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Definitions and glossary

Defining the terms

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Questions answered in this section

  1. What do all these complicated words actually mean?


Government has a lot of words and terms connected to it that are hard to understand. This page gives you a brief definition of all the terms we could think to include!

Attorney General: The main legal expert for the government that reviews government decisions based on existing laws. They are usually a trained lawyer.

Bills: a formal document that suggests a change to or a new law.

Cabinet: The cabinet is a group of top-level ministers and the Prime Minister. It makes the main decisions in Australian Government. The Shadow Cabinet is a group of top-level ministers from the opposition and the Leader of the Opposition.

Coalition: is when two or more political parties "merge" together in order to gain political power. For example, the Australian Government is currently run by a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party. When these two parties formed a coalition, they had more seats in parliament then the Opposition, the Labor Party, and could take power (a party takes control of the government when they have the most people elected into the lower house).

Councillor: Local governments (known as councils) deal with the community needs of specific areas within each state and the Northern Territory, such as rubbish collection. Council members are usually elected to represent their areas and are called councillors.

Electorate: Australia is divided up into local areas called federal electorates. At each election, people who are eligible to vote elect a person to represent their local area in the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament. This person is called a Member of the House of Representatives or a Member of Parliament (MP) for short.

Executive Council: This is the main branch of Australia's Government. It is made up of the Governor General, The Prime Minister and Ministers (plus their departments).

Federal election: When Australians vote on the people who will make laws and decisions for the country. Australian citizens over 18 years old must vote to elect a member of parliament for the House of Representatives to represent their electorate. They must also vote for the senators that will represent each state (12 senators) or territory (2 senators).

Government Act: An act is a law or a collection of laws that has been passed by both Houses of Parliament and has been accepted by the Governor-General (given 'Royal Assent'). It can only be changed or removed by another act.

Governor General: Is the Australian Representative of The Queen. Performs ceremonial acts and must confirm any legislation before it can become law.

House of Representatives: The Federal Parliament name for the Lower House.

Incumbent: Someone who currently holds an official office or position, especially a Member of Parliament. This term is especially used during an election period to describe the person running for election who already holds the position, as opposed to those running who don’t hold the position.

Independent: You don’t have to be a member of a political party to be a politician, if you are not a member of a political party, you are an INDEPENDENT politician.

Inquiry: When a parliamentary committee decides that an issue needs to be understood more fully before creating new laws, they call an Inquiry. Individuals, organizations and businesses can send reports into the inquiry in order to show research about the issue and ask for the law to be made in certain ways.

Judiciary: the Australian High Court.

Leader of the Opposition: The Leader of the Opposition is in charge of the second-largest party or group of parties in the House of Representatives. They choose which members of the opposition become Shadow Ministers and ask the elected party to explain why it acts the way it does.

Legislation: This is a word that basically means laws. When Parliaments try to change or make new "legislation", they are trying to change or make new laws.

Legislative Assembly: The NSW Parliament name for the Lower House.

Legislative Government: This is another name for Parliament.

Lower house: Politicians in the Lower House are voted in by their electorate and represent this electorate's needs and wants when creating or passing laws. The Lower house is the first stage when making laws. In the Australian Federal Parliament, this is also known as the House of Representatives. In NSW Parliament, it is known as the Legislative Assembly.

Major party: A major party is one of the political parties that gets a high proportion of votes during elections. The term usually refers to the Labor and Liberal parties.

Mayor: Some councils have an elected leader called a mayor. Their role is to run council meetings, represent the council and make sure that councillors are doing their job according to the rules.

Member of Parliament: Called an MP for short, this is the title of a politician who either works in the upper or lower houses of parliament.

Minister: A politician who is a part of the elected party (currently the Liberal National Coalition) and has been selected to by the Prime Minister to be in charge of particular issues (known as portfolios) such as health, immigration or education. The role of a Minister is to prepare new laws (bills) or suggest a change to current laws for the Parliament. Once these laws are passed, it is their responsibility to apply them with the help of their department.

Minor party: A minor party is one that gets a lower proportion of votes during elections. The term usually refers to the Greens, the Nationals, and other smaller parties.

Moving a motion: A formal motion is a proposal for an action presented by a member of parliament. When the motion has the support of another member, it is debated and voted on in parliament.

Non-Partisan: Describes someone who does not belong to a political party. This could mean a voter, a politician or a system of government. A politician who is non-partisan is called an Independent politician.

Opposition: The opposition are members of the government from the second-largest party or coalition (group) of parties in the House of Representatives. They examine the work of the government and suggest different policies to what the government is suggesting.

Parliament: The job of Parliament is to make or change laws. The Australian Parliament makes laws for the whole of Australia, and the NSW Parliament makes laws for NSW only. Is made up of politicians from all different parties. In Australia, examples of some parties in Parliament are Liberal, Labor, The Greens, The Nationals, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, The Nick Xenophon team and the Australian Conservatives.

Parliamentary Houses: Most Parliaments are made up of 2 "houses", the Lower House and the Upper House. The two "houses" have different roles in making laws and policies.

Plebiscite: A process of deciding the answer to a national question that is not in the constitution. The difference between a plebiscite and a referendum is that the result of a plebiscite does not have to become law. It may be used to see if the country will support an action suggested by the government.

Policy: Policies are written documents that describe how a particular politician, political party, parliament or government has decided to act on an issue.

Policy submission: when a person, organization or business writes and sends a document to Parliament in response to a new policy. Policy Submissions usually either critique the policy and ask for it to be changed, or praise the policy and ask it to be passed. This submission will then usually be sent to the Upper House, who will read over it and decide whether to use this feedback.

Political party: Most politicians are a part of a "party". A party is a group of politicians that generally share core values and beliefs. Examples of this are:

Labor Party: Politicians that are members of the Labor Party traditionally support laws that protect workers’ rights.

Liberal Party: Politicians that are members of the Liberal Party traditionally support laws that protect individual freedoms.

The Greens: Politicians that are a member of the Greens tend to want laws passed that help the environment.

The Nationals: Politicians that are a member of The Nationals usually support laws that help farmers and agriculture.

Prime Minister: The leader of the country and the government. Members of government choose the Prime Minister (also known as the PM) from the House of Representatives by voting. Some roles of the Prime Minister include selecting which members of government become federal ministers, representing Australia overseas and speaking on behalf of the elected party in government.

Question time: Question Time happens in the House of Representatives and the Senate for about an hour every day that Parliament is meeting. It is a time when Ministers and Shadow Ministers explain their decisions and present their ideas.

Referendum: Every citizen is required to vote in order to change the Australian constitution. The result of the referendum must be upheld by the Parliament. Topics of past Australian referendums have been on becoming a republic, Indigenous rights and government processes.

Senate: See Upper House.

Senator: The title of a politician who is elected into the Australian Upper House.

Shadow Minister: A member of the opposition who is chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to closely examine the work of the government. Shadow Ministers examine the work of individual Ministers. For example, the Shadow Minister for Transport carefully looks at the policies from the Minister for Transport.

Speaker of the house: The Speaker is an experienced government member who runs the meetings in the House of Representatives and makes sure the rules are followed. The Speaker is elected by the 150 members of the House of Representatives and is helped by the Deputy Speaker.

Upper House: Politicians in the Upper House do not represent an electorate. They decide whether legislation passed by the lower house should be made into law. In the Australian Federal Parliament, this is also known as the Senate. In the NSW parliament, this is known as the Legislative Council.