting facts about the Australian federal elections and system of government:

  • Australia has a parliamentary system of government that follows the Westminster model in terms of the executive being determined by the party (or a coalition of parties) with the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, but that also features a federalist Senate as in the U.S. Congress.
  • Under the Westminster model, the members of the executive government (known as ministers, with the prime minister being the leader of the majority party) are drawn from the Parliament and are directly answerable to the legislature.  If you’ve ever watched “Question Time” in the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, for example, you would have seen this process in action.  Under this system, the party with the second largest number of seats in the House of Representatives is officially recognized as the “Opposition” and performs a key role in the checks and balances between the executive and legislature.
  • There are no term limits for the post of prime minister.  Australia has had twenty-seven prime ministers since 1901.  The longest total term was eighteen years (Robert Menzies), while the shortest term was eight days (Michael Forde).
  • Official home of the Governor-General of Australia, Yarralumla, in Canberra.” (Photo by flickr user Philip Brookes, Dec. 27, 2008.)

    Australia is a constitutional monarchy.  Under the Australian Constitution, the Queen (that is, the Queen of the United Kingdom (etc.), who is the head of state of Australia), represented by the Governor-General, is officially part of the Parliament, along with the upper and lower houses.  Both houses have largely equal powers and proposed legislation (i.e., bills) must be passed by each one.  The Governor-General assents to bills passed by Parliament, converting them to Acts – basically, he or she signs bills into law, as the president does in the U.S.

  • The Governor-General also has executive-type functions, including appointing ministers, acting as Commander-in-Chief of the defence forces, and deciding when to prorogue (suspend) or dissolve Parliament as well as issuing writs of election.  These functions, however, are carried out on the advice of the prime minister, although the Governor-General does have some “reserve powers” that can be exercised independently (a very rare occurrence indeed).  The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen (her only real role in the Australian system), who also acts on the advice of the prime minister in this regard.  Although the Constitution gives the Queen or her representative the power to disallow an Australian Act of Parliament, “this has never been done and it is extremely unlikely that it would ever be done.”  Therefore, there is not really a possibility of a veto as there is in the U.S.
  • The Australian Broadcasting Company: Federal Election Broadcast Team (Dec. 1931) (Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation flickr page.)

    The general election on September 7 will elect the entire House and half the Senate.  There are a total of 76 seats in the Senate, made up of twelve representatives from each of Australia’s six states and two members each for the two mainland territories: Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory.  The House currently consists of 150 seats with each seat representing an electoral division – commonly called an electorate.  The number of seats can vary as a result of adjustments to the electoral division boundaries to reflect population changes (what we’d call “redistricting” here in the U.S., although the process is different).  Each state is guaranteed at least five House members under the Constitution.  All states except Tasmania have a lot more than this now though, with the numbers depending on population size.  New South Wales has the most seats, with the state comprising 48 electoral divisions.

  • Two different electoral systems apply to the House and Senate elections: members of the Senate are elected using a proportional representation system called “single transferable vote” (STV), while House members are elected through a preferential ballot system.  The preferential ballot system means that, rather than voting for just one person, voters rank all candidates in order of preference.  A candidate is elected only if he or she has the support of a majority of voters.  Just to confuse you, the Senate STV system is also a preferential system – voters rank the candidates, and a candidate is elected once they pass a quota; surplus votes are transferred to other candidates in order of voter preferences.  In fact, outside of the federal elections, these different voting systems are used to elect representatives to state and territory parliaments across Australia.
  • Senate Swearing In. (Photo by flickr user Greens MPs, Aug. 26, 2008.)

    A term of the House of Representatives expires after three years, but it can be dissolved earlier.  The term of office for senators is six years, with the commencement date on July 1 following a periodical election.  This period, and the principle of rotation of senators, was “based on comparable provisions in the Constitution of the United States concerning the United States Senate.”  On August 5 this year, the Governor-General dissolved the House, prorogued the Senate, and issuedwrits” that set the election date and other key dates.  Writs for the election of senators are issued by the governors of each state.  However, “[t]he practice is for the governors of the states (when the elections are concurrent) to fix times and polling places identical with those for the elections for the House of Representatives.”

  • There was originally supposed to be a referendum on amending the Constitution (in relation to allowing direct funding of local councils) to be held in conjunction with the general election, but rules on referenda in the Constitution meant that this could not happen – the timing requirements for providing information to the public wouldn’t be met.
  • The last election in 2010 resulted in a “hung Parliament” where no one party (or alliance) held a majority of seats in the House – something that hadn’t occurred since the 1940 election.  The Constitution doesn’t actually provide rules for what happens in this situation; rather “[a]ccording to constitutional experts, hung parliaments are resolved by a set of unwritten rules or conventions inherited from the United Kingdom.”  In the end, the Australian Labor Party (with 72 seats) was able to form a “minority government” with the support of three independent members and the member elected from the Australian Greens.  For the coming election, the leaders of both major parties have said that they will not make any deals with minor parties or independents this time around.
  • It is compulsory for Australian citizens over 18 years of age to enroll to vote in federal elections, and it is also compulsory for enrolled voters to vote.  People who don’t vote can be fined.  According to a 2006 report, “[t]he turnout at Australian elections has never fallen below 90% since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924.”  In 2010, voter turnout was over 93% for both the Senate and House elections.  In addition to compulsory voting, the electoral law mandates that federal elections be held on a Saturday.  Early voting by post or in person starts around three weeks prior.

So, back to the original points about the leadership change and the flexibility of the election date.  The first of these things is possible because the prime minister is the person with the support of his or her party that has attained the majority of seats in the House – if the party decides to change its leader at any stage, then that person will become the prime minister.  The takeover results from what is called a “leadership spill” – essentially a vacancy declaration that leads to a ballot being held within the relevant party.  A few months before the 2010 election, Julia Gillard won a spill vote after then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided not to contest it.  Almost exactly three years later, Rudd retook the leadership position in another spill.  As it is the prime minister that advises the Governor-General on the date for the general election, it was Prime Minister Rudd that ended up making the final call on this.

There are several big issues that have come up in the election campaigning this year.  Just as in the 2010 election, there is the ongoing question about approaches and procedures relating to asylum seekers (particularly “boat people” who may pay smugglers in attempts to reach Australia).  Another topic of discussion is the Coalition’s paid parental leave proposal under which working women would get 26 weeks of parental leave “at full replacement wage up to a maximum annual salary of $150,000.”  The Labor Party argues that the proposal would be too costly.  In terms of tax and spending debates, climate change policies are also a hot topic, with the leader of the Coalition saying that the parties would seek to repeal the Labor government’s carbon tax that was enacted in 2011.  In addition, proposals for a National Broadband Network have been put forward by both parties, with debate surrounding the cost and effectiveness of the different approaches.

Australia and the U.S. have had a formal alliance since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951.  Earlier this year, an Australian Defence White Paper highlighted that this alliance “continues to be the bedrock of Australia’s defence, security, and strategic arrangements.”  The two countries also signed a free trade agreement in 2004, and total goods trading between them amounted to $40.7 billion in 2012 – Australia is currently the U.S.’s 21st largest goods trading partner, while the U.S. is the 11th largest export market for Australian goods.  Both countries are involved in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

You can follow Australian election and political news on Twitter by checking out the #auspol and #ausvotes hashtags.  People also use #auslaw for tweets about Australian legal news.  If you need help researching Australian law you can submit a request via our Ask a Librarian service or come and use our extensive collection of Australian law materials.

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