Over a century as a nation, Australia has grown and cemented as a Federal Commonwealth inside its basic constitutional framework, but in ways that the founders could not have imagined. The constitutional text lays forth the Federal Commonwealth’s institutional framework, with the first and most important chapter dealing with Parliament (Saunders, 2020). According to section 1, the Commonwealth’s legislative power is bestowed in ‘a Federal Parliament,’ consisting of the House of Representatives, Queen, and a Senate. It is referred to as simply ‘The Parliament’ or ‘The Parliament of the Commonwealth.’ While the phrase “Federal Parliament” is often used in public and political discourse, the Parliament’s federal nature has received less attention in official criticism and the current study. This paper outlines the Australian Federal government and discusses if it remains viable in the 21st century.
In Australia, the federation was a timely extension of self-government to the national level. It maintained Australia’s membership in the British Empire while preserving the colonies as States with established local government structures. Since local government falls under state jurisdiction, the Constitution did not address a situation that some would seek to change through constitutional recognition. The way the Executive was formed informal monarchic terms with a vice-regal surrogate was influenced by Imperial membership, making modern republicanism technically difficult. It also influenced how, until the 1940s, the Executive’s power over foreign affairs and treaties were left unrestricted because it was to be used by the British Imperial government.
Federation was a process of nation-building on a federal basis within the remaining traditions and structures of Australian colonial rule. The founders’ federal system separated government powers into the federal or national realm (known as the ‘Commonwealth’ in Australia) and the sub-national or provincial sphere (known as the ‘State’ in Australia). Federalism necessitates a supreme court to resolve jurisdictional disputes and issue authoritative judgments on the interpretation and scope of the stated powers and a guiding constitutional instrument that specifies the institutional framework and division of powers. Federalism is opposed to parliamentary sovereignty and the importance of one sector of government over the other. Since the Constitution limits the powers of both the Commonwealth and state legislatures, this is the case. The people have sovereign authority over the constitutional structure under a federal democracy like Australia’s, and they participate as citizens in both realms of government. This federal duality is merely one aspect of a larger set of citizenship ties that includes local and global ties (British Imperial at Federation).
Additionally, Parliament as a federal institution is taken into consideration. The foundational consensus on federal arrangements hid significant discrepancies in crucial parts of the Federal Parliament’s institutional construction. The first was about what powers Parliament should have concerning the states, and the second was about how a traditionally responsible government administration would work with a Federal Parliament. Both of these problems were critical in determining the new Parliament’s structure and relative power. The Commonwealth Parliament would be theoretically stronger with the States if it had more or more widely defined powers. The new Parliament would resemble a Westminster Parliament rather than a federal legislature with coequal Houses if the Senate was adjusted to fit more easily with responsible administration headquartered in the House of Representatives. This would permit a more centralized government. On these concerns, the founders could attain a level of consensus and compromise that allowed them to agree on the constitutional architecture. Combining federalism and the responsible government had other incompatibilities that skeptics like Richard Baker and John Hackett may have only hazily anticipated (Aroney, 2016). Federalism, which separates government into various sectors, necessitates substantial inter-governmental connections and arrangements, especially where such separation is heavily contemporary, as it is in Australia. The resulting system of ‘executive federalism’ involves interactions between the Commonwealth and state governments through ministerial councils and agreements that are not subject to parliamentary oversight.
Putting aside these obstacles, identifying the major institutional arrangements whose interplay is critical to Parliament’s emergence as a federal institution and its function in the larger federal system. One is the internal dynamic of responsible government-Senate interactions, being addressed. The other is Parliament’s use of its powers concerning the states and the High Court’s judicial review in conflict situations. The greater arena of domestic politics and international affairs is where these two institutional forces are playing out. Furthermore, powers can be delegated to the states, or the Commonwealth can be given exclusive or concurrent powers.
The Australian Constitution accomplished these elements: A moderate articulation of Commonwealth powers; most of these powers were concurrent, but the Commonwealth could override the states and monopolize the field, and residual powers were reserved for the states (Patapan, 2016). Additionally, the possibility of referring powers to a third party, as provided for by Section 51 of the Constitution. The Commonwealth has the option of going it alone and occupying the field, overriding any State legislation in the region if necessary—the monopoly option. Alternatively, the Commonwealth can share authority with the States in its areas of jurisdiction and engage in intergovernmental interactions to foster collaboration and resolve issues (the ‘concurrent’ option). The impact of Parliament on federal development is mostly due to its involvement in the Commonwealth-State realm.
Lastly, when a centralizing Commonwealth gets too much, and the States questions the execution of its power, the High Court plays a role in Australian federal development. At least nominally, the Court’s opinions on federalism, including the scope of Commonwealth authorities, will be crucial. Therefore, it is important because, despite winning the jurisdiction struggle, the government may be restricted from using its rights due to political pressures or presumptions. A similar situation was in the 1920s when the moderate Bruce-Page administration was unsuccessful in taking advantage of the Designers’ choices (Wilks, 2020), which resulted in a potentially vast jurisdictional scope for extending Commonwealth powers. Additionally, in recent times, the government has been limited in its ability to use its recognized authorities to control environmental concerns in which the States have a significant role. The function of the Supreme Court provides a new dimension to federal growth. However, its practical implications are inextricably linked to the political dynamics of intergovernmental interactions.
Regarding the 21st century, several reforms have taken place in the Australian federal government to maintain it. The first approach is to reorganize the federation by reassigning distinct functional authorities regularly: This strategy frequently highlights the benefits of horizontal and vertical competitive federalism and clearer accountability for outcomes (Tomlinson, 2017). The distribution of functions is often based on subsidiarity principles, which incorporate various factors in making decisions regarding the optimal levels of government for certain responsibilities and tasks. In some circumstances, the technique may argue for changes in the number of jurisdictions or their boundaries. Reverting to the original constitutional provisions is sometimes urged as a functional allocation, but this is not always practicable or clear.
Secondly, the federation reform as new or enhanced forms of intergovernmental cooperation plays a critical role in maintenance: This approach views many of the government’s duties as integrally intertwined, making cooperation vital for the best results. The topic of reform is frequently framed as ensuring that all parties are treated equally at the table. Information and learning systems facilitate accountability and continual performance improvement in the achievement of agreed-upon outcomes. In principle, this method does not need any particular vertical assignment of duties, but rather that effective ways of coordinating shared jurisdictional interests in them be in place. This strategy has already played a significant role in efforts to create more competitive and seamless national marketplaces.
Therefore, although it does not have the field totally to itself, the Parliament is at the heart of Australian federalism and remains a significant factor in national political debate. In turn, the larger factors that have produced Australian federalism have continued to shape Parliament as an institution. Moreover, two sets of concerns have played a role in the rise of federal power: Commonwealth vs. State powers and responsible government vs. the Senate. The future of Australian federalism is uncertain; Healthy institutions are likely to pursue their own self-interest with enthusiasm by maintaining, developing, and solidifying their own domain. Much will be determined by how Parliament designs and how it implements the democratic and national ambitions of the Australian people.
Aroney, N. (2016). Reforming Australian Federalism: The white paper process in comparative perspective. A People’s Federation (Federation Press) Forthcoming.
Patapan, H. (2016). Australian federalism: An innovation in constitutionalism. In A. Ward & L. Ward (Eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism (pp. 503-520). London: Routledge.
Saunders C. (2020) Australia (Commonwealth of Australia). In A. Griffiths, R. Chattopadhyay, J. Light, & C. Stieren (Eds.) The forum of federations handbook of federal countries 2020. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Web.
Tomlinson, R. (2017). An argument for metropolitan government in Australia. Cities, 63, 149-153.
Wilks, S. (2020). Now is the psychological moment’: Earle page and the imagining of Australia. Canberra: ANU Press.