Lesson 4 – Who is the Government?


In our previous lesson we learned about how few constitutional freedoms we actually have. We learned that we all live under laws made by Parliament, and we learned that most of the freedoms we take for granted can be taken away by Parliament.

So who is the Government? Do we have a democracy? Do we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people? The answer is: ‘no we don’t’.

The Constitution of the United States has a doctrine that ultimate political authority resides with the people. In Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, we have the doctrine that power ultimately resides with Parliament. There is no equivalent doctrine of ‘we the people’. Some people advocate the idea that ‘we the people’ have some kind of constitutional right to rise up in defense of liberty, but really that’s an American import. In the Commonwealth Constitutional system, also known as the ‘Westminster’ system, power does not reside in ‘the people’ it resides in the Parliament. This is reflected in the way our constitution is written. The Parliament is of course supposed to represent the people but it is Parliament, not “the people”, who make the laws.

The Role of Parliament

Parliament has three essential roles. They are:

  1. To make and review laws
  2. To investigate matters of public interest
  3. To hold the government to account

 Law Making

Laws are made by majority vote of each House of Parliament. In other words, a draft law, or you could say a ‘proposed law’, has to be introduced into the House of Representatives. If it gets a majority vote there it goes to the Senate, and if it gets a majority vote there it gets signed into law by the Governor General. If it does not get a majority vote it dies.

Laws are referred to variously as statutes, regulations, Acts, Bills, legislation, and enactments which all mean slightly different things, but the bottom line is that they are rules. Some affect all of us. Most affect only certain persons because they deal with particular industries, for example, the regulatory regime around respite homes for the elderly. In theory these laws reflect the majority view of the community since they are agreed to by a majority of elected representatives, and it is this that gives them moral force.


The investigative role of Parliament is seldom reported but very important. Parliament can hear petitions on any matter from concerned citizens and can initiate inquiries into any matter. Parliaments have a number of committees that investigate various issues. Some are permanent and these are called ‘standing committees’. Some are formed on an ad-hoc basis as needed. They tend to have long names. See for example, The House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs in the Commonwealth House of Representatives. This is a permanent “standing” committee which has conducted numerous inquiries. For example, the Inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012. When a Committee conducts an inquiry they typically establish terms of reference. The ‘terms of reference’ define what they are considering and what is ‘out of scope’. The committee then calls for public submissions and may hold public hearings. They can also call and examine witnesses. The committee will consider all this material and will then publish a report with the committee’s findings and recommendations. Submissions, transcripts of witness examinations and the final report are published on the committee’s web site which is housed within the Parliamentary website. If you make a private submission to a parliamentary committee it will be publicly available on their website.

See for example here:


Witnesses to Parliamentary committees are protected by Parliamentary Privilege. That means you cannot be sued or sacked for evidence you provide to a committee.

Holding Government to Account

The other important thing that Parliament does is attempt to hold the Government to account. This is done by asking questions of the Prime Minister or other Ministers and that is where a lot of the point scoring and squabbling takes place. Parliament has special time set aside for this and it is called “question time”. If you ever go on a school excursion to Parliament that is probably what you will see. Journalists tend to hang around during question time looking for something juicy.

Parliament also tries to hold the Government to account by reviewing government expenditure, and by voting for or against the annual budget which each Government must bring to the Parliament each year.

From this we can see that there are five important avenues by which individuals and organisations can use Parliament to influence public policy:

  1. They can lobby and petition for or against laws, for example, marriage equality law;
  2. They can lobby to bring matters of interest before a Parliamentary committee;
  3. They can make submissions to that committee;
  4. They can ask an opposition party or private member to pose a question of the government; and
  5. They can lobby and petition for or against how the government spends our money in each annual budget.

We will find out more about how this is done in our lesson on political lobbying.

In this lesson we have talked about the Federal Parliament which represents the country as a whole. Each State and Territory also has a parliament, usually with two houses. These are referred to as the ‘House of Assembly’ and the ‘Legislative Council’. Queensland has only one house. Each State also have a Governor who signs laws agreed by Parliament.

