Athenaeum Club

Founded in Sydney in 1881 as a colonial version of a famous London club, the Athenaeum Club was a comfortable venue for men to gather in the city in their leisure hours. Members in the 1880s and 1890s were journalists, publishers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers and politicians including Edmund Barton, Richard O’Connor, William Lyne, Bernhard Wise and William McMillan.

Attorney-General’s Department

Among the first Commonwealth departments established on 1 January 1901 with Robert Garran the first head (1901–32).

Australian Labor Party (ALP)

Developed differently in various colonies, with the first Australian Labour Federation formed in Queensland in 1889. The spelling ‘Labor’ and ‘Labour’ were used by the party until 1912, after which ‘Labor’ was consistently used.

Australian Women’s National League (AWNL)

Founded as an anti-socialist political organisation in Victoria in 1904, the AWNL had 15,000 members by 1906. Janet (Lady) Clarke was president from 1906 to 1927, and Elizabeth May Couchman was president from 1927 to 1945. The AWNL campaigned for the Nationalist Party in the 1920s and the United Australia Party in the 1930s. In 1944, the AWNL became part of the new Liberal Party of Australia, with Robert Menzies as leader.

Australian Workers Union (AWU)

Founded in Queensland in 1886 as a union for shearers, miners and bushworkers; formed in New South Wales in 1894. Chris Watson worked as a New South Wales organiser for the Australian Workers Union from 1910 to 1916.

British Empire League

Formed in London in 1894, the motto of the League was ‘One people, one destiny’. The focus of the League was the celebration of the birthday of Queen Victoria – 24 May – as a patriotic holiday. The emphasis in Australia was not only on observance in schools, but on a wider opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to Britain. Empire Day was officially adopted by the Reid government in 1905 and observed for more than 50 years.


The federal Cabinet comprises the senior ministers of the government, and is headed by the prime minister. Ministers are chosen from the elected Members of Parliament and are responsible for the different government agencies. The Cabinet is in effect a link between parliament and the public service. Although this structure is at the heart of Australia’s system of responsible government, the Cabinet is not mentioned in the Constitution.

See also Governor-General


The Caucus, or Parliamentary Labor Party, comprises those members of the Australian Labor Party who have been elected to parliament and who then elect ministers – a practice Australia’s 11th Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, departed from when he selected his own Cabinet.

See also Australian Labor Party (ALP)

Cobden Club

A London club established in the 1870s, named after parliamentarian and philanthropist Richard Cobden. It offered art and entertainment for the working man.

Commonwealth Bank

Founded by Andrew Fisher’s government under the Commonwealth Bank Act 1911. It merged with the state banks of Tasmania in 1912, Queensland in 1920, and New South Wales and Western Australia in 1931. The Commonwealth Bank was both a savings and trading bank, and the nation’s central bank until 14 January 1960 when the Menzies government established the Reserve Bank of Australia to take over the latter function. In 1990 the Hawke government’s Commonwealth Banks Restructuring Act provided for the conversion of the bank from a government agency to a public company.

Commonwealth Literary Fund

Established by the government of Alfred Deakin in 1907 as a pension fund for writers in poverty or their relatives, in 1936–37 James Scullin argued for expanding the fund to support writers. In 1939, when the government of Robert Menzies introduced annual fellowships for writers, publishing subsidies and funding for lecture tours on Australian literature, Scullin was appointed to the committee and served until 1947. The fund ceased in 1973 when Gough Whitlam’s government established the Literature Board.

Compulsory voting

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 requires all eligible citizens to be enrolled to vote and to register a vote at every federal election. (For more information, see the Documenting a Democracy website, Commonwealth Electoral Act.)


Compulsory enlistment into the defence forces has been a contentious issue in Australian politics, particularly during both world wars (1914–18 and 1939–45) and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. (For more information, see the National Archives’ Fact Sheet 161 – Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917; Fact Sheet 162 – National service and war, 1939–45; Fact Sheet 163 – National service, 1951–59; Fact Sheet 164 – National service, 1965–72; Fact Sheet 117 – Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War).

Defence, Department of

One of the original Commonwealth departments created on 1 January 1901. Under the Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth took control of naval and military defence from the states on 1 March 1901. The Hughes government established the Department of the Navy on 12 July 1915, and amalgamated both departments on 21 December 1921.

Engineers Case

In the Engineers Case of 1920, the High Court held that rulings of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration were binding on state governments. The authority of the Court’s decisions had been a subject of debate since it was established in 1904. (For more information on the establishment of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, see the Documenting a Democracy website, Conciliation and Arbitration Act.)

