The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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1996 showed Labor's new commitment to improving the efficiency of federalism and streamlining intergovernmental relations. The same has been true of state Labor governments, even in reforming state upper houses. Labor's federal conversion was part of a broader transformation of the party from a trade-union-based workers' party, pledged to centralise power for purposes of statist intervention and economic control, to a party of public managers committed to neoliberal economics, market solutions and targeting of welfare policies.

The transformation of the Labor party has helped stabilise institutional harmony between federalism and responsible parliamentary government, which some see as an unworkable combination. Australia's constitution accommodates responsible government within a federal democratic structure. Australia's system cannot be classified strictly as 'constrained parliamentarianism', as Ackerman (2000) defines it, because the executive is fully integrated within the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the Senate has virtually coequal formal powers with the House of Representatives and is typically controlled by minor parties. Hence, Australia does have a modified system of constrained parliamentarianism in which the executive controls one dominant part of the legislature but has to deal with a second, independent legislative chamber to have its legislation passed. Except for the 1975 constitutional crisis, which was the exception rather than the rule (that Ackerman mainly relies upon), Australian parliamentary government is constrained without being gridlocked.

Australia's success with federal constitutional government is one notable case among a handful of countries dominated by the US, whose constitution the Australians copied, and including Canada and Switzerland, which were also well-established models in the late nineteenth century. Despite criticism by proponents of unitary government and majoritarian democracy, federalism has become the dominant model for large and pluralist nations, including postwar Germany. It is increasingly an institutional means for achieving devolution of national government, as in Belgium and Spain, and for transnational association, as in the European Union. Given British devolution and membership of the European Union, New Zealand has become the precarious exemplar of unitary government and parliamentary sovereignty in recent times (Catley 2001). With the world becoming more federalised and federalism being an appropriate system for dealing with globalisation, Australia's federal constitution that has served it well for a century is likely to continue to do so into the twenty-first century.


Ackerman, B. 2000. The new separation of powers. Harvard Law Review 113:634–729.

Alston, P., and M. Chiam. 1995. Treaty-Making and Australia: Globalization versus Sovereignty? Sydney: Federation Press.

Blackshield, T., M. Coper and G. Williams (eds). 2001. The Oxford Companion to the High Court. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, D. 2002. Market Rules: Economic Union Reform and Intergovernmental Policy-Making in Australia and Canada. Kingston, Ontario: McGill/Queens University Press.


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