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Citizenship Test - Perceptions of Government and the Law in Australia

The section of the citizenship test that concerns perception of government and Australian laws is mostly based around terminology and the workings of the government. The study guide outlines that voting is compulsory and voting is by secret ballot. It also explains that citizens have a right to raise a matter with an elected representative.

Considering that voluntarily voting seems more consistent with the notion of democracy, it might have been being useful to explain why Australia has compulsory voting. The only problem with offering an explanation is that it is difficult to find an official explanation.

Perhaps it because voluntary voting tends to result in elections being biased in favour of the political aggrieved that get out to vote but are not objective. Perhaps it because of a moral belief that it is a civic duty of citizens to participate in their country’s decision making. Perhaps it is because political parties receive around $1 for each vote they receive and if voting were voluntary, they would get less money.

In regards to why six different colonies federated on the 1st of January 1901, the guide says that it was motivated by a fledging national identity and a desire to improve transportation between the colonies. Arguably, a more accurate explanation would be that unions and the status minded were respectively concerned by Convicts and non-whites undermining their bargaining power in the labour market and damaging their community’s reputation. They believed an island nation with uniform migration laws excluding Convicts and non-whites would address their concerns. Certainly, the vocal proponents of Federation, such as Henry Parks, were never known to be carrying placards calling for improvements in transportation across colonial borders; however, they were known to be vocal at rallies protesting the arrival of Convict and Chinese ships.

convicts and Asians

Melbourne Punch, 3rd May1888 - A Federation poster appearing in Punch magazine contained an old man advising a youngster:"Right, my boy, your worthy of your sire. In the old days I stopped the convicts in the bay. And now you must bar out the yellow plague with your arm."

In regards to the Constitution, the guide states that it set out the basic rules for the government of Australia, created the Senate, the House of Representatives, the High Court and that it can only be changed by a referendum (vote by the people). Although the guide doesn’t mention it, perhaps it would also be relevant to state that of the 44 referendums that have been held, only 8 have been carried (much to the distress of the politicians that proposed them.)

In regards to government power, the guide states that it is separated between the Legislative, which has the power to make and change laws, the Executive, which has the power to put laws into practice and the Judicial, which has the power to interpret laws. The guide neglects to mention that the separation of powers is a bit of a myth. In truth, the system was designed to preserve British rule in Australia. The governor general is the true executive and the office has the power to veto all laws proposed by parliament, block the appointment of ministers and dismiss parliament if necessary. For the first few decades after federation, the Governor General was an Englishman appointed by the British parliament. Since the 1930s, the governor general has been an Australian nominated by the Australian prime minister with the expectation that the British monarch will appoint the individual. Not surprisingly, only those individuals considered politically “advantageous” to the prime minister have been nominated. Just as the governor general is nominated by the prime minister, so are high court justices and again, political advantage has been a consideration. It is only a cultural mistrust by electors that leads to regular change of ruling parties that prevents power being consolidated in a way that leads to dictatorships.

In regards to how the prime minister gains their power, every Australian is in an electorate that has at least 21,343 people. Each person in the electorate votes for an individual to represent them in the House of Representatives. These members are usually aligned with a major party. The party (or coalition) that gets the most members elected will govern. The party's leader then becomes the prime minister. He or she then decides on senior positions in government. It is not possible for Australians to vote for who will be prime minister; they can only vote for a person in their electorate, and the winner of the electorate will then vote on who will lead their party.

The House of Representatives forms the bills that the Senate and the governor general subsequently deem suitable or unsuitable to pass into law.

In the Senate election, gaining a proportion of the vote in a state can lead to a form of representation. In what could be defined as a blow to abrupt shifts of power, only half of the senators are elected each election. Furthermore, if they lose their seat, there is a lag between the election and when they leave office. This lag prevents an extreme political group from secretly orchestrating a terror attack against Australia, riding the emotion of outrage to an election victory, and then quickly implementing legislative policies that consolidate its power – as may have happened in Nazi Germany.

In regards to the roles of the three tiers of government (federal, state and local), the guide spells out the areas that each are meant to be responsible according to the Constitution. For example, the constitution stipulates that the Federal Government is to be responsible for national issues, such as foreign affairs, immigration, defence, post, social security, census, statistics, coinage, and banking. State governments are to be responsible for schools, police, gaols, hospitals, and most community services. Councils are meant to be responsible for local transport, garbage collection, town planning and utilities.

In reality, in the 100 years since Federation, politicians have found it very difficult to stay within the prescribed boundaries of the Constitution. Specifically, the federal government has found it particularly difficult to stay out of health and education. This is probably because making funding announcements on health and education are always more politically popular than announcing a new bank note or a change to how statistics are used. Furthermore, the education system is seen as a means of shaping the political ideologies of future voters, and no politician wants to leave children’s minds open to "corruption" by their enemies. To gain some control over education and health, the federal government uses its control of the taxation system to pressure states to toe a federal government line. In addition, it funds private institutions in competition with state institutions. (This is one of the main reasons why Australia has such a high percentage of children in private schools.)

State governments have wanted to have some control over migration because the federal government’s migration policies have not affected each state equally. Basically, the federal government sets the target number of migrants but since most migrants have wanted to settle in Melbourne and Sydney, it is left it to the lower tiers of government to deal with all the potential infrastructure and social problems caused by high migration. With their hands tied, Victorian and NSW politicians have tended to just make speeches about how different policies are needed.

Local government tends to be the least seen, but most felt. Laws on rezoning have a huge impact on property values and the actual operation of daily life. Needless to say, property developers often try to cultivate good relationships with local members. In recent years, some local governments have tried to get involved in trans-national issues such as action on global warming and conflict concerning Israel. They have done this via zoning policies that affect Jewish or those wanting to live by the water.



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What differentiates an Aborigine from a Torres Straight Islander?

The Convict Story


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