1a As a class, list the Australian political parties you know of. Include the names of any party leaders you know.
1b Individually, write in your workbook a list of issues, big and small, that concern you about the society you live in or the world around you.
1c Contribute one of your issues to a class list which your teacher may put on the board.
1d As a class, discuss which issues in your class list are ones that political parties are likely to have a view about. For example, is any political party likely to have a view about the magazines that are stocked in your school library? What about whether Australia should be trading with a country that does not respect the human rights of citizens?
Policies of political parties
What political parties decide to do about an issue is called their policy. The major parties each put forward policies on a range of issues such as some of those you discussed. Their policies are influenced by their basic beliefs about what makes a good society and by their desire to win as many votes as possible so that they can get into government and put their views into practice.
Along with the major parties who present policies on a range of issues, are small and single-issue parties whose main purpose in gaining a seat in parliament is to press a particular issue such as the environment. Outside the political parties are independent candidates who, if they become Members of Parliament, sometimes speak and vote with the government and sometimes against it according to how they see the issue.
When you come to cast your vote you may be influenced by:
which party's policies improve the country
which party's policies will make you or your group better off financially
what you think of the party leaders.
But how do parties fit into the whole business of government?
In Australia there are three main steps in the forming of a democratic parliamentary government. The process described here is for the national or Commonwealth Government. Similar processes take place at State level. Refer to The Commonwealth Government poster as you read through this briefing.
1. The people elect a parliament
At a general election, citizens over 18 vote for candidates to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
House of Representatives
For the House of Representatives, a district of about 75,000 people, called an electorate, elects one person as its representative for one parliamentary term - usually of three years. There are therefore more members in the House of Representatives from States with big populations than from States with small populations. Voters usually choose the candidate from the party they think will best represent their interests. Although they often know little about their candidates, they choose them on the basis of the party they represent and what the party says it will do in government. The elected representative in the parliament must therefore support the interests of their electorate and the views of their party.
The Senate has 12 Senators elected from every State, no matter how big or small the State's population, and 2 from each Territory. Senators are elected to Parliament for twice the length of time as members of the House of Representatives, usually for six years. At each federal election, only half the total number of Senators is elected.
Because the two Houses are elected in different ways and for different lengths of time, it often happens that one party or coalition has a majority in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate.
It is also possible for an independent member of the parliament - or a small party - to have the 'balance of power'. This means that the government depends on the small party or independent member to vote with it to get enough votes in parliament to pass new laws. This is more likely to occur in the Senate than in the House of Representatives because of the voting system used to elect Senators.
2. The parliament forms a government
The group with the most candidates elected to the House of Representatives forms the government. This majority group can be a single party, such as the Australian Labor Party, or a coalition of two or more parties, such as the Liberal Party and the National Party, who agree to join together to form the government. Since the 1940s Australia has had either a Labor Party government or a coalition (Liberal and National parties) government.
The largest minority party or coalition becomes the opposition.
The leader of the governing party becomes the prime minister who chooses a small number of members as ministers to take charge of government departments that administer areas such as education, defence and health. The senior ministers form a cabinet, which meets regularly to make most of the decisions of government such as deciding what Bills will be introduced to Parliament, how to respond to crises, how to get the government message through to the electorate, or deciding how to handle a debate in parliament.
The opposition leader chooses 'shadow' ministers from among the party's elected members.
The government turns its party policies into legislation to be passed by parliament. It also ensures the government departments, each headed by a minister, continue to do their work and implement any new government policies.
The government also appoints judges and advises the monarch on the appointment of the governor-general.
A government that does not have a majority in the Senate has to negotiate with the opposition or smaller parties or independents and accept that some government legislation will be amended, delayed or rejected in the Senate.