The Role of Cabinet

 We just learned that, in the Westminster system, ultimate power resides in the Parliament, not in the people or in the Government. We also learned that it is the job of the Parliament to hold the Government to account. So who or what is the Government?

The answer is that the Government is Cabinet. Cabinet is a committee comprising the Prime Minister and his or her Ministers. Collectively this committee runs the country. They formulate the budget, they direct the public service, and the National Security Committee of Cabinet directs the military and the security services.

After an election the party (or coalition of parties) that has the most numbers in the House of Representatives forms government. The leader of that party or coalition forms a Cabinet and the Cabinet is sworn in by the Governor-General.

It follows that each member of Cabinet must be an elected Member of Parliament. In theory, several parties could form a coalition and make a joint Cabinet. This happens in Europe, and it happened in Tasmania when the State Labor Party and the Greens formed a combined Cabinet. In this way two parties can combine their numbers and gang up on the party that won the most seats and take government from them. This happened under the Gillard Government.

Cabinet members take up the front row seats on one side of the House of Representatives. For that reason they are sometimes referred to as ‘the front bench’. There is a table in between and on the other side sits the opposition ‘front bench’ which is made up of the party or coalition of parties that lost the last election. However this ‘shadow front bench’ or ‘shadow cabinet’ will form the new government if their party wins the next election. A lot of shouting tends to take place across the table.

We have been talking so far about the Federal Parliament which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. But remember that we are a federation of States. Each State has its own government and each State has a Cabinet comprising the Premier and Ministers, which runs the State. Each State has the same ‘front bench’ and ‘shadow front bench’ arrangement with a big table in the middle. State cabinets are sworn in by the Governor of that State.

Parliamentarians who are not in the Cabinet or shadow opposition cabinet sit further back. They are known as ‘back benchers’. Most members of Parliament are back benchers and all independent members are back benchers, as are minor party members.

It is the secret ambition of every back bencher to be a Minister and Cabinet member, however the journey from the back bench to the front bench can take a lifetime and most never succeed.

Cabinet decisions are binding on all the back benchers that belong to the party or coalition that is in power. However some big decisions, and most proposed laws, are also circulated to the ‘back benchers’ for endorsement.

Cabinets meet early each week, usually around 10 am. The content of all Cabinet documents and all Cabinet discussions is highly secret and available only to some public servants, members of Cabinet, and some support staff. Disclosing the content of a Cabinet document is a sure way to end a career.

Each member of Cabinet is a Minister and the leader of the national Cabinet is the Prime Minister. The name ‘Minister’ is a reminder/relic of our Christian heritage. In the Christian view of government Christ is the source of all authority but He is also our servant king who washed his disciples’ feet. Therefore, those who “minister” do so under Christ as servants of those two whom they minister. This concept also applies to name, “public servants”.

Ministers have responsibility for a particular area such as education, health, defence, primary industry, or whatever. That means that the Department of Education reports to the Minister for Education. The Department of Health reports to the Minister for Health etc. That is called the Minister’s ‘portfolio’. If you are really unlucky you get the health portfolio, or if you are even more unlucky you get immigration. So for as a public servant working for the Department of Education your boss ultimately is the Minister for Education, even if your job is to mow the school oval.

Cabinet runs the country mostly by directing the Public Service. After all, it’s the public service that actually does the work of government – delivering services, researching issues, providing advice, and consulting with the public. If you apply for a public service job a question you might be asked at interview is ‘Who is the government?’ If you don’t say that the government is Cabinet you will not be hired.

The relationship between the public service and Cabinet is therefore of critical importance to how the country actually runs.

