The Australian political system is a combination of responsible government and federalism. It is sometimes referred to as the "Washminster" system since it was based on both the English (Westminster) and American (Washington) parliaments.

The National Government

Like both parent systems, Australia's national government consists of two houses, the House of Representatives (or Lower House) and the Senate (or Upper House).

The Lower House consists of members representing geographical electorates that are theoretically equal in numbers of voters (meaning that some electorates are much larger than others). Members are elected using a preferential voting system, that is, each voter numbers the candidates in the order that they prefer them, and then each lowest scoring candidates' votes are redistributed according to the next preference until a single candidate has more than 50% of the vote. This system generally means that minor parties with a broad, non-localised following are excluded - i.e. 10% popularity in all electorates won't get you anywhere, but 51% in only one electorate will.

The Executive, consisting of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers (e.g. Treasurer, Minister of Defence, etc) are elected by the MHRs (Members of the House of Representatives).

The Upper House members (or Senators) are elected by a proportional preferential voting system by state, where each state has a set number of senators. In other words, if 10% of the voters in a particular state vote for Party A, then 10% of the senators in that state are from that party. This system means that the minor parties have much greater representation in the Upper House.

In practise, the Upper House is a house of review, exercising the power of veto over legislation originated in the lower house. Theoretically, the Houses are almost equal in power - the main difference being that the Upper house may not originate bills that spend government money, and that the Prime Minister must come from the Lower House.

The State Governments

Responsible Government is where the Government is ultimately responsible to the people - it is voted for by the populace, and if it does not meet the population's needs, it can be voted out. More technically, the Executive is voted from within the legislature, meaning that the potential for conflict between the Executive and the legislature is minimised. So far, I have described such a system. However, Australia's political system is also a federal one, in that there are separate States, each with their own governments that are, in theory, equal in status to the National government, since the State governments answer directly to the Queen (yes, the British one, thanks for asking), not the National Government.

The State Governments are elected in a fairly similar manner to the National government (except that in some states there is no Upper House). Theoretically, there is a division of responsibilites between National and State governments - e.g. Defence, Public Health Insurance, universities are controlled by the National government, while hospitals, schools, police forces are State areas. However, in fact there are many areas of overlap (e.g. roads).

Inherent Tension in the System

Thus, there is inherent tension within the Australian political system. The National legislature is a form of Responsible Government, which requires absolute legislative power (in exchange for absolute responsibility). Meanwhile, the federal, state based system requires a division of power among equal states.

In other words, both the National government and the State governments can be held responsible for things they have no control over. For example, crime might be a very important issue in a National election, but the National government cannot increase the State-controlled police forces. The State government might wish to increase the police force, but relies on the Federal government for most of its funding.

Compulsory Secret Polling

It is usually stated that Australia has "compulsory voting" using a "secret ballot". This is almost true. It is more correct to say that Australia has "compulsory polling". That is, there is a fine for not appearing at a polling booth and putting a ballot paper in the ballot box. It is NOT illegal to put a blank ballot paper in the box (and therefore casting an "informal" vote which is not counted).

The main effect compared to voluntary polling systems is that political parties are focused on convincing undecided voters to vote a particular way (usually via "scare tactics"), this is in contrast to a voluntary voting system which concentrate on convincing partisan voters to turn up and vote (usually via "scare tactics"). Looking at it another way, in America you get all the extremists deciding government, whereas in Australia you get all the bogans that couldn't give a fuck deciding government. Says a lot about the difference between the two countries, IMHO.

It is illegal to attempt to discern what a voter has written on his/her ballot paper unless they have asked for help.

Major Parties

The major political parties in Australia are the Liberal Party, The Nationals and the Australian Labor Party.

Minor parties include: The Greens, the Nick Xenophon Group and the Palmer United Party.

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