Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth of Nations, which is headed by the British monarch. Australia recognizes the sovereignty of the British monarch, who is represented in Australia by a governor general. Australia’s political system is a parliamentary democracy that operates according to the Westminster model. The main features of the Westminster system are that the majority in the lower house of parliament forms the government and appoints the prime minister, who selects a cabinet accountable to the lower house. The minority parties form a loyal opposition. Australia’s government adheres to federalism, whereby power is divided between the national government (also known as the commonwealth) and the states.

Constitution: Australia’s constitution was approved on July 9, 1900, and went into effect on January 1, 1901. It is partly modeled after the U.S. constitution, but it does not include a “bill of rights.” The constitution establishes a federal system, whereby the national government, or commonwealth, and the states share power. The constitution clearly defines the powers of the commonwealth, and residual powers reside with the states. In the event that commonwealth law is inconsistent with state law, commonwealth law takes precedence.

Branches of Government: The nominal head of state is the governor general, who is appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the British monarch. Although the constitution stipulates that the British monarch shall appoint the governor general, the prime minister actually decides who will serve in this capacity. Australia has a bicameral parliament, consisting of the 76-member Senate and the 150-member House of Representatives. Each state has 12 senators, and each territory has two senators, regardless of population. Seats in the House are apportioned by population, but no state can have fewer than five representatives. The majority party (or party coalition) in the House of Representatives forms the government and appoints its leader as prime minister, whereupon he or she selects cabinet ministers from both chambers of parliament. The ministers are accountable to parliament, which has the right to question them publicly. Both houses of parliament may initiate ordinary legislative proposals, but all revenue bills must originate in the House. A simple majority is needed to adopt a bill in either house. A bill passed by one house is transmitted to the other for concurrence. If passed by both houses, the bill is submitted to the governor general for royal assent in the name of the queen.

Australia has an independent judiciary. Civil and criminal courts exist at the federal, state, and territorial levels. At the pinnacle of the federal court system stands the seven-member High Court, which has ultimate responsibility for appeals and constitutional reviews. State and territorial supreme, district, and county courts handle major cases. Magistrates’ and specialists’ courts handle minor cases.

Administrative Divisions: Australia is divided into six states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia) and two principal self-governing territories (the Australian Capital Territory, which includes the national capital of Canberra, and the Northern Territory). Australia also administers a number of territories and dependencies, including the Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.

Provincial and Local Government: Under the federal system, the commonwealth shares power with the states, and the financial relationship between these two levels of government is a key challenge. The federal government collects 70–80 percent of taxes, but the responsibility for spending is more evenly shared between the commonwealth and the states. A premier heads each of the six states, and a chief minister heads each of the two territories. These figures are the leaders of the governing party in the popularly elected state or territorial legislatures.

Judicial and Legal System: Australia has an independent judiciary. The legal system is based on English common law, including the principle of judicial precedent. Defendants are entitled to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and representation by an attorney, and they have the right to appeal decisions and sentences. In general, judges conduct trials, and juries deliver the verdicts.

Electoral System: National elections are held at least every three years because that is the maximum term for any government. Voters rank candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate by number, and these preferences are used to determine the winners. Voters state their preference for House candidates in their district and for Senate candidates in their state. Senators representing each of the six states are elected for six-year terms, and half of them stand for election every three years. Senators representing each of the two territories are elected for three-year terms. All members of the House serve three-year terms. Voting is universal and compulsory at age 18, and small fines are imposed on the less than 10 percent of the electorate that declines to participate. The last national elections were held in October 2004.

Politics and Political Parties: The Liberal Party and the Nationals form Australia’s governing coalition, which has been in power since 1996. This coalition solidifies an alliance between urban and rural interests, given that the Liberals primarily represent urban and pro-business voters while the Nationals, whose support is waning, primarily represent rural voters. The coalition currently holds 87 seats in the House (75 Liberal and 12 National). The main opposition party is the Australian Labor Party (60 seats in the House), which represents left-of-center and pro-trade union voters. The other parties—Australian Democrats, Australian Greens, and Family First—are small and have a marginal impact on politics. The current prime minister is John Howard, who took office in 1996 and was reelected in 1998, 2001, and 2004.

Mass Media: Australia’s mass media are independent of the government and enjoy freedom of the press. In an October 2003 survey, the international group Reporters without Borders rated Australia fiftieth in the world in terms of press freedom. On July 1, 2005, the Australian government’s Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) assumed responsibility from predecessor organizations for regulating the mass media. ACMA is responsible for enforcing the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, which prohibits the excessive concentration of media ownership and promotes community standards.