How to Become a Cabinet Member

Having established that Cabinet is Government we will chart the journey that you might take to become a member of cabinet. This is done in detail in the optional reading at the end of this lesson. The following is a brief summary:

  • First you have to join one of the Labor, Liberal or National parties. The Liberal party is a good choice because statistically they have held power for more years than Labor. Few Cabinet members are from the National party.
  • Having become a member of the party you then have to join a party faction.
  • You will need win favour with the party factional bosses in the hope that they decide to give you a go and endorse you to run on the party ticket.
  • If you are liked, you will get a “safe seat” where lots of people vote for your party.
  • Now that you are elected you begin your career in Parliament – as a back bencher.
  • If your party’s election fortunes and your faction’s fortunes align at the right time you may be appointed a Minister and thus become a Cabinet member.
  • As a Cabinet Minister you will be given a portfolio for an area about which you probably know nothing. In this you will not be alone. Typically in Cabinets the Treasurer will have a background in finance/economics and the Attorney-General will have been a lawyer because these roles are simply too important to be given to amateurs. But it is very rare that any other Minister has any qualifications or experience relevant to their portfolio.

What this means is that any government that is elected will, almost by definition, be incompetent. Regardless of which party you vote for, the Westminster system of representative government almost never delivers a Cabinet which is technically competent.

A System Geared Toward Stability

So why would anyone develop a system that guarantees incompetence? The answer is that no one invented our system of government; it evolved from the seventeenth century as a way of balancing out the competing centers of power in the society. The objective of the Westminster system is not competence but stability. It is in the development of a system of checks and balances so that no one grouping can become too powerful. Overall the system is geared to mediocrity, to gradual change rather than big societal shifts, to smoothing out the tensions and conflicts in society. If you think about it, there have only been two significant hiccups in Australia’s political history – the Eureka stockade which led to substantial reform, and the sacking of our Prime Minister in 1975 which led to fresh elections. That is not bad for 200 years. No coups, no civil wars, a modest amount of industrial action, no assassinations, but substantial social change over that time. It is one of the reasons why Australia is a prosperous nation. We may have mediocre and selfish governments, but having stability means that people want to invest here, to build here, and to migrate here. Compare this to Greece which had a nasty civil war from 1946 – 49, a military coup in 1967, a second coup in 1974, a new constitution in 1975, joined the EU in 1981 and has now lost sovereignty to foreign creditors. Where would you rather invest?

Westminster systems are capable of visionary and transforming government but it is rare. For this to happen there has to be massive tectonic pressure built over a very long time and then championed by a charismatic leader with a unified team. Thatcher in Britain and Whitlam in Australia are two very different examples of that phenomenon. We will revisit this in our lesson on political activism later.

In the Westminster system the idea that the ‘wisest and best’ should rule finds expression in the idea of an expert, politically independent, public service whose role is to provide frank and fearless advice to the government of the day. It is also found in the idea that Parliament should seek expert advice to inform itself on any relevant matter and this finds expression in the committee system. Both these ideas are often honored in the breach but they provide opportunities to have input. In our next lesson we will look at how to influence Parliamentarians.

Lesson Summary

  • Parliament makes the laws and tries to hold the government to account.
  • The government is Cabinet.
  • Cabinet members are also members of Parliament.
  • Cabinet governs largely by directing the public service.
  • Every Cabinet is incompetent but overall the system remains stable.

End of Lesson 4


  1. Is the government:
    1. The party that wins the election
    2. Parliament as a whole
    3. Cabinet
  2. Who gets to be in the Cabinet?
  3. Does the Cabinet make laws?
  4. What is the aim of the Westminster system of government?
  5. What is the first step towards becoming a Cabinet Minister?
  6. In the Westminster system, where does the power reside?
  7. Name 2 of the 3 roles of Parliament
  8. At what point does a proposed law become a law?
  9. What is special about a “Standing Committee”?
  10. What protection is given to people who provide information to parliamentary inquiries?
  11. What is the function of question time in Parliament?
  12. If you trained as a teacher, would you be likely to get the Education portfolio?

Additional Reading

How to Become a Cabinet Member

Having established that cabinet is government we will now chart the journey that you might take to become a member of cabinet.

First you have to join one of the Labor, Liberal or National parties. The Liberal party is a good choice because statistically they have held power for more years than Labor and few Cabinet members are from the National party. Dr Brendan Nelson did the maths on this when he famously abandoned the Labor party, joined the Liberals and became a party leader in opposition then a Minister in government.

