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Theory of Australian Party System

Updated on June 17, 2012

Do Australian Political Parties Help or Hinder the Political Process?

The roles the political parties play are essential to a functioning liberal democracy. Without the forming of parties by like-minded people the political process would be much more difficult. Parties aim to represent the general public by articulating popular opinion into realistic goals, recruit potential leaders and organise stability in government.[1] However the Australian two-party system may not be allowing parliament to function as it should as disciplined parties with dedicated followers dominate the system. This causes problems such as narrow minded policy leading to poor representation, as well as adversarial politics.

The two major parties in Australia have a great discipline amongst party members, leading to what could be called “responsible party government”. [2] This means that ministers and members of government are more responsible to their party than the voting public. This stems from the fact that party endorsement is important in being elected, as most voters base their opinion on parties’ policy.[3] So whichever party wins government will enjoy commitment to its policies from its members thus gaining control over legislature, which in recent times has led to the ‘presidentialisation’ of Australia’s Prime Minister.[4] While this is consistent with the model of a representative government, the amount of power possessed by the major parties through voters’ loyalty means that they focus the political agenda for the public.[5] This means that minority views and alternative ideological opinion is not represented.[6]

The power of parties is best seen in the House of Representatives as the governing party enjoys a majority of seats. The government uses both the rules of parliament and party loyalty to pass legislation. It is very rare for a party member to ‘cross the floor’ to vote against its own party’s legislature proposal, meaning having a majority will see the bill passed to the senate for review.[7] The government also has measures of reducing debate about proposed legislature by using the closure motion, and quickening up the process by setting time limits on discussion and condensing the enacting process.[8] It also rare for ‘backbenchers’ to initialise legislation and according to the constitution must only enact non-money bills.[9] This means that the executive is able to control what legislation is passed onto the senate with little resistance.

If in the senate the elected government holds a majority, then the senate acts as little more than a institution to provide a ‘rubber stamp’ for the government’s legislature.[10] If however no majority is possessed then the senate functions by reviewing or blocking proposed legislation. In this case however senators may block legislation based on party politics rather than on its objective merits.[11] Party politics has also infiltrated committee systems designed as a more partisan approach to legislation proposal and review.[12] This brings to light the adversarial nature of the Labor party and the ‘Coalition’. Both parties must distance themselves from each other to gain votes as they both share similar political grounds.[13] This can be seen in the political ‘point scoring’ in the media and during parliament question time.

Australia is dominated by two political parties that are able to manipulate the parliamentary system to simplify the political process and maintain government stability. However through this manipulation they sacrifice elements of a functioning parliament which may hinder the proper democratic process of Australian politics.


Eccleston, Richard, Williams, Paul, Hollander, Robyn. Foundations of Australian Politics. Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2006.

Heywood, Andrew. Politics. 3rd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Singleton, Gwyneth, Aitkin, Don, Jinks, Brian, Warhurst, John. Australian Political Institutions. 8th edition. Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2006.

Woodward, Dennis, Parkin, Andrew, Summers, John. Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edition. Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2010.

[1] Andrew Heywood, Politics, 3rd ed., (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 276-279.

[2] R. Eccleston, P. Williams, R. Hollander, Foundations of Australian Politics (Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2006), 52.

[3] D.Woodward, A. Parkin, J. Summers, Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, 9th ed. (Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2010), 76.

[4] Eccelston et al., Foundations of Australian Politics, 50.

[5] Heywood, Politics, 279.

[6] G, Singleton, D. Aitkin, B. Jinks, J. Warhusrt, Australian Political Institutions, 8th ed. (Frenchs Forest: Pearson, 2006), 299.

[7] Woodward et al., Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, 76.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 79.

[10] Singleton et al., 164.

[11] Ibid., 168.

[12] Eccelston et al., Foundations of Australian Politics, 52.

[13] Singleton et al., Australian Political Institutions, 315.


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