The Australian is the only national broadsheet newspaper. Other prominent newspapers include The Age, which is published in Melbourne, and the Sydney Morning Herald. Major national magazines include New Dawn and News Weekly. Several other publications, including the Australian Financial Review, focus on financial news and analysis. Australia has three national commercial television networks—Nine Network, Seven Network, and Network Ten—and two public television broadcasters: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). There are 50 regional or local commercial television stations, plus two major cable television networks. ABC and SBS also manage radio networks. Australia has 272 commercial radio stations.

Foreign Relations: Australia’s foreign policy revolves around relations with the United States, Japan, China, and Indonesia. Throughout its history, Australia has been a close ally of the United States, and the two nations continue to maintain a close political, military, and economic relationship. Despite a wide-ranging consensus on regional issues and counterterrorism, Australia has expressed concern about the failure of the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or to sign the Biological Weapons Convention. Australia participated in United States-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. The United States is a major trading partner, and the two nations concluded a free-trade agreement that went into effect on January 1, 2005. At the same time, Australia has increasingly close economic ties with China, with which it is pursuing a similar free-trade agreement. The achievement of free-trade agreements with both the United States and China would be a first among major nations. Australia is attempting to balance its budding friendship with China and its long-standing friendship with the United States. This balancing act could face a critical test should China ever attempt to use force against Taiwan. Complicating matters, Australia also is seeking to maintain a historically strong relationship with Japan, another rival of China. Australia’s relations with Indonesia took a turn for the better in January when Australia provided US$770 million of aid to help Indonesia recover from the December 2004 tsunami that devastated the province of Aceh. In April 2005, the two nations agreed to a “comprehensive partnership.” Relations between the two nations had suffered a severe setback in 1999 when Australia supported a United Nations-led intervention in East Timor, which had declared independence from Indonesia.

Australia has historically had a close relationship with neighboring New Zealand, based on common economic and security interests. Nevertheless, relations between the two have been strained by conflicting views of U.S. foreign policy and defense requirements. Australia has been critical of what it perceives as New Zealand’s inadequate spending on defense, and New Zealand has criticized Australia’s support for U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

Membership in International Organizations: Economic/Trade: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asian Development Bank, Bank for International Settlements, Commonwealth, Cairns Group (agricultural trade), Financial Stability Forum, Food and Agriculture Organization, Friends of Fish (fishing reform), Group of 20, International Chamber of Commerce, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Telecommunication Union, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris Club, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Bank, World Customs Organization, World Trade Organization, and World Wine Trade Group. Security/Political: Australia Group (non-proliferation), CANZ (caucus on UN issues), Group of 10, Geneva Group (UN reform), International Atomic Energy Agency, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), JUSCANZ (UN coordination), Margineers Group (continental shelf limits), Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, Wassenaar Arrangement (arms transfers), and Zangger Committee (non-proliferation). Environmental: Biosafety Commodity Exporters Group, Umbrella Group (climate change), Valdivia Group (Southern Hemisphere environmental issues), and Whale Protection Group. Other: Consular Colloque (consular issues), Five Nations Conference (travel documentation), International Civil Aviation Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, World Health Organization, and World Tourism Organization. Australia is not a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but it is a dialogue partner.

Major International Treaties: Australia is a party to the following international agreements: Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations and Trade Agreement, Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), Biodiversity, Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, Colombo Plan, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, Five Power Defense Arrangement (Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom), Hazardous Wastes, Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, Kyoto Protocol (signed but not ratified), Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands.


Armed Forces Overview: Australia’s military (the Australian Defence Force) consists of 51,800 active-duty personnel and 21,600 reserves. Active-duty forces are assigned to the various services as follows: army (25,300), navy (12,850, including 990 naval aviation), and air force (13,650). The reserves are assigned as follows: army (17,200), navy (1,600), and air force (2,800).

Foreign Military Relations: Australia’s most important foreign military relationship is with the United States. This mutual defense relationship is formalized in the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty. Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, triggered the mutual-defense commitment, and Australia participated in subsequent United States-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia also belongs to a military alliance with Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom under the Five-Power Defense Arrangements. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum fosters the discussion of regional security issues. In July 2005, Australia’s foreign minister announced that Australia would sign an agreement with ASEAN forswearing the use of force to settle regional disputes or intervention in the affairs of other member states. This step was a concession—long resisted by Australia—that paved the way for Australia to participate in an East Asian summit later in 2005.

External Threat: Australia faces an external threat from regional terrorist organizations, particularly al Qaeda affiliates, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (Community of Islam). Australia has reached memoranda of understanding with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Brunei that formalize counterterrorism cooperation.

