The Prime Minister And Cabinet
The Australian constitution does not mention a prime minister or a cabinet and this has become a cause of confusion for many people. However, the way in which the Australian constitution sets out the government can be found in the following two clauses:
“61. The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.
64. The Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish. Such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General. They shall be members of the Federal Executive Council, and shall be the Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth.”
Thus the powers of the constitution devolve on the King and are delegated to the Governor-General as his representative and the King, personally, thereafter plays little part in the governance of the nation. All ministers are therefore formally sworn in by the Governor-General and are ultimately answerable to him, or her. The Governor-General’s job is to ensure that the constitution and the laws of the nation are upheld. It is not a matter of power but one of ensuring that good governance is maintained.
Pictured alongside is Queen Elizabeth II receiving General Hurley shortly following his appointment as Governor-General of Australia.
It may therefore appear that the Governor-General is the head of the government, but that role is, by convention, held by the ‘prime’, or first, minister. You see, the Australian constitution is both written and unwritten in that, whilst it sets out the basic rules for the administration of the federation, much is left unsaid because ‘under the Crown’ Australia inherits from the United Kingdom a myriad of precedents and conventions, mainly from the Westminster System, which is the system which evolved over several centuries in Great Britain.
By convention the leader of the political party which wins the most seats in the house of representatives at an election is called upon by the Governor-General to form a government. That person becomes prime minister. In the event of no party gaining a majority, the Governor-General calls upon the person whom he believes would have the support of the majority of members of the House of Representatives. In the event of a loss of a vote of confidence in the lower house, the government must either resign or seek an early election to resolve the situation. Instead of allowing an election, the Governor-General may decide to call on the leader of the opposition to form a government, in which instance that government can only survive if it receives the confidence of the house. The most important factor in the mind of the Governor-General is to ensure that stable government continues.
The Senate, as the house of review, does not figure in this calculation.
By convention the prime minister is the chief adviser to the Governor-General who must act on advice tendered provided that that advice is legal and constitutional. However, as well as having the right to be consulted, he, or she, can also express caution and warn the prime minister against proceeding along a certain pathway.
Therefore, whilst the prime minister and his ministers administer the government, it is always subject to the will of the Parliament and the oversight of the Governor-General.
Under Australia’s system of constitutional monarchy, these are a part of the checks and balances within the system. Being above politics, the King is absolutely independent from any political influence and is not a member or supporter of any political party. Whilst the person who is Governor-General would naturally have political leanings those must be submerged and his duty to the constitution must always be foremost. At all times the office of Governor-General stands quite apart from any personal or political consideration.
The six states which form a part of the Federation, have their own administration under the Governor appointed by the King. The structures of Federal and state governance are almost the same. Each government is empowered and restrained by its respective constitutions.
The first prime minister of Australia was Sir Edmund Barton who was elected to the first Parliament in 1901. It is interesting to note that there were seven future prime ministers, including Sir Edmund elected in that first parliament. The other six were: Alfred Deakin, Chris Watson, George Reid, Joseph Cook, Andrew Fisher, and Billy Hughes.
All in all, there have been 30 prime ministers of Australia since federation but only two have served terms lasting more than 10 years. These were Sir Robert Menzies (18.45 years) (pictured alongside) and John Howard (11.73 years).
The prime minister is the foremost political leader in the country and is the public face and spokesperson for the government. It is he who makes a nomination for Governor-General and presents that name to the King for formal appointment. He can nominate a person to fill a vacancy on the High and Federal Courts, similarly, with the chairmen and boards of many government and quasi-government corporations, and so on.
The prime minister also has two official residences. His first official residence is The Lodge, a six-bedroomed house in Canberra set on 4.4 acres of land, and his second official residence is Kirribilli House overlooking Sydney harbour. He, or she also has access to a fleet of private Royal Australian Air Force aircraft used to travel both around the country and overseas.
However, once out of office, former prime ministers have no official place in the governance of the nation. They may remain in the parliament, but most resign. Although some are appointed to certain positions by the new prime minister most move straightaway into private life assisted by a government office and staff, government transport and a healthy pension.
The Lodge, the residence of the prime minister is pictured underneath.
- Why do you think the term ‘prime minister’ was not used in the Constitution in 1901?
- The relationship between a prime minister and the Governor-General (or a premier and a governor) is a close one but where the Governor-General acts in a neutral and formal manner. Why do you think this is so? Sometimes in the past a premier or prime minister has put forward a name of his chosen candidate for office to the monarch which has verged on partisanship. When this happens the problem will surface and it will be the politician who will be demeaned as a result. Give some reasons why our system of governance can manage a biased appointment.
- What do you understand by the term ‘cabinet government’? Does the term apply in Australia?
- The term ‘prime minister’ is mostly used by constitutional monarchies. Why do you think this is the case? Name a few countries with prime ministers other than the UK or Australia.
- As you know each State has its own administration which mirrors, to some extent, that of the federal government in Canberra. From what you have read so far, account for the relationship between the States and the Commonwealth government.
- You will note that when a federal election result is called it is the Governor-General who formally announces the result and who most likely calls on the ‘winner’ to form a government. What does this signify in respect to our governance