Last updated 22 August 2016

Democratic governments based on the Westminster system traditionally consist of three branches: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The legislative branch is responsible for making laws. The administrative branch of government is responsible for putting the laws and policies of the legislature into effect, and the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting and enforcing laws.

The rules of administrative law apply mainly to the activities of the executive branch, but some activities of the legislature and judiciary are administrative in character and may be subject to administrative law.

Administrative decisions made by local councils, government ministers and lower courts (e.g. the Magistrates Court) are generally subject to administrative law. However, not all decisions by such bodies can be described as administrative. For instance, by-laws made by an elected local authority are legislative in character and not subject to review under pt 3 of the Judicial Review Act 1991 (Qld) (Judicial Review Act) (see Paradise Projects Pty Ltd v Gold Coast City Council [1994] 1 Qd R 314) but may be challenged under the common law as it is preserved in pt 5. Similarly, judicial decisions made by lower courts are not administrative decisions (Stubberfield v Webster [1996] 2 Qd R 211).

The head of the executive branch of government is the Governor-General in Council (for the Commonwealth Government) or the Governor in Council (for state governments). The High Court of Australia has made it clear that, at common law, the rules of administrative law apply to both the Governor-General and the state governors in the same way that they apply to other administrative decision makers. However, in judicial review applications in Queensland, the appropriate respondent in matters concerning decisions of the Governor in Council is the responsible minister (s 53 Judicial Review Act).

Most government administrative work is carried out by government departments. The administrative head of a government department is a senior public servant with a title such as Director-General. The political head of a department is the minister, who is a member of the government in power. The minister is responsible for formulating government policy, which the department will put into effect. The minister is, in principle, accountable to the parliament and ultimately the people for the department’s activities.

Departments are not the only administrative organ of government. Sometimes special statutory bodies are set up with a particular administrative function. An example of such a body at the Commonwealth level is the Repatriation Commission. Although most statutory bodies operate outside the confines of the normal public service regime, they remain just as much a part of the government administrative branch as mainstream departments and are ordinarily just as accountable for their administrative actions and decisions.