Wesa’s guide to Federal elections and the Australian political system

As the 2016 Federal election is approaching, it is timely we talk about the Australian political system and how it works, and what it all means.

It was not until I ran as an Australian Labor Party (ALP) candidate in the 2013 election that I realised many of my friends of culturally diverse backgrounds (especially those from Chinese backgrounds) do not understand how the Australian electoral system works. I have found that when I talk to them about politics, I often have to explain the Australian political system first.

The Australian political system is very different from that of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even the United States. Many people do not understand how our Prime Minister can change without a vote from the people of Australia –in the United States this cannot happen. I’ve written my thoughts down in the hope it will help others who are trying to understand the Australian political process for the first time.

The Westminster system

I will focus only on the Australian Federal Parliament. State Parliaments are all slightly different, so I will not go into the detail of each state parliament, or for that matter, local councils. The Australian political system is based on the Westminster system, originally from the United Kingdom. Parliament consists of three components: the Monarch (the Queen), the House of Representatives, and the Senate.

The Queen

The Queen of Britain is also the symbolic head of state for Australia, known as the Queen of Australia. Her representative to the Australian people is known as the Governor-General of Australia, and is appointed by her (though advice is taken from the Federal government). The functions and responsibilities of the Governor-General include appointing ambassadors, ministers and judges, giving Royal Assent to legislation, issuing writs for elections and bestowing honours.

The House of Representatives

Parliament is made up of two houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 150 members, each elected for a flexible term of office not exceeding three years. Each person represents a single electoral division, commonly referred to as an electorate or seat. For example, in 2013, I ran as a candidate for the electorate of Higgins in Victoria.

The party or a coalition of parties that wins a majority of members of the House of Representatives forms government. The party or coalition of parties with fewer seats form what is known as the ‘Opposition’ party. I don’t like the term Opposition, because it almost provides them a mandate to ‘oppose’ everything the government does. For example, this was what Tony Abbott did when he was part of the Opposition, when the ALP was in power. He was an opponent with no solid policies, only slogans. In a perfect world, the Opposition should be providing alternative policies from the ruling government.

There are two major political parties in Australia – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Liberal Party (LIB). However, you hear the word ‘Coalition’ a lot, because the Liberals and National Party (NAT) have had a long-standing Coalition. Without the Coalition, they would never have enough seats to win government. There are also a number of minor parties and independents.

When I was running for a seat in Higgins in 2013, some people asked me, ‘If a person wins a seat in Parliament, does that mean they are in government?’ The answer is that it depends on which political party the person who won the seat is in. If the person is a member of the ruling government party, then they are in government, otherwise, they are either in Opposition, or they are a member of Parliament as an ‘independent’ or from a minor party.

In Australia, it is compulsory to vote. If people do not vote, they will get a fine. The voting system used for the House of Representative is a ‘preferential’ system. In this piece, I won’t go into details on how this system works, because it is very complex, but in practical terms, this means that voters are asked to number the candidates on their ballot in order of preference. If not every box is numbered, then a person’s vote will not be counted. People who do not understand this system, especially many from migrant backgrounds who are unfamiliar with the Australian Westminster system, will sometimes just tick the name of the candidate, or just put ‘1’ beside their preferred candidate. Unfortunately, this means that their vote is wasted.

Due to the compulsory voting system and the preferential system – it means election results are relatively predictable. Popular opinion and elections always come down to a contest between ‘two party preferred’, and this is the number of votes after the distribution of votes. So during my campaign, when people told me “I’m not going to vote for you”’. This could mean many things. It could mean ‘I’m not voting you as number 1, but I will still have you above the other major party candidate’. Or it could also mean, ‘I will put the other major party candidate above you.’ It is never clear.

There are three (3) types of electorates: safe, marginal, and safe for the opposing party. In Higgins, when I was running for a seat in 2013, although it had never been held by ALP before, the swing was at 5.4%, so I treated it as a marginal seat and ran the campaign as such. What this swing figure means is that I needed to change the views of 5.4% of all my voters (which translates to around 4,900 actual voters). In this case, I needed to change the views of those who preferenced LIB in the last election to preference me (as an ALP representative) above LIB this time. It was a difficult task, especially when people usually vote for the party in a Federal election and follow the national campaign – rather than the local one.

Many candidates from one party running in another party’s safe seat do not always work hard, because it is very unlikely for them to win the seat. I cannot accept that. I think it is disrespectful to voters. Regardless of the chances of winning the seat, candidates should still work hard to engage voters, and also to use their strengths to help candidates in their own party who may be campaigning in other electorates. I had many ALP voters who came up to me and thanked me for working hard because they do not always see ALP candidates in the area. They felt they had been neglected.

Forming government

In 2013, at the time of my campaign, Australia had a minority government. What that means is that after the 2010 election, neither ALP nor the Coalition had a majority to form government. To form government, the ALP, led by Julia Gillard, negotiated with the Greens and the Independents to support the ALP to form government. Tony Abbott also attempted to do the same, but failed. For that reason, the ALP formed a minority government with the Greens and a few other minority parties.

It is also because of having a minority government that there was a fragile environment for the ALP. They had to balance party interests carefully to ensure legislation was passed. It also gave the Coalition, headed by Tony Abbott, the opportunity to focus on bringing down a fragile government by opposing everything.

After government is formed, the leader of the party usually becomes Prime Minister. This is very different from the President of the United States, who is directly elected by the people. It also means that the Prime Minister in Australia must be familiar with all legislation being proposed or implemented by their party, be able to debate it in Parliament, as well as able to communicate this to the people of Australia. It is a very difficult role.