Executive Council

Under the Australian Constitution, the Governor-General appoints all federal ministers to the Executive Council. Although members are appointed for life, in practice only current ministers attend the meetings, where Cabinet decisions are formally ratified. The Governor-General presides over Executive Council meetings.

See also Cabinet

External Affairs, Department of

Established by the Barton government on 1 May 1901, the Department of External Affairs included the Prime Minister’s Office from 1901 until 1911. The department was abolished by the Hughes government in 1916, then re-established in 1921 after Australia became a member of the League of Nations. During World War II, the department grew rapidly. By 1970, the functions of the Department of External Affairs were broadly described as covering foreign affairs and relations with overseas governments, including Commonwealth relations. On 6 November 1970, the department was renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs.


As the representative of the British monarch in Australia, the Governor-General appoints ministers of state and judges of the High Court, and presides over the Executive Council.

Health, Department of

Established on 7 March 1921 with Dr JHL Cumpston the first Director-General. The federal Quarantine Service, established in 1909 within the Department of Trade and Customs, was transferred to the Department of Health.

Home Affairs, Department of

Established by the Bruce–Page government on 13 December 1928. It was not a new department, but rather a change of name for the Department of Home and Territories.

See also Home and Territories, Department of

Home and Territories, Department of

Established by the Hughes government on 14 November 1916 with Atlee Hunt as its head. It was renamed the Department of Home Affairs in 1928.

See also Home Affairs, Department of

Loan Council

The Loan Council consists of the treasurers of the Commonwealth and the states. The first meeting of the Loan Council was held on 1 February 1924. On 12 December 1927, as part of the financial agreement between the Commonwealth and state governments, the states agreed to support an amendment to the Constitution giving the Loan Council permanent legal status. After a successful referendum, Section 105A was inserted in the Australian Constitution. (For more information on the amendment, see the Documenting a Democracy website, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act.)

Nationalist Party

Formed in 1916 when William Morris Hughes led a Labor Party split over the issue of conscription and joined forces with the Opposition Liberal Party. In 1931 the Nationalist Party joined with other groups to form the United Australia Party, with Joseph Lyons as leader.

Postmaster-General’s Department

One of the original Commonwealth departments created on 1 January 1901. On 1 July 1901, Robert Townley Scott was appointed the head and Justinian Oxenham as Chief Clerk. The department took on additional responsibilities as telecommunications developed, and on 1 July 1975 the postal and telecommunications functions were separated into two commissions reporting to the Minister. On 22 December 1975, the Postmaster-General’s Department was renamed the Postal and Telecommunications Department.

Preferential voting

A system by which a voter shows an order of preference for the candidates, used in elections for the House of Representatives since 1919. If no candidate has a clear majority once the votes are tallied, preferences are distributed, starting with the candidate polling the fewest first preferences.

Prime Minister, Department of the

In 1904 the Prime Minister’s Office was established in the Department of External Affairs. The Department of the Prime Minister was established by the Fisher government on 1 July 1911.

Privy Council

Comprises the private counsellors of the sovereign and always includes members of Cabinet. In Britain others, such as princes and archbishops, also may be members. An Order-in-Council gives effect to decisions of the Privy Council.

Under an Act of the British Parliament in 1833 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was established to hear appeals from dominions and dependencies of the Crown in any civil or criminal matter. Members include up to six senior judges or ex-judges of self-governing dominions. The Judicial Committee (simply referred to as the Privy Council) does not formally deliver judgement, but advises the sovereign of its decision.

Socialisation objective

The principle of nationalisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange. In Australian politics this refers to the goal of increased state ownership of industry introduced by James Scullin and adopted at the Australian Labor Party federal conference in Brisbane in 1921. State ownership of industrial enterprises such as brickworks and clothing factories in the 1920s was seen as a first step towards this objective.

Statute of Westminster

A 1931 Act of the British Parliament that gave legal effect to the definition of the independent status of the dominion parliament. It was formulated through the work of the imperial conferences in the 1920s, and was stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1926. From 1931 the dominions were subject directly to the Crown rather than the British Government, although Australia did not formally adopt the Act until 1942. (For more information, see the Documenting a Democracy website, Statute of Westminster Adoption Act.)

Trade and Customs, Department of

One of the first Commonwealth departments established on 1 January 1901. From its inception in December 1921, the Commonwealth Tariff Board has been associated with the Department of Trade and Customs. In 1927 the Commerce Branch of the department was transferred to the Department of Markets and Migration.

Treasury, Department of the

One of the original Commonwealth departments created in 1901.