Having become a member of the party you then have to join a party faction. We will discuss party factions further later but all parties are comprised of factional groupings and each faction wants to get a representative into Parliament and hopefully into Cabinet.

You will need win favour with the party factional bosses in the hope that they decide to give you a go and endorse you to run on the party ticket. That means the party faithful will automatically vote for you and the party will fund your election campaign. If you are popular in the party you might get a safe seat and a ticket into Parliament without too much effort. If you are unpopular you will have to prove yourself out in the badlands somewhere by beating another sitting member.

Now that you are elected you begin your career in Parliament – as a back bencher. At this point realise that your opinions and ideals count for nothing and ditch them fast. Your job is to say what the party tells you to say, vote how the party tells you to vote, repeat the media lines they tell you to, and sell the party to the electorate.

In theory your job is to represent your electorate but in practice you cannot deviate from the party position and there are a number of other constraints you need to be aware of. For example, if your electorate does not want a massive coal mine and the party does, then your job is to convince your electorate that they have got it wrong. In all likelihood the coal mine company’s donations to the party funded your election campaign, so don’t get smart. Maintain a unified front even if it costs you your seat. Hopefully the party will reward you for your loyalty in the future.

Of course, if your electorate strongly objects to the coal mine you will need to pass that on to the Minister and to your party colleagues. What you cannot do is campaign. You cannot publicly oppose a mine if the party endorses it, even if your electorate asks you to.

Intellectual integrity is a value you must be prepared to ditch if necessary. You will be expected to mock, ridicule and pull down the other party, especially if they are right and their policies are better. Remember that a good lie repeated often enough will be believed and there may be times when you will be expected to repeat lies.

In the Federal Parliament each party has a person called the party “whip” whose job essentially is to whip the party back benchers into line. That person tells them when to laugh, mock or stay silent in question time. It is a humiliating spectacle when you realise that these people were elected to speak out on behalf of their electorate.

Behind the scenes try to build a network of influence within your factional grouping and lobby internally for those policies your group supports. Be omnipresent. Talk to everyone. Get known within the party as a loyal doer.

Do the same in your electorate. Remember that being popular in your electorate isn’t about great policies, it’s about being present and listening a lot. Build a great team in your electoral office and turn up to everything. Develop a strong tolerance for alcohol. Wear a distinctive hat and get on radio but avoid controversial topics. Spend very little time at home. One of the best kept secrets of political life in Australia is just how hard politicians work and how much their families get neglected.

If your party’s election fortunes and your faction’s fortunes align at the right time you may be appointed a Cabinet member. Exactly how this happens we will discuss in a moment. As a member of Cabinet you will be given an area of responsibility which is called a portfolio. You are now a very powerful person. You have many responsibilities.

First and least, you are the member for your electorate. You are supposed to represent them in Parliament. What that means in reality is that you need to have a team out in the electorate, probably with their own manager who you trust to tell you what’s going on out there and what you need to turn up to.

Secondly you represent the government in the Parliament. That means you have to turn up and vote on proposed laws and take part in Parliamentary debate. You will need a team to help you in your Parliamentary role so you now have two teams and two offices, one in your electorate and one in Parliament.

Thirdly you are a member of Cabinet. You need to be across the whole Cabinet agenda and have a voice on all the decisions that Cabinet makes.

Fourth you represent the Government to the community. It is your job to speak for the team and you have to be willing to take media questions on any part of the government’s agenda and all matters of public controversy relevant to you.

Finally you are a Minister. Suppose that you get the education portfolio. You are now responsible for grant funding to the States, for curriculum development, for NAPLAN testing, for universities, and foreign students which pitches you into the realm of international relations. You are the boss of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. You are responsible in part for the education of hundreds of thousands of students. You also may be responsible for vocational training which puts you at the heart of industry concerns. At this point does anyone see a problem?

The problem is that you know nothing about education. You have never stood in front of a class. You know nothing about learning, curriculum or schools. You have never managed a large organisation. You probably have a degree but you have never run a university. You have no relevant qualifications for your job.

