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5 differences between the Australian Federal and New Zealand Parliaments

· Catriona McNaughton,Parliament,Analysis

Both Australia and New Zealand are liberal democracies established as constitutional monarchies with a governor-general and share many common traits and conventions. But there are key differences in our parliamentary systems and structures.

1. Federation and Unified State

As a Federation, power is distributed between the six Australian states and two territories and the Federal government through the constitution. Section 51 of the Australian Constitution provides for specific powers of the Federal Government, with the rest retained by the States. The constitutions and parliaments of the States, Territories and Federal government are separate and cannot encroach on each other.

Both Australia and New Zealand operate under the principle of separation of powers between three arms of government: legislative, executive and judicial. But unlike Australia, New Zealand is a unified state with legislative power held in the central government and given from that government to the regions (in this case local government). There is no equivalent to state government, and the local government only holds the power deferred to it by the central government (much like the states giving power to local governments in Australia). This coupled with the single house outlined below means the party(s) forming government in New Zealand have comparatively universal legislative power of the country. Despite this concentration of power, including the ability to change the constitution (see below), New Zealand is seen to have one of the lowest levels of public sector corruption in the world, currently ranked first.

2. Number of Houses

Many parliaments, including the Australian Federal Parliament, have two houses which can (and often do) hold different majorities. In New Zealand, like Queensland, there is a single house. This means that when a majority is held in that house, this majority holds significant power.

Bicameralism (two house parliaments) is often viewed as being more democratic because of its greater representative capacity in drawing on two different voting systems, as well as having a safeguard against abuses with each house holding the other to account. For example, in Australia the lower house is comprised of representatives from electorates which aim to be approximately proportional in population (meaning there are more representatives for example from New South Wales than Western Australia) while the Senate is comprised of a set number for each state (12) and territory (2), designed to ensure that less populous states are able to come together to form a majority in the upper house to amend legislation that would overly favour those states with greater representation in the lower house.

Unicameralism (one house parliaments) on the other hand is favoured where there is not a perceived need for this divide as it creates a simpler and more efficient path to new legislation, that does not result in legislative deadlock.

3. Voting System

The Australian Federal and New Zealand voting systems are quite different but also share some similarities. The Federal House of Representatives in Australia is elected by preferential voting, electing one member for each of Australia’s 151 electorates. Australian voters number candidates according to their preference and the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded with their votes being redistributed until there is a candidate with a majority. Australian Senators are elected to represent their state or territory through proportional voting which is designed to allocate seats to candidates based on the proportion of votes each party received in an election.

New Zealand on the other hand uses Mixed-Member-Proportional voting, which is more commonly known as MMP, and was introduced in 1994. New Zealander’s have two votes, one for the candidate they want to represent their local area (who doesn’t have to be from their party of choice) and one for the political party they want to form the government. The candidate in each electorate with the most votes gets the seat. Electoral candidates make up 71 seats of the current parliament[1]. The remaining seats are filled from party lists based on the number of votes each party receives (with some caveats about thresholds). The total number of seats is usually 120, but the thresholds and calculations associated with the party vote mean there can be one or two ‘overhang’ seats.

Prior to the introduction of MMP, New Zealand’s First Past the Post system favoured the two dominant parties. Since MMP’s introduction, no party has achieved a straight majority[2] and consequently New Zealand has consistently had coalition governments. Unlike Australia’s longstanding coalition between the Nationals and the Liberal Party, New Zealand’s coalitions are fairly fluid. For example, the New Zealand First Party has formed coalition governments with both National and Labour parties and its leader, Winston Peters, has been Deputy Prime Minister under National Prime Ministers (1996-1998) and a Labour Prime Minister (2017-present).

4. An Uncodified Constitution

While Australia has a codified constitution, specifically section 9 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, New Zealand’s constitution is uncodified – meaning it is not contained in a single document. The Australian Constitution can only be changed by a referendum, initiated by a bill in Parliament, which then to be successful must be agreed by a majority of people in a majority of states and the majority of people across the nation.

New Zealand’s constitution has a number of components. It includes the Constitution Act 1986 but is also comprised of other statutes and conventions, Letter Patent and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. This means aspects of New Zealand’s constitution are theoretically relatively easy to change. For example, the Electoral Act formally outlined a range of conventions, but these conventions could be repealed on a simple majority amending the legislation. However, this has proven unlikely particularly under MMP, as there has yet to be a single party majority and these entrenched conventions have bipartisan support.

5. Two Electoral Rolls

Electoral rolls in Australia are primarily managed by the Australian Electoral Commission. Australian citizens over 18 are required to keep their details up to date on this roll, which is then shared with the relevant state and local jurisdictions.

New Zealand has two electoral rolls. A general roll is open to all voters and a Māori roll open to those of Māori descent. The Māori Electoral Option, usually held every 5 years (held after the 5 yearly census), gives those of Māori descent the choice of which roll to be on, they cannot be on both rolls at the same time and they choose their first roll when they first enrol to vote. The number of people on each roll determines the number of Māori electorates relative to general electorates, ensuring that each electorate has a proportional number of voters within them. Those on the Māori roll vote for candidates in the Māori electorates, which overlap with the general electorates (for example, the South Island of New Zealand is represented by one Māori seat covering the same area as the 16 general seats).

[1] Based on electorate boundary realignment, there are 72 electorates for the upcoming election

[2] Note that current polling is predicting that the Labour Party, led by Jacinta Ardern, may achieve this for the first time in the upcoming election.

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