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The Australian Constitution

Systems of government in Australia, Britain and United States

Many of Australia's colonial leaders were members of colonial parliaments, which were based on the British Parliament. In drafting the Australian Constitution, they were naturally guided by the Westminster tradition in Britain. However, they also drew on fhe federal model of the United States (US). As a result, Australia's system of government was often referred to as 'Washminster'. Today it is sometimes called 'Ausminster' because the Australian Parliament has developed many of its own practices since federation.

Australia, like Britain, is a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is Australia's head of state and acts in accordance with our Constitution. In the Westminster tradition, the government is formed by the political party or parties with the support of the majority in the lower house of the Parliament (in Australia, the House of Representatives).

Like the United States, Australia faced the challenge of uniting self-governing colonies as a nation. Parts of Australia's federal system of government are based on the US model, with the power to govern shared between the national and state governments. Like the US, Australia has a written constitution, which describes many of the rules for how Australia is governed.

The names of the two chambers in the Australian Parliament came from the US Congress. In the Australian Senate, like the US Senate, a set number of senators are elected to represent states and territories, regardless of their size or population. As in the US, the Australian House of Representatives is elected on a population basis. Members represent electorates which are made up of about the same amount of voters.

Section 49 of the Australian Constitution gave the Senate and the House of Representatives the privileges of the House of Commons in the British Parliament until the two houses established their own. These privileges allow the Australian Parliament to conduct its business – to inquire, debate and make laws – without interference and to deal with any attempted interference. For example, members of parliament cannot be sued or prosecuted for anything they say in debates, nor can witnesses who appear before parliamentary committees.

The tables below set out some similarities and differences that exist in the Australian, British and US systems of government.

  Australia Britain United States
Federal government leading the nation Yes Yes Yes
Three levels of government Yes Yes Yes
Bicameral legislature (two houses in a law-making body) Yes Yes Yes
Democratic elections Yes Yes Yes
Parliamentary committee system Yes Yes Yes
Independent judiciary Yes Yes Yes


  Australia Britain United States
Type of government constitutional monarchy constitutional monarchy republic
Head of government Prime Minister Prime Minister President
Head of state Queen (represented by the Governor-General) Queen President
Federation yes no yes
Names of the two houses in the legislature House of Representatives, Senate House of Commons, House of Lords House of Representatives, Senate
Upper house elected by the people Senate – yes House of Lords – no Senate – yes
Major political parties Liberal Party of Australia,
Australian Labor Party
Labor Party, Conservative Party Democratic Party, Republican Party
Written constitution yes no yes
Compulsory voting yes no no
Highest court in the judiciary High Court Court of Appeal Supreme Court
Bill of Rights no no yes