A Common Heritage

The United Sates of America and Australia have been friends and allies for many years, and the ties born of shared hardships in war and shared cultural history are strong indeed.

An interesting but perhaps not well known fact is that are some features of the two systems of government which are surprisingly similar. I am not referring to the democratic nature of our two systems, which is none-the-less true and something in which we both peoples can take pride.

I have in mind the structure of our elective legislatures, and in particular the influence that one (the U.S.) had on the other (Australia).

Both our nations had their origin as British colonies, or more correctly, groups of British colonies. In each case the groups of colonies came together to form a new nation based on a federal union of those colonies into a group of states making up one independent country. The United States was formed toward the end of the eighteenth century after the American Revolution. Australia was formed at the end of the nineteenth century by a more peaceful federation movement. By then the British had learned that we pesky colonials are best not messed with.

A major influence on Australian thinking during the federation debates in the late nineteenth century was the obvious success of the American Federal Republic. Many Australians at the time saw the American model as the one to follow. More conservative thinking prevailed, and the final structure of our parliamentary system of government largely copied that of the British parliament in Westminster. Australia does, however, have a House of Representatives and a Senate as the houses of its parliament. The Senate was originally planned as a states house, and has a fixed number of Senators elected from each state. The Senate, elected as a States House, was modeled on the American example. The role of the Australian Senate as a states house was taken so seriously that for the first sittings of the Australian Parliament, the Senators from Western Australia ignored their party allegiances and sat as a group representing their state. Today, the party allegiances do tend to prevail.

Some commentators in Australia have described the Australian system as the ‘Washminster’ system, so clearly can the influences of both The United States and Great Britain be seen.