The Senate

The Australian Senate has 76 members. The six states return twelve senators each, and the two territories return two senators each. The Senate is seen as a ‘house of review’, where the review of proposed legislation happens before it turns into law. It is possible for the government to not have the ‘balance of power’ in the Senate, which means they have the majority in the House of Representative, but not in the Senate. If that is the case, it is possible that the government cannot pass any legislation if they are blocked in the Senate. It is also easier to elect smaller parties to the Senate because of the voting system. Senate candidates are preselected by the party. The system used for the Senate is a ‘proportional’ voting system. Because this system is even more complex than the preferential system, so I won’t go into detail here.

Elected representatives and the business of government

The role of elected representatives is to debate legislation in parliament and develop policies that guide and provide directions to government Departments. People who work in government departments (known as ‘public servants’) must work for the government of the day to implement policies – regardless of any political allegiances. This provides relative political stability in Australia, as the obligations of public servants means that nothing can just change overnight, just because a new government comes into power.

Having said that, a change of government may mean a change of policies, and may disrupt the normal running of Departments. For that reason, if the government is an experienced one, and if they understand the running of Departments, this will mean a smooth transition, otherwise, transition can be disruptive and sometimes even destructive.

For example in Australia, many non-profit organisations rely on government funding. For some, 100% of their revenue comes from government (local, state and Federal). Social support services are outsourced through government departments, and funding is only allocated if it meets the priorities of the government of the day.

When I was a senior manager at a disability organisation, I saw how changes in government can affect people and organisations who rely on government funding. Organisations that receive funding from government cannot plan programs beyond the term of government (especially when the government is fragile). People who rely on government funding can suddenly change with short notice. The effectiveness of a government depends on how well government understands this process.

It is very important for new migrants, including those from Asian Australian backgrounds, to understand the way the political system works, particularly so we are able to participate meaningfully in elections. I hope this gives readers further insight into the workings of the Australian political system.

First appeared: Peril Magazine



澳大利亞國會制度為西敏制沿循英國國會體制的議會民主制,以其所在的西敏為名。簡單說西敏制有三部份,國家元首是英女皇的代表(Governor General of Australia),下議院及上議院。 英女皇的地位乃為政府之象徵, 她的代表名為澳洲元首,現為Sir Peter John Cosgrove, AK, MC。他的權力包括委任大使,法官,御批法律,還有選舉以後擔任委任總理及部長的正式儀式。

議院分下議院及上議院,下議院共150位議員,上議院共76位議員。選舉每大概三年一次(可以短過三年)。每位下議院議員代表一個選區,另位每個省選12位議員為上議院議員(另外兩個領地各兩位)。2013年我是帶表的選區位於維省的Higgins下議院選區。150個選區選一位議員,然後計算那個政黨贏了多少個選區,選區多的政黨成為執政黨,這個黨派亦成為澳洲政府。另一大政黨成為反對黨。我不太喜歡”反對黨“的名稱,因為反對黨由於其名就是什麼都反對。當袖托尼.艾伯特(Tony Abbott)是反對黨領袖的時候就是一個很好的例子,什麼都反對。他是這樣成為前總理的。其實最好的反對黨會准備其它政策給選民一些選擇。

澳洲有兩大黨派工黨(Australian Labor Party)與自由黨(Australian Liberal Party)。有時候你會看到或聽到Coalition,這是自由黨及國家黨(National Party)聯盟。這是因為如果他們不聯在一起,永遠都沒機會執政。另外澳洲也有其他的小政黨 。當議員選進了議院要看他們是那個政黨,如果是執政黨的他們是政府(Government),其他的是反對黨議員,一位小政黨議員或無黨派議員。

2010年的選舉工黨沒有大比數勝出,所以當時的工黨領袖朱莉婭·吉拉德(Julia Gillard)跟綠黨及無黨派的議員的同意才能成為執政政府。當時袖托尼.艾伯特(Tony Abbott)也有嘗試跟其他議員商議,但失敗了,最後工黨成為少數派政府。少數派政府通常是不穩定的,因為不是工黨的議員可以因為一些政策或政治理由不同意政府。這也給袖托尼.艾伯特機會成功成為一位什麼也反對的反對黨領袖。

很多人會問為甚麼澳洲總理可以五年換四次?最近特恩布尓(Malcolm Turnbull)這麼成為澳洲總理?澳洲總理為政黨領袖,跟美國總統不同。澳洲總理是執政黨的議員選出來的,並不是澳洲人民選出來的。看過往這些鬥爭常會見到的,這樣換總理亦不是第一次。保罗·基廷(Paul Keating)在1991年也是這樣成為澳洲總理的。如要更改有兩個方法,一就是政黨內部的章程改掉,二是把整個政治體系架構改掉。從陸克文第二次上台以後工黨內部已經作出更改,令工黨以後難一點改總理。為什麼不令政黨完全不能換總理?這是有原因的,澳洲總理除了要跟選民溝通,其實最重要是跟他的同僚(他同政黨的議員)商議政策和立法。盡管很受選民歡迎,如果總理不能跟其它議員一起辦事,政府亦不能運作。給一點弹性也許是有必要的。政改是可以但須要公民投票。

常常換政府澳洲一定欠穩定性?不一定的,應為議員以外還有政府部門,部門處長通常是委任的,任期定了不能任意開除,還有在任期間不能是政黨黨員 。他們會給政府部門一點穩定性,也令政黨不能任意妄為隔夜把所有方案全部換掉。當然政策方針仍是會改,不過改也需要一段時間。稱職的政府會領更換政策方針的時候怎樣可以平穩一點。

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