Typically in Cabinets the Treasurer will have a background in finance/economics and the Attorney-General will have been a lawyer because these roles are simply too important to be given to amateurs. But it is very rare that any other Minister has any qualifications or experience relevant to their portfolio. The Minister for Police has never worn a uniform and knows nothing about crime. The Minister for Defence has never fired a rifle and has no functional knowledge of modern warfare. The Minister for the environment does not have a science degree. The Minister for Arts can’t paint and the Minister for foreign affairs has no experience in international diplomacy. I am pleased to say that the current Minister for agriculture once worked on a farm. If you don’t believe me go to the Federal Parliament site and read the biographical notes on each of the Ministers. Go to www.aph.gov.au and navigate from there. You will find that most of them are former lawyers and you will look long and hard to find anyone with a background in science or physics. This explains a lot about why governments struggle to understand things like defence, global warming or natural resource management which require an understanding of fundamental science.

To make matters worse, Ministers tend to get moved around. In long term government – say 10 years, it is not uncommon for a Minister to have changed portfolios two or three times. In other words, they have only been Ministers for around 3 years then they get moved on to be Minister for something else. It takes at least 3 years to understand the complexities of something like Defence.

There is also the modern tendency of parties to switch leaders. Australia had 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years –Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull. According to the ABC, across all states and territories and all parties, including opposition parties, there were 66 changes of leadership in 13 years from 2002 to 2015.

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-10/australia-political-leadership-rollercoaster/6080126

Democracy vs Fascism

Today the biggest and most obviously fascist country is China. However any country including democratic countries can slide into fascism to a certain degree. If there is no real difference between the major political parties, if the media only puts forward one view, if education is used for indoctrination or available only to the elite, and if corporations control the politicians, if civil liberties are suppressed and the extra judicial killings can occur, then in reality you have a fascist state even if you get to vote. It is an interesting exercise to peg different countries against this template, but we will not do so here.


Plato defines a timocracy as a government of people who love rule and honor. Socrates argues that the timocracy emerges from aristocracy due to a civil war breaking out among the ruling class and the majority. Over time, many more births will occur to people who lack aristocratic, guardian qualities, slowly drawing the populace away from knowledge, music, poetry and “guardian education”, toward money-making and the acquisition of possessions.


Temptations create a confusion between economic status and honor which is responsible for the emergence of oligarchy. In Book VIII, Socrates suggests that wealth will not help a pilot to navigate his ship, as his concerns will be directed centrally toward increasing his wealth by whatever means, rather than seeking out wisdom or honor. The injustice of economic disparity divides the rich and the poor, thus creating an environment for criminals and beggars to emerge. The rich are constantly plotting against the poor and vice versa.


As this socioeconomic divide grows, so do tensions between social classes. From the conflicts arising out of such tensions, the poor majority overthrow the wealthy minority, and democracy replaces the oligarchy preceding it. The poor overthrow the oligarchs and grant liberties and freedoms to citizens, creating a most variegated collection of peoples under a “supermarket” of constitutions. A visually appealing demagogue is soon lifted up to protect the interests of the lower class. However, with too much freedom, no requirements for anyone to rule, and having no interest in assessing the background of their rulers (other than honoring such people because they wish the majority well) the people become easily persuaded by such a demagogue’s appeal to try and satisfy people’s common, base, and unnecessary pleasures.


The excessive freedoms granted to the citizens of a democracy ultimately leads to a tyranny, the furthest regressed type of government. These freedoms divide the people into three socioeconomic classes: the dominating class, the elites and the commoners. Tensions between the dominating class and the elites cause the commoners to seek out protection of their democratic liberties. They invest all their power in their democratic demagogue, who, in turn, becomes corrupted by the power and becomes a tyrant with a small entourage of his supporters for protection and absolute control of his people.

Questions to Consider

  1. Was Plato right?
  2. If so, where are we now?
  3. To what extent can fascism exist alongside democratic institutions?
  4. Do parliaments actually represent the community?
  5. How can we get greater expertise to inform our decision making?
  6. Why is long term reform so difficult to achieve?
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