Victoria’s system of government is based on the Westminster system. Westminster is the name given to the system of parliamentary democracy used in countries such as Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. There are two key concepts underpinning the system of government – the separation of powers and responsible government.

Under the doctrine of the separation of powers, the institution of government has three separate branches:

  • the legislature (Parliament) – makes the laws;
  • the executive – implements the laws; and
  • the judiciary – interprets and applies the laws.

The powers and functions of each branch are separate and carried out by separate personnel. This is to ensure that no single branch can exercise complete authority.

Under the Westminster system of responsible government, this separation is not complete as there is some overlap. Responsible government means that the executive (the Premier and Ministers) is accountable to Parliament. However the Premier and Ministers are also Members of Parliament and are therefore part of the legislature as well as the executive.

Ultimate accountability is to the people of Victoria as Members of Parliament are representatives of the people and are made accountable to the people through the process of elections.

Table 1 summarises the branches of Victoria’s system of government, their role and composition.

Table 1: Victoria’s system of government
Branch Role Composition
Legislature The legislature or parliament makes the laws Parliament is made up of the Governor and two bodies or houses comprised of democratically elected members.
Executive The executive implements the laws The executive comprises the Governor, Premier and Ministers. It also includes departments and agencies.
Judiciary The judiciary interprets the laws The judiciary consists of a hierarchy of courts.

2.1 Constitution

The initial Victorian Constitution was drafted in Melbourne by Victoria’s first Legislative Council in 1853-54 and proclaimed in 1855. The Constitution Act 1975 (the Constitution) provides the framework for parliamentary democracy and responsible government in Victoria. It defines the powers and responsibilities of the Crown (as represented by the Governor), the Parliament of Victoria, the judiciary and the executive.

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2.2 Governor of Victoria

The Governor of Victoria represents the Crown (or the Queen) in Victoria. The Queen is formally Australia’s Head of State and is represented by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and the Governors of each of the six states.

The Governor is appointed by the Queen on advice from the Premier. The Governor’s powers are conferred by commission from the Queen, the Constitution and Acts of Parliament. Among the functions of the Governor is the provision of Assent to legislation passed by the two Houses of Parliament, which is done in accordance with advice from the Premier.

The Governor recalls, prorogues (suspends), and dissolves Parliament according to constitutional requirements and on the recommendation of the Premier. The Governor also appoints the new Government and opens Parliament after an election. During the formal opening of Parliament, the Governor reads a statement of the Government’s intended legislative program.

The Governor, by convention, acts in accordance with Ministerial advice in relation to all matters other than the ‘reserve powers’. Those powers include:
• the power to appoint the Premier,
• the power to terminate the appointment of the Premier; and
• the power to reject advice for the dissolution of Parliament.

The Governor, however, is not a mere ‘rubber stamp’ in relation to other matters. The Governor has, as the English essayist and journalist Walter Bagehot said, ‘three rights’, the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. These rights enable the Governor to be aware of developments in government and offer counsel regarding issues of concern. As Bagehot also said, with these three rights, ‘a king [or Governor] of great sense and sagacity would want no others’.

Victoria also has a Lieutenant-Governor and an Administrator. The Administrator is the Chief Justice or the most senior judge of the Supreme Court. Appointment as Lieutenant-Governor or Administrator does not confer any powers or functions. If there is no Governor or if the Governor is unavailable to act for a substantial period, the Lieutenant-Governor assumes office and exercises all the powers and functions of a Governor. The Administrator steps in if the Governor or Lieutenant Governor cannot or will not act.

2.2.1 Governor in Council

Where an Act of Parliament or other legal instrument gives power to the Governor ‘in Council’, this means that the Governor is to exercise it in accordance with the advice of the Victorian Executive Council. The Executive Council consists of at least two and normally four Ministers who meet with the Governor and represent the Government. Parliament gives the Governor in Council the power on matters such as orders, proclamations, regulations and appointments to public offices.

On important issues of policy or matters affecting the government as a whole, Ministers consider the recommendations collectively in Cabinet before the responsible Minister submits a recommendation to the Executive Council.

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