Responsible government is a term which is used to refer to two elements of parliamentary government in British derived parliamentary systems. First, the government – the premier or prime minister and all the ministers who make up a ministry – is accountable to the lower house of parliament (see assembly). A government must maintain majority support in the lower house; loss of that support means that the government must resign. In this sense, responsible government is another term for parliamentary government; a ministry is ‘responsible’ to parliament for the activities of government and must resign if it loses the confidence of the lower house.
The second meaning of responsible government has historical significance and refers to the gaining of self-government by Australian colonies from 1856 (Queensland 1859, Western Australia, 1890). Before responsible government, executive decisions in the colonies were the responsibility of the governor even though he was advised by a representative body which sometimes included elected members. Under the system of ‘responsible government’, the governor was obliged to act on the advice of the premier and a group of ministers who had majority support in the lower house of parliament.
The granting of responsible government for the Australian colonies was a major achievement. It meant self-government for the colonists under a system of parliamentary democracy based on popular elections for the lower house of parliament with a wide franchise. This was true even though governments were sometimes constrained by powerful upper houses, by the residual powers of the governor and, during the nineteenth century, by the ability of the British government to override colonial legislation. The ‘responsible government’ model has continued to be the foundation of parliamentary government in the states, and colonial experience of the system served as the basis for the design and operation of commonwealth parliamentary government from 1901.