The party system
An Australian party system had begun to develop during the last years of the colonial period in the 1890s, to the extent that most seats in the first parliament were won by candidates from just three major groups, one of which was the Australian Labor Party. The outline of the modern system can be seen as early as 1909 when a fusion of the major non-Labor parties formed the first Liberal Party. This was confirmed in the election in the following year, which saw the election dominated by the Liberal and Australian Labor parties. In 1919 the Country Party won a significant number of seats, and by 1923 it was participating in a coalition government. Since that time the Australian party system has been dominated by the contest between Labor and a coalition of the Liberal and National (formerly Country) parties. Many minor parties have contested House of Representatives elections, but have not seriously threatened the dominance of the three major parties.
Since 1949 the use of proportional representation for Senate elections has given minor parties a realistic chance of winning Senate seats, and the major parties have rarely controlled the upper house since the election of 1964.
Parties and Parliament
The idea that Parliament 'controls' ministers, as well as government policy and the departments and statutory bodies which implement these policies, is a concept which had more relevance in the 19th century than it does today. Stable majority party government in the 20th century is perhaps the main reason for the decline in absolute parliamentary control as well as for the decline in the influence of Parliament relative to that of the Executive.
The impact of parties can be seen clearly in the operations of each house of Parliament, particularly in the legislative process. Many questions and queries may be raised in the House of Representatives, and amendments are often moved. However, because governments enjoy a majority in the House, questions may be avoided, amendments cannot be forced, and whether or not the Opposition's views are accepted depends on the wishes of the government of the day.
It is a different story in the Senate, where no government has enjoyed a majority since 1981. If the Government wants legislation to be passed by the Senate it often has to agree to amendments proposed by the Opposition and minor parties. It is for this reason that the Senate is far more active than the House of Representatives in sending proposed legislation to committees.
This page last updated 24 March 2006