Defining democracy

Defining democracy

The Museum of Australian Democracy (at Old Parliament House) describes our democracy as:

‘A liberal democracy, being one that champions the development and well-being of the individual, is organised in such a way as to define and limit power so as to promote legitimate government within a framework of justice and freedom.’

It goes on to describe four critical elements of our democracy being legitimacy, justice, freedom, and power, as follows:


A legitimate government is one that has the appropriate mandate or authority to rule. This usually means a high degree of popular support as demonstrated by a free electorate and frequent elections. For example:

  • the government is chosen by a popular vote in which a majority of officials in a majority of electoral regions receive the majority vote; and,
  • rules (or laws) are framed to maximise the wellbeing of all or most citizens.


Justice is achieved when citizens live in an environment in which all citizens are treated equally and accorded dignity and respect. This may occur in democracies tempered by constitutionalism, free elections and restraints on power. For example:

  • the demands made by vested interest groups seeking special privileges are questioned; and,
  • society is encouraging of talent and rewards citizens on merit, rather than on rank, privilege or status.


If freedom is to exist, there must be:

  • self-determination such that citizens may make decisions, learn from them and accept responsibility for them;
  • the capacity to choose between alternatives;
  • the autonomy to do what the law does not forbid; and, where prohibitions do exist, they should be for the common good; and,
  • respect for political and civil liberties.

For example:

  • government intervention in political, economic and moral matters affecting the citizenry is limited or regulated; and,
  • the scope for religious, political and intellectual freedom of citizens is not limited.


In a liberal democracy efforts are made to define and limit power, often by means of a written constitution. Checks and balances, such as the separation of the Parliament, executive government and judicial power, are instituted. There are conventions of behaviour and a legal system that complements the political system.

For example:

  • civil liberties are defended and increased against the encroachment of governments, institutions and powerful forces in society.

More information

Museum of Australian Democracy

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