Defense Budget: Australia’s defense budget for fiscal year 2005 is US$12.4 billion, representing about 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Major Military Units: The army’s Land Command has a main headquarters, one deployable joint force headquarters, and three brigade headquarters, which are in charge of the following units: three combat service support regiments, one joint support regiment, one electronic warfare regiment, one armored regiment, two reconnaissance regiments, six infantry battalions, one independent armored personnel carrier squadron, one medium artillery regiment, two field artillery regiments, one air defense regiment, three combat engineering regiments, and three regional force surveillance units. An aviation brigade headquarters has one aviation brigade, two aviation regiments, and one aviation squadron. A logistic support force headquarters has three combat service support battalions and three force support battalions. The Special Operations Command consists of a headquarters, one special-forces regiment, two commando battalions, and one incident response regiment. The Training Command has 3,160 personnel. The navy is organized into a Maritime Command, a Naval Systems Command, and a Commodore Flotilla and operates seven naval bases. The air force has an Air Command and a Training Command.

Major Military Equipment: The Australian army is equipped with 71 main battle tanks, 255 light armored vehicles, 364 armored personnel carriers, 270 towed artillery, 296 mortars, 651 recoilless launchers, 48 surface-to-air missiles, 5 aircraft, 293 helicopters, 15 marine vehicles, and 21 surveillance vehicles. The navy is equipped with 6 tactical submarines, 10 frigates, 15 offshore patrol combatants, 6 mine warfare vessels, 3 amphibious vessels, and 13 support ships. Naval aviation has 16 helicopters. The air force has 152 combat aircraft, including maritime reconnaissance aircraft, but no armed helicopters.

Military Service: Male and female Australians may volunteer for military service beginning at age 16. Australia ended military conscription in December 1972.

Paramilitary Forces: In May 2003, the Australian Defence Force established a Special Operations Command to respond to domestic and foreign terrorist threats. It is responsible for commanding two Tactical Assault Groups (East and West), the Incident Response Regiment, and related paramilitary units.

Military Forces Abroad: In 2003–4 Australia deployed about 1,100 military personnel in various overseas operations, including the following: Operation Catalyst (rehabilitation of Iraq), Operation Slipper (Persian Gulf security), Operation Spire (United Nations Mission in East Timor—UNMISET), Operation Anode (rule of law in Solomon Islands), Operation Bel Isi II (United Nations monitoring of the cease-fire in Bougainville, the largest Solomon Island), Operations Relex II and Cranberry (interdiction of unauthorized arrivals by sea along the northern approaches to Australia), Operation Iran Assist (humanitarian relief to victims of the earthquake in Bam, Iran), Operation Niue Assist (disaster relief to the Pacific island of Niue after Cyclone Heta), Operation Nauru (disposal of World War II-era unexploded ordnance), and Operation Vanuatu Assist (disaster relief to the South West Pacific islands of Vanuatu after Cyclone Ivy).

Police: Australian police organizations are subject to civilian control. The Federal Justice Ministry is responsible for supervising the Australian Federal Police, while state police ministers oversee state police forces. Human rights abuses by the police are alleged only occasionally, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Internal Threat: Australia faces the threat of a domestic strike by transnational terrorists against innocent civilians, as has occurred in New York, Madrid, and London. In October 2003, Australia deported Willie Virgile Brigitte, a Frenchman, to France for allegedly plotting to destroy the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney on behalf of al Qaeda.

Terrorism: Following al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, Australia did more than offer expressions of solidarity. Rather, Australia invoked the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty and dispatched troops to Afghanistan to fight alongside U.S. forces. In addition, Australia has been instrumental in organizing regional counterterrorism initiatives through joint declarations of cooperation with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. These declarations are the public dimension of close military and intelligence cooperation in the struggle against regional al Qaeda offshoots, such as the Southeast Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (Community of Islam). Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been characterized as the United States’ “deputy sheriff” in the region. Australia also has been the direct victim of terrorism. On October 12, 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah killed 88 Australians and 114 others when it destroyed a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali. On September 9, 2004, the same group exploded a car bomb outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, killing nine and injuring 182; none of the casualties was Australian. Media reports as of August 1, 2005, indicated that Osama bin Laden funded the bombing as an act of revenge for Australia’s participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The source of this information was one of the arrested plot leaders.

Australia is actively involved in the nonproliferation arena. The Australia Group, which was proposed by Australia and held its first meeting in June 1985, helps coordinate international efforts to control the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons.

Human Rights: The U.S. State Department has given Australia high marks for its respect for human rights. However, Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization, has criticized Australia’s strict policies on asylum. The government discourages refugees from many countries in the region from settling in Australia. For example, in the fall of 2001 Australia refused entry to 450 Afghani refugees who were stranded in the Indian Ocean. Instead, they were sent to detention camps or deported. Australia prefers to control its borders and offer citizenship to those most likely to make an economic contribution and maintain the country’s values. Amnesty International also asserts that Australia’s counterterrorism campaign has come at the expense of human rights. Amnesty International objects to the alleged detention and questioning of terrorist suspects without charges being filed. In 2000 the United Nations Human Rights Commission criticized Australia for its treatment of aborigines.

Index for Australia:
Overview | Government


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