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Foundational Principles of Liberal Democracy in Australia

Legal and political equality are key tenets of liberal philosophy. Liberals advocate for equal protection under the law and reject discrimination based on sociodemographic, ethnic or political factors like race, gender, or religion. This commitment to equality extends to the concept of equal opportunity, emphasising that everyone should have a fair chance to succeed unhampered by systemic barriers. Liberalism also embraces the idea of social contract, wherein individuals willingly surrender some freedoms to a governing authority. In exchange, the people get their rights protected and enforced by the government. This concept underscores the legitimacy of government as long as it serves the common good and respects individual rights. Economically, liberalism often aligns with free-market principles. The belief in the efficacy of voluntary exchanges and the invisible hand of the market, as articulated by Adam Smith, forms the basis for economic liberalism (Easterly, 2019). This voluntary exchange extends to both producers and consumers, such that no one is coerced into trades.

Further, the government must not intervene during trade. However, liberals recognise the need for some government regulation to address market failures and ensure fair competition (Ott, 2022). The government becomes a cushion against unfair market practices by regulating market prices.

Liberalism has evolved, giving rise to various strands, including classical liberalism and modern liberalism. While classical liberalism places a stronger emphasis on limited government and free markets, modern liberalism incorporates a more active role for the state in addressing social inequalities and promoting welfare (Heath, 2020). Australia’s social structure has evolved into modern liberalism, with the government instituting social justice programs to cater to the needs of minorities.

Conversely, democracy is a system of governance rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty. That is, political power emanates from the people through participation in decision-making processes. Through regular elections, citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives, shaping the composition of legislative bodies and, in some cases, executive offices. This electoral process is a fundamental mechanism for translating the will of the majority into policy, fostering political legitimacy. Moreover, decision-making and public participation also extend to activism and public discourse. Democracy posits that citizens have freedom of speech and press, allowing for the scrutiny of policies and the holding of leaders accountable without retribution from political opponents. Democracy’s core values include representation, inclusivity and protection of individual rights. It recognises the importance of minority rights, preventing the tyranny of the majority. Mechanisms such as the rule of law, constitutional protections, and checks and balances are integral to safeguarding individual liberties and maintaining a balance between majority rule and minority rights.

There are various forms of democracy, ranging from direct democracy, where citizens participate directly in decision-making, to representative democracy, where elected officials make decisions on behalf of the electorate (Jäske & Setälä, 2019). Some hybrid models combine the elements of each, leading to newer democratic innovations, particularly in the 21st century (Jäske & Setälä, 2019). The choice of a democratic system depends on the political and sociocultural history of a country. Australia is a representative democracy because of its ties to the British system, from which it borrows its political system (Museum of Australian Democracy, n.d.). Members of parliament and senators are elected to represent the views of the people at different levels of government.

As a liberal democracy, Australia’s governance relies on a representative democratic system that is founded on several key governing principles. First, constitutional order reigns, where the powers of the arms of government are given by the constitution, which in turn gets its powers from the people (Parliament of Australia, 2023). The judiciary, legislature and the executive all have clearly defined powers and limitations within the constitution within which they operate. The second principle is a liberal democracy (Parliament of Australia, 2023). The system’s core prerogative is to support the well-being and development of all individuals in Australia. The constitution and government exist for this purpose only. The state is a vessel for ensuring the protection of people’s fundamental rights and principles. This is especially important for minorities (Itodo, 2021). This sets the precedence for the third principle, a pluralistic society, which envisions Australia as a country that is full of ethnic, cultural, social and religious diversity. As a settler country, this diversity continues to grow through immigration and birth. Thus, liberal democracy must protect people the rights and freedoms of people from all groups. This includes ensuring they have and can benefit from equal opportunities, empowering them to succeed in Australia.

The fourth principle is a representative democracy. Australia’s liberal democracies emphasise representative systems where the people elect leaders. The constitution and political system confer power to the people. If citizens do not think their representatives are doing a good job, they can vote for new ones at the next election. Moreover, there are also provisions for impeachment when a leader is deemed to be incompetent (Itodo, 2021). However, this approach risks underrepresenting political minorities. Thus, the fifth principle under Australia’s liberal democracy calls for respect for and tolerance of opposing ideas (Parliament of Australia, 2023). This approach seeks to balance majority rule with the protection of minority rights, fostering pluralism and preventing tyranny. Opposition parties can debate issues within parliament and question the government’s performance. Within society, there are also political debates that encourage public participation of the Australian people, including minority groups, to ensure they are adequately represented. Furthermore, there are constitutional frameworks that curb government powers, with the government’s prerogatives limited primarily to the protection of Australia’s people’s rights. As Locke envisioned, the legislature is supreme, but it is limited in that it cannot take people’s property without consent, and its powers are not transferable because they are ultimately given by the people (Itodo, 2021).

