The Commonwealth of Australia, an independent, self-governing nation within the Commonwealth of Nations, has a federal parliamentary government. The federation was formed on 1 January 1901 from six former British colonies, which thereupon became states. The constitution combines the traditions of British parliamentary practice with important elements of the US federal system. Powers of the federal government are enumerated and limited.
The government consists of the British sovereign, represented by a governor-general, and the Australian Parliament. The Reverend Dr. Peter John Hollingsworth became the new Governor-General in June 2001, succeeding Sir William Deane, who had held the post since 1996. Nominally, executive power is vested in the governor-general and an executive council, which gives legal form to cabinet decisions; in practice, however, it is normally exercised by a cabinet chosen and presided over by a prime minister, representing the political party or coalition with a majority in the House of Representatives. The number of cabinet ministers is variable.
Legislative power is vested in the Parliament, which is composed of a 76-member Senate, representing the states and territories, and a 150-member House of Representatives, representing electoral districts. Members must be Australian citizens of full age, possess electoral qualification, and have resided for three years in Australia. Twelve senators are elected by proportional representation from each state voting as a single electorate, and two senators each from the Northern Territory and Capital Territory. They are elected for six years, with half the members retiring at the end of every third year. House membership is not quite double that of the Senate, with a minimum of five representatives for each state. House members are elected according to population by preferential voting in specific electoral districts; they serve for three years, unless the House is dissolved sooner. There are two members each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory; they have been able to vote on all questions since 1968. Parliament must meet at least once a year. Taxation and appropriation measures must be introduced in the lower house; the Senate has the power to propose amendments, except to money bills, and to defeat any measure it may choose.
The parties in the House elect their leaders in caucus. The party or coalition with a majority of seats forms the government. The leader of the majority party becomes prime minister and selects his cabinet from members of his party who are members of Parliament, while the leader of the principal minority party becomes leader of the official opposition. The party in power holds office as long as it retains its majority or until the governor-general decides that new elections are necessary; he exercised this inherent constitutional power during the 1975 crisis when he dismissed Prime Minister Whitlam and called for new elections.
In the 1990s, the Labour Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Paul Keating, proposed a referendum to change Australia to a republican form of government. The idea gained wide support. After the 1996 federal elections, the coalition majority decided to host a constitutional convention to decide the issue. The constitutional convention met in February 1998, and voted in favor of replacing the British monarch as the head of Australia's government (73 voted in favor, 57 against), and Australia becoming a republic by the year 2001 (89 voted in favor, 52 against). But in November 1999's popular referendum, the proposal to convert Australia to a republic failed to carry even a single state.
Suffrage is universal for all persons 18 years of age and older, subject to citizenship and certain residence requirements. Voting is compulsory in national and state parliamentary elections.