Prime Minister of Australia
The prime minister of Australia is the head of government of Australia. The individual who holds the office is the most senior minister of state, the leader of the federal Cabinet. The prime minister also has the responsibility of administering the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and is the chair of the National Security Committee and the Council of Australian Governments. The office of prime minister is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia but exists through Westminster political convention. The individual who holds the office is commissioned by the governor-general of Australia and at the governor-general's pleasure subject to the Constitution of Australia and constitutional conventions.
|Prime Minister of Australia|
|Reports to||Parliament, Governor-General|
|Appointer||Governor-General of Australia|
by convention, based on appointee's ability to command confidence in the House of Representatives
|Term length||At the Governor-General's pleasure |
contingent on the Prime Minister's ability to command confidence in the lower house of Parliament
|Inaugural holder||Edmund Barton|
|Formation||1 January 1901|
|Salary||$549,229 (AUD) annually|
Scott Morrison has held the office of prime minister since 24 August 2018. He received his commission after replacing Malcolm Turnbull as the leader of the Liberal Party, the largest party in the Coalition government, following the Liberal Party leadership spill earlier the same day.
Constitutional basis and appointment
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The prime minister of Australia is appointed by the governor-general of Australia under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution, which empowers the governor-general, as the official representative of the Crown, to appoint government ministers of state on the advice of the prime minister and requires them to be members of the House of Representatives or the Senate, or become members within three months of the appointment. The prime minister and treasurer are traditionally members of the House, but the Constitution does not have such a requirement. Before being sworn in as a Minister of State, a person must first be sworn in as a member of the Federal Executive Council if they are not already a member. Membership of the Federal Executive Council entitles the member to the style of The Honourable (usually abbreviated to The Hon) for life, barring exceptional circumstances. The senior members of the Executive Council constitute the Cabinet of Australia.
The prime minister is, like other ministers, normally sworn in by the governor-general and then presented with the commission (letters patent) of office. When defeated in an election, or on resigning, the prime minister is said to "hand in the commission" and actually does so by returning it to the governor-general. In the event of a prime minister dying in office, or becoming incapacitated, or for other reasons, the governor-general can terminate the commission. Ministers hold office "during the pleasure of the governor-general" (s. 64 of the Constitution of Australia), so theoretically, the governor-general can dismiss a minister at any time, by notifying them in writing of the termination of their commission; however, their power to do so except on the advice of the prime minister is heavily circumscribed by convention.
According to convention, the prime minister is the leader of the majority party or largest party in a coalition of parties in the House of Representatives which holds the confidence of the House. Some commentators argue that the governor-general may also dismiss a prime minister who is unable to pass the government's supply bill through both houses of parliament, including the Australian Senate, where the government doesn't normally command the majority, as happened in the 1975 constitutional crisis. Other commentators argue that the governor-general acted improperly in 1975 as Whitlam still retained the confidence of the House of Representatives, and there are no generally accepted conventions to guide the use of the governor-general's reserve powers in this circumstance. However, there is no constitutional requirement that the prime minister sit in the House of Representatives, or even be a member of the federal parliament (subject to a constitutionