Further reading about the Constitution

Fact sheet
Reading includes changing the Constitution, dynamics in government, implications of a republic, federation and proclamation day.

What is Democracy?

The term democracy is derived from ancient Greek and means 'rule by the people'. In a democracy, the people have the right to have a say in how they are governed and what laws are passed. There are two types of democracy - 'direct democracy' and 'representative democracy'. Direct democracy existed in Athens in Ancient Greece, where all eligible citizens could vote on every issue. Representative democracy exists in modern societies where it is not practical for all citizens to vote on every issue. Instead, citizens vote in elections to choose people to represent them and make decisions on their behalf.

What is a constitution?

A constitution, in principle, sits above the "ordinary" laws that government make day-to-day. It is the fundamental law that binds together the political process.

Constitutions can consist of both written and unwritten components. The unwritten components are known as conventions, or accepted practices that constitute formal rules.

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia is in a single document.

The Western Australian Constitution is found in two main and several supplementary documents.

"A constitution is a set of rules defining a system of government. It describes the institutional structure, the conditions under which power is held and exercised, and the procedures through which the rules themselves may be changed". Alan Fenna, Essentials of Australian Government. Croydon Vic: Tertiary Press 2000

What is a Constitutional Democracy?

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A constitution is the framework of government and the rules about how it is governed.

Australia is a constitutional democracy and government consists of more than just a written document. It is a democratic political system where people are an integral part of the decision making process through elections.

Responsible government

Responsible government is a system of government that embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability which is the foundation of the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy. Governments (the equivalent of the executive branch) in Westminster democracies are responsible to parliament (and if bicameral, primarily to the lower house, which is more numerous, directly elected and more representative than the upper house) rather than to the monarch, or, in the colonial context top the imperial government.


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A federation is a system of government with two levels that share governing responsibility between a single national authority and several state (or regional) authorities.

The national level of governance looks after national concerns such as currency, defence and taxation while the state level looks after state concerns such as the provision of health, road and education services.


Federalism means, in a system of government, that powers are divided between two levels of government, each of which has final authority over particular matters. It has been described as a means for combining self-rule with shared rule. Applied to a system of government it means that some decisions are made by a single central level of government and others by more local levels of government.

In Australia, these two levels are called the Commonwealth and the States. Most federations, including Australia, have a third level of government, which is more local still.

Apart from Australia, some of the main federations in the word are the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and India. While all different form each other, they have things in common:

  • All have written constitutions
  • All except Switzerland interpret and enforce their constitution through courts. The Constitutions of each of them divides power and financial resources between the levels of government, although they do this in different ways
  • All create at least some central institution of government in which various parts of the federation are represented. In Australia, for example, the Senate is the Upper House of the Commonwealth Parliament but has an equal number of representatives from each State.

What are the main features if the Australian federal system?

Key features:

  • Federal constitution which provides the basic rules for the operation of the federation and sets out the powers of the federal Parliament
  • Power and authority that is shared between federal and state parliaments, governments and courts
  • National government, located in Canberra, which governs the nation
  • Six state governments and two territory governments, located in the capital cities, which govern many activities sin that state or territory
  • Bicameral system:
    • with single member representation for the House of Representatives. This system is designed to elect major parties and support efficient government
    • with multi-member representation for the Senate . This system elects 12 senators for each state and is designed to protect the interests of the states and minority groups.
  • High Court of Australia, which is the final court of appeal and which interprets the Australian Constitution, and resolves legal disputes between the Australian Parliament or Government and the states

Three levels of government

There are three levels of government in Australia:

  • Federal
  • State
  • Local

Each level has different responsibilities and powers. As a result, most Australians are governed by three sets of laws and deal with three sets of officials, electing representatives to three governing bodies.

Australian citizens 18 years of age and older may vote in local council elections, State Parliament elections and at national elections for the Federal Parliament.

Federal government

All eligible Australians within their respective federal electorates under a compulsory voting system elect individual members. The party or parties (coalition) with a  majority of members in the House of Representatives forms the Government.

In accordance with the Australian Constitution, the Government is responsible for all matters concerning Australia as a nation, such as defence, foreign affairs, telecommunications and customs.

State government

Eligible voters within their respective State electorate under a compulsory voting system elect individual members. The party or parties (coalition) with a majority of members in the Legislative Assembly forms the government. The Government is responsible for all matters not mentioned in the Australian Constitution including police, education, water supply, electricity supply, health, agriculture, planning and housing.

Local government

Local government representatives are elected by eligible electors in their residential wards under a non-compulsory voting system. They are responsible for a wide range of services provided direct to electors, including libraries, rubbish removals, parks, recreation centres, bicycle paths, parking and local roads.

The Three Arms of Government

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In Australia, the power to make and manage federal law is divided between three groups: Parliament, Executive and Judiciary.

Separation of powers

The division between the three groups is known as the "separation of powers" and is an important principle in Australia's system of governance.

History has shown that checks on the use of power are important for preventing misuse of power. Separation of powers avoids a monopoly of power by any one group. Each group works within its area of responsibility and also keeps a check on the actions of the other groups.

Our system of government is organised into three arms and these are known as:

  • the legislative arm - democratically elected representatives debating new laws
  • the executive arm - responsible for enacting and upholding the laws passed in the parliament
  • the judicial arm - independent of the legislative and executive, it interprets Australian law and ensures that laws do not go beyond their constitutional power.


Preparing Teachers for a Civil Society by Peter Reynolds
Foundation of the Constitutional Centre by Dr Harry Phillips - Constitutional Centre of Western Australia.
Page reviewed 27 April 2020