The Westminster system gets its name from the area in central London where the Parliament of the United Kingdom is located. The Westminster system is a democratic system and is used in countries such as Britain, Canada, New Zealand as well as in many parts of the Pacific, Asia and Africa. The federal and state levels of government, which operate in Australia, are also based on the Westminster system.
Separation of powers
The separation of powers is the division of responsibilities and powers into three separate branches:
- legislature or the parliament, which is responsible for making laws;
- the executive or government, which is responsible for administering laws and delivering government services; and
- the judiciary or the courts, which interpret how the law is to be applied.
Other key features of the Westminster system are:
- Democratic elections—there are democratic elections and the party that is able to secure the support of a majority of members in the lower house is able to form government. To stay in office, the government must keep this majority.
- Leader of the government—the government is able to elect a leader.
- At the national level, the leader of the government is the Prime Minister. In the states the leader is the Premier. In the ACT and the Northern Territory, the leader is the Chief Minister.
- In the ACT, the Assembly is responsible for electing the leader (the Chief Minister) whereas in the Commonwealth and the other states and territories, the party in government is responsible for electing the leader.
- The leader chooses a group of ministers, also called the cabinet or the executive, which is accountable to the parliament.
- Opposition—there is a formal opposition, led by the leader of the party or parties with the second largest number of seats in the lower house or Assembly. One of the jobs of the opposition is to hold the government accountable in the parliament.
- the Crown—where there is a constitutional monarch or ‘Crown’, their role is not political—the King or Queen is to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. This principle also applies to representatives of the Crown. The ACT does not have a representative of the Crown in its constitutional arrangements. Other jurisdictions have a Governor-General (Commonwealth), Governor (States) or Administrator (Northern Territory) to provide ‘assent’ to laws that have been passed by parliaments.
- Independent public service—there is a career public service that is impartial and serves the government of the day.
- Rule of law—the rule of law prevails, with an independent judiciary, subject to the Constitution.
ACT form of government
Governance in the ACT, like the rest of Australia, incorporates the key features of the Westminster system.
The Legislative Assembly performs both state or territory functions, as well as municipal or local government functions. This makes it a unique parliament within Australia—governing areas such as education, health and criminal justice as well as undertaking local council functions such as waste management and the operation of local libraries.
As a result (and because of its size), the ACT is sometimes referred to as a 'city-state’.
The Legislative Assembly is made up of 25 members (MLAs) who serve a fixed four-year term. Members are elected by the people of the ACT.
The Assembly has power to elect a Chief Minister and Speaker; make laws; scrutinise the executive; investigate and debate matters of public importance; review the actions of the government; and oversee government finances.
The Assembly is unusual in that the Crown does not play a direct part in the legislation process. When a bill is passed by the Assembly, the Speaker asks for it to be notified on the Legislation Register and it becomes an act, or law, of the ACT.
The Chief Minister, who is the leader of the government, fulfils the roles equivalent to those performed by both a state premier and a town or city mayor. The Chief Minister appoints up to eight ministers to form the executive (Australian Capital Territory (Ministers) Act 2013), and allocate portfolios to each minister.
It is the executive, or cabinet, whose function it is to collectively govern and administer the territory, implement all territory laws, and develop and manage the budget. It delivers these services with the assistance of the ACT Public Service.
The judicial function in the ACT is performed by judges of the Supreme Court and magistrates of the Magistrates Court. The judges and magistrates are appointed in accordance with law and can only be removed in exceptional circumstances. The judiciary is responsible for dispensing justice in the ACT and ensuring the rule of law.
Parliamentary privilege refers to special legal rights and immunities which apply to the Assembly, its committees and members. Privileges protect members as well as proceedings of the Assembly from outside interference.
One of the most well-known privileges of any parliament is the freedom of speech, which allows members to participate in parliamentary proceedings, without fear of legal consequences such as being sued for defamation. Freedom of speech has been an important feature of Westminster parliamentary democracy since the Bill of Rights was passed by the Parliament of England in 1688.
Article 9 of the Bill of Rights states that: ‘the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament’.
Even though it is very old, the Bill of Rights still sits on the ACT’s statute books and is available through the Legislation Register.
Return to the resources page