Government and the Department
The system of government in the Northern Territory is based on the “Westminster”, or English-style, system that operates in many democracies throughout the world.
The NT is a Territory, rather than a State, so although its system of government is similar to those of the States, it has its own unique differences.
Australia is a democratic federal constitutional monarchy. The Northern Territory is one of six sovereign states and two territories within the Federal Commonwealth of Australia. The six states existed before the Commonwealth but joined together in a Federation on 1 January 1901 to become a single nation. At the time, the land within the Northern Territory was governed by the state of South Australia and the ACT did not exist as a separate entity.
The Federal Constitution gave certain powers to the new Commonwealth of Australia but the states remained separate sovereign states, retaining responsibility for all other areas of activity not ceded to the Commonwealth.
Today the Northern Territory has similar powers to the states, although some powers have been reserved by the Commonwealth. The Northern Territory is moving towards Statehood and the Legislative Assembly has established a bipartisan committee to examine the constitutional reforms required.
At the time of Federation in 1901 the states and Commonwealth were subject to the Queen of the United Kingdom. Today, Australia remains a constitutional monarchy, but over time - and especially since the Australia Acts of 1986 - it has become an entirely independent sovereign nation.
Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia. Legally, this is an entirely separate role from her position as Queen of the United Kingdom. However, as the Queen is not resident in Australia, her role is carried out by her representatives: the Governor-General for the whole of Australia and the State Governors for each of the six sovereign states. The Administrator represents the Governor-General as the Northern Territory is not a sovereign state.
The appointment of an Administrator is made by the Governor-General by Commission under the Seal of Australia in accordance with the provisions of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act. This Act is effectively our “constitution”. The Administrator is the representative of the Crown in right of the Northern Territory and, therefore, has the executive authority to administer the government.
The Administrator resides at Government House and performs a similar constitutional role to that of a State Governor and does not participate in the political process. Government House plays an important role in hosting visiting royalty and dignitaries, including vice-regal, diplomatic and government representatives of Australia and other nations.
The Legislative Assembly is made up of 25 members, each representing an electorate. Approximately every four years all citizens aged 18 years and over are required to vote for a representative for their electorate. The result of these elections decides who forms the government.
In the Westminster style of government adopted in Australia, the majority party in the lower house of the Parliament forms ‘the government’. In the Northern Territory there is only one house of Parliament, the Legislative Assembly.
The members of the majority party sit in the Chamber to the right of the Speaker and are referred to in parliament as ‘the government’. However, Parliament’s role is not so much to govern as to legislate and to scrutinise government.
The Legislative Assembly does not meet every day but has specific sitting days when Members come together to conduct parliamentary business. The Government of the day is responsible for setting the agenda for the Legislative Assembly, except on General Business days when any member can bring business forward. Parliamentary Standing Orders dictate when and how often General Business days are held.
Legislation passed by the Legislative Assembly is forwarded to the Administrator for his assent before it can become law.
The party with the majority of members in the Legislative Assembly forms the Government and appoint a Chief Minister. The Chief Minister’s role is the same as that of a Premier in the states.
The Chief Minister appoints Ministers with responsibility for specific portfolios, or areas of government. For example, portfolios include health, police, housing, infrastructure, education and youth affairs. In the Northern Territory, there are nine ministers.
The Chief Minister and his eight ministers make up Cabinet, the government’s leadership team and policy-making body. All major business and policy decisions are referred to Cabinet. A rigorous Cabinet process ensures appropriate agencies are consulted and give advice before decisions are made.
The Department of the Chief Minister is responsible for the Cabinet Secretariat, ensuring all business is documented, decisions recorded and appropriate security measures followed. The business of Cabinet is confidential and, although decisions may be made public, the deliberations of Cabinet are not revealed, even to future governments. An officer of the Department of the Chief Minister is generally appointed as Cabinet Secretary.
The Department of the Chief Minister is the same as other government departments in that it has responsibility for a range of government programs. It is headed up by a Chief Executive, who is responsible to a Minister for the efficient and effective operation of the Department and the implementation of the policies of Government. In our case, our Minister is the Chief Minister.
The Department of the Chief Minister has a special role in providing services to the Chief Minister, his Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition.
Apart from these officials and their staff, all employees of the Department of the Chief Minister are public servants and carry out their work as professionals regardless of the politics of the government of the day.
There are three main branches or elements of government:
- The Legislature makes the laws. The Legislature consists of the Legislative Assembly together with the Administrator.
- The Executive administers or applies the laws. The Executive is made up of the Chief Minister and Ministers. Each minister is responsible for one or more government departments or agencies. They also remain members of Parliament.
- The Judiciary adjudicates on the laws. The Judiciary is made up of independent judges appointed to a hierarchical system of courts, the highest being the NT Supreme Court. There are also a series of federal courts with jurisdiction in NT. Above them all, the Commonwealth High Court has been established as the highest court for the whole of Australia.
Each of these branches of government has separate functions and is, to some extent at least, separate from each other. But each one is also linked with the other two, having some powers over the others, just as the other branches have some power over it. No one branch controls all the power in a democratic system. We refer to this as The Doctrine of the Separation of Powers.
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