Australia : Constitution and politics


Monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II
Parliament of Australia

Under the Australian constitution, the legislative power of the Commonwealth of Australia is vested in the Parliament of the Commonwealth, which consists of the monarch, the Senate (the upper house) and the House of Representatives (the lower house). Queen Elizabeth II is represented by a Governor-General who holds the office for a five-year term. The Senate comprises 76 senators, 12 from each of the six states, and two from each of the two territories. Senators are directly elected for six years; half the Senate retires every three years. The House of Representatives comprises 150 members directly elected; elections – using the preferential voting system – for both houses are held simultaneously at a maximum of three-year intervals. There is compulsory universal suffrage for all Australians over the age of 18. All amendments to the constitution must be passed by absolute majority in both houses. There must then be a referendum in every state.

Each of the states also has its own government, with a Governor representing the Queen. Five states have bicameral legislatures, and Queensland has a single chamber. The federal government is responsible for administration of the Australian Federal Territory and, since 1978, Northern Territory has had a degree of self-government.


Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal–National coalition was comfortably returned for a third consecutive term in November 2001, winning 81 seats (Liberal Party 68, National Party 13) to Labor Party’s 65. In an election dominated by the issue of Asian immigration, the government’s firm action in August 2001 of denying a shipload of Afghan asylum-seekers entry into the country seemed to have proved decisive.

The October 2004 election which had been thought too close to predict was again won comfortably by the Liberal–National coalition and Howard was returned to government, winning 85 seats (Liberal Party 73, National Party 12) while the Labor Party took 57.

Kevin Rudd became the Labor Party leader in December 2006.

In the fiercely fought contest, in November 2007, the Labor Party took 84 seats, the Liberal–National coalition 64 and independent candidates two; Rudd became Prime Minister and immediately signalled a significant shift in domestic and foreign policy by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

In September 2008, Quentin Bryce was sworn in as Australia’s 25th Governor-General; she is the first woman to hold the post.

In June 2010, after a dramatic fall in the popularity of Prime Minister Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard successfully challenged Rudd for the Labor Party leadership and became Prime Minister, the first woman to hold the post.

In the early general election in August 2010 neither Labor (winning 72 out of 150 seats in the lower house) nor the Liberal–National coalition led by Tony Abbott (73 seats) was able to secure a parliamentary majority. The remaining seats were won by the Green Party (one) and independents (four). After several weeks of negotiations with these members, Gillard was successful in winning the support of the Green Party member and three of the independents, giving the Labor party a narrow overall majority.

In June 2013, when polls suggested the Labor Party would lose the election due in September, Rudd ousted Gillard in a Labor Party leadership election (57:45). On 27 June he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

The Labor government was ousted in the federal election of 7 September 2013. The Liberal–National coalition led by Tony Abbott secured 90 seats and the Labor Party 55. The remaining seats were won by the Green Party (one), Katter’s Australian Party (one), Palmer United Party (one) and independents (two). Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister.

On 28 March 2014, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Peter Cosgrove, was sworn in as Australia’s 26th Governor-General.

Head of government

The Rt Hon Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister
The Hon Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as the 29th Prime Minister of Australia on 15 September 2015. He was re-elected following the 2016 election in July.