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Separation of Powers

Separation of Powers

The doctrine of the separation of powers in the Westminster system is usually regarded as one of the most fundamental tenets of liberal democracy.

The doctrine of the separation of powers divides the institutions of government into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial: the legislature makes the laws; the executive puts the laws into operation; and the judiciary interprets the laws. The powers and functions of each are separate and carried out by separate personnel. No single agency is able to exercise complete authority, each being interdependent on the other. Power thus divided should prevent absolutism (as in monarchies or dictatorships where all branches are concentrated in a single authority) or corruption arising from the opportunities that unchecked power offers. The doctrine can be extended to enable the three branches to act as checks and balances on each other. Each branch’s independence helps keep the others from exceeding their power, thus ensuring the rule of law and protecting individual rights.

Under the Westminster System – the parliamentary system of government Australia adopted and adapted from England – this separation does not fully exist and the doctrine is not exemplified in the constitutions of the Australian states. However in Australia the three branches exist: legislature in the form of parliaments; executive in the form of the minsters and the government departments and agencies they are responsible for; and the judiciary or the judges and courts. However, since the ministry (executive) is drawn from and responsible to the parliament (legislature) there is a great deal of interconnection in both personnel and actions. The separation of the judiciary is more distinct.

If the object of separation of powers is to develop mechanisms to prevent power being overly concentrated in one arm of government, then in practice in Australia mechanisms for avoiding the over-concentration of power exist in many ways – through constitutions and conventions; the bicameral system; multiple political parties; elections; the media; courts and tribunals; the federal system itself; and the active, ongoing participation of citizens.


(The information on these page comes from Separation of Powers: Doctrine and Practice by Graham Spindler which originally appeared in the publication Legal Date in March 2000).