Consequently, Australia’s liberal democracy offers several protections and advantages to the public. It protects property and political and civil rights (Mukand & Rodrik, 2020). This means that Australians can have peace knowing that they have the right to choose their leaders and participate in political discourse and decision-making, and their voices count. Liberal democracy also ensures that the government treats all Australians equally, ensuring there is distributional justice when allocating resources and providing opportunities (Mukand & Rodrik, 2020). Additionally, liberal democracy in Australia has led to a cultural shift towards diversity and inclusion among the Australian public (Guan & Pietsch, 2023). This has led to increased political representation of Australian minorities like Indigenous Australians, such that there is increased voting for them into political offices (Guan & Pietsch, 2023). This improves the wealth of knowledge and sources that go into legislative decision-making, increasing the likelihood of inclusive and egalitarian policies.

Nonetheless, liberal democracies also have their challenges. The biggest challenge in Australia is that representative democracy denies the people the opportunity to elect the executive (Cameron, 2020). The prime minister is elected, installed and removed by the parliament in Australia. Thus, there have been frequent PM changes in recent years, contrary to the public’s wishes, that have disenfranchised the public as they are viewed as being detrimental to service due to bureaucratic stumbling blocks (Cameron, 2020). It wastes time because the executive cannot focus on its service delivery agenda. There is also a risk of majoritarianism, whereby the people believe that a leader who is elected by popular vote does the will of the people even when they infringe on some people’s or groups’ rights and freedoms (Grossman et al., 2021). This may lead to the “tyranny of the majority,” where minority interests are neglected. Thus, although Australia’s liberal democracy works principally to protect the rights of Australians and foster pluralism by conferring ultimate power to the people and ensuring all Australians are included in decision-making, it also faces challenges that threaten this fundamental mission.

Blending the principles of liberalism and democracies creates a liberal democratic system that ultimately envisions the public as the supreme holders of power and exists to protect their rights. Australia operates on a liberal democratic system rooted in principles of individual liberty, equality, and government protection of rights. In response to a diverse and historically oppressive context, social policies aim to safeguard minority rights and enhance representation. Liberalism underscores individual freedoms and limited government intervention, while democracy focuses on popular sovereignty, representation, and protection of minority rights. Australia’s governance combines these principles in a representative democracy, emphasising constitutional order, social justice, pluralism, and tolerance of opposing ideas. The system’s advantages include protecting rights, ensuring equality, and fostering diversity. However, challenges such as executive appointment by parliament and the risk of majoritarianism pose threats to the system’s core mission, requiring ongoing attention.


Cameron, S. (2020). Government performance and dissatisfaction with democracy in Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science55(2), 170–190.

Easterly, W. (2019). Progress by consent: Adam Smith as development economist. The Review of Austrian Economics34(2), 179–201.

Grossman, G., Kronick, D., Levendusky, M., & Meredith, M. (2021). The majoritarian threat to Liberal Democracy. Journal of Experimental Political Science9(1), 36–45.

Guan, Q., & Pietsch, J. (2023). Representing diversity in a liberal democracy: A case study of Australia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1–22.

Heath, J. (2020). Liberalism: From Classical to Modern. In J. Heath (Ed.), The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State (p. 94). Oxford University Press.

Itodo, O. G. (2021). John Locke on Liberal Democracy: A Critical Appraisal. International Journal of Public Administration and Management Research6(3), 104-108.

Jäske, M., & Setälä, M. (2019). A functionalist approach to democratic innovations. Representation56(4), 467–483.

Mukand, S. W., & Rodrik, D. (2020). The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy. The Economic Journal130(627), 765–792.

Museum of Australian Democracy. (n.d.). Australian democracy. Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.,also%20has%20its%20unique%20features.

Ott, J. (2022). Free Markets Require Good Governments, for the Sake of Liberalism. Econ Journal Watch19(2), 247-257.

Parliament of Australia, C. (2023, March 16). Parliament explained democracy.


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