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Australian Politics and Government: The Commonwealth, the States and the Territories
Jeremy Moon & Campbell Sharman, eds.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
$46.95AUD, 322 pages, ISBN 0521532051.

Susan Ballyn
Universitat de Barcelona


Published two years after the centenary celebrations of the Federation of Australia, Jeremy Moon and Campbell Sharman’s book seems to be a continuation of the plethora of works and events which appeared/took place during and well after the 2001 celebrations. However, Moon and Sharman’s Australian Politics and Government: The Commonwealth, the States and the Territories offers an interesting slant on comparative Australian politics in that it deals with an in depth comparative study of Australian Commonwealth, State and Territory politics and political systems. As such it is an unusual contribution to the field of Australian political science. In the course of the last forty years, very few publications have dealt with a comparison of Australian domestic politics. There have of course been a number of articles and one remembers the important work done by S.R. Davis in “Diversity in Unity” in his valuable 1960 edition of The Government of the Australian States and Scott Bennett’s 1992 fine study Affairs of State: Politics in the Australian States and Territories. However, looking back on Bennett’s book, one realises how much has changed in the area of Australian domestic politics in just ten years or so. Interestingly too, Moon and Sharman by dividing their study into Commonwealth, States and Territories make the jurisdictional areas become the structural backbone of this new analysis, unlike Bennett who focused on a more general view of the Australian states and territories’ political system. Thus what emerges is a fuller, more complex, up-to-date study, a fit continuation to Davis and Bennett’s seminal work in the field.

The book takes the form of a series of chapters, independently written by well-known scholars in the field of political sciences. A whole chapter is dedicated to the Commonwealth and then to each State and Territory, but the comparative nature of the work means that the chapters necessarily feed back and forth into each other as the threads of political analysis unfold. As the editors point out, “A theme of this collection is the way in which a common institutional inheritance has been shaped to suit the political preferences of nine political communities” [239]. True. It is one "theme,” but many others are intertwined with it such as the relevance of institutional design and its field of influence, together with the inescapable discussion of social and economic factors which form the complex underweave of the Australian Commonwealth, states and territories. It seems to me, coming from a field outside political science, that, in fact, the theme which seems to occupy most of the space and analysis throughout the study is the “fractionalization” of vote and seat shares across jurisdictions, that is, an analysis of the way votes and seats are shared out in the Commonwealth, and across states and territories [242-47]. Not only does this theme surface in each chapter in some form or other, but the editors themselves dedicate a large part of “One System or Nine?,” the concluding chapter, to a further lengthy discussion of the matter [239-61].

No study of the Australian Commonwealth, state and territories’ political structure and evolution can avoid remitting itself to the times of colonial administration, which informs every chapter of this edition. The narrative discourse is thus, in general terms, a lineal historical one. The emergence of the Federation of Australia logically derived from its colonial judicial, political heritage as Moon and Sharman point out:

With a political history that long predates federation, a component of all the state chapters is the recognition of the influence of the period of self-government before 1901. This constitutional inheritance is important for all states in affecting both the operation of parliamentary institutions and the style of government over the last hundred years. [10]

However, as each chapter on the states reveals, the extent of this influence has varied tremendously in the way individual state legislation has developed. It is important to note that the chapters on the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, the two self-governing territories within the Commonwealth, present radically different contrasts in almost every aspect of the political and judiciary institutions. The general idea, at least outside Australia, that Australian politics is homogenous in structure, is counter-balanced by the inclusion of the territories in the study. The analysis of the political system, socio-economic and demographic factors in the territories raises “questions about the relative effect of social factors and institutional design on the shape of political activity” [11]. These two chapters, nine and ten, thus open up a forum for debate as to how the states might have shaped their political institutions or changes that could be made in the future.

One strong point that emerges from this comparative analysis is that each chapter clearly reveals how each state has evolved as a result of the different socio-economic needs of its peoples, demographic distribution and even geographical location. Therefore each state and territorial government is by necessity idiosyncratic, as the study clearly testifies to, affording Australia nine different political forums within the Commonwealth itself. As the authors pertinently point out, “each system is a variation on a common institutional theme” [240].

There are however certain drawbacks to this study, although I recognise the valuable contribution that the editors and authors have made to this area of Australian political science studies. Each chapter is elegantly written and carefully edited. There is abundant additional information in the form of graphs and tables and also an extremely useful bibliography. It is a study I would recommend to students as a good groundwork introduction to the comparative study of the Australian political scene and one which also provides important source of information. However I feel that the comparative study, while solid and well grounded, is not particularly challenging, and thus provides little room for further debate or contestation. I also find it disturbing that there should be no real discussion of gender and of the role of women in the political scenario. Indeed, one could say that the book is plagued by a certain gender invisibility or blindness and that this constitutes a startling flaw in such an exhaustive analysis. It seems to me to be absolutely vital that a study of this nature should engage with the question of gender dynamics in the Australian political scenario and the failure to do so can be seen as a major flaw. After all in a nation which gave women suffrage so early in their political history, gender must surely be a necessary and important part of any analysis of this nature...


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