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Federalism divides political power between the different parts of the Federation.

In Australia, we have the ‘Federal’ or ‘Commonwealth’ Government, and the Governments of the States and Territories. Federalism is about sharing power between the different entities which limits their powers. By dividing power like this, federalism strengthens representative democracy, can protect liberty, and can promote local decision making on issues of local importance.

The Australian Federation

What is federalism?

In Australia, we three levels of government – federal, State and Territory, and local. Federalism is about distributing and sharing power between the different levels. By dividing power like this, federalism strengthens parliamentary representative democracy and promotes local decision making.

Federalism limits government power

The Federal Parliament can only use powers found in the Constitution to make laws. Anything else is a State power. If both the Federal and State Parliaments make inconsistent laws, the Federal law prevails. However, they can both enact complementary laws on the same subject.

Has Federal power grown since federation?

Through interpretation of the Constitution federal power has expanded. The section 51xxix ‘external affairs’ power allows the Federal Parliament to make laws giving effect to treaties on subjects including industrial relations, the environment and racial discrimination. It also has greater power to raise and share revenue.

Postcard, ‘The birth of a nation at the century’s dawn’. Source: National Archives of Australia

State Premiers and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser meet in 1978. Source: National Archives of Australia

How does the Constitution protect States’ powers?

The Federal Government cannot place special burdens on States that affect their ability to function as Governments. The Federal Government cannot destroy or undermine the States’ continued independent existence.

​How are disputes resolved within the federal system?

Disputes do occur between the Federal Government and State Governments, between different State Governments, and between citizens and their Governments. Most problems are solved through the political process. The High Court often resolves these questions if they raise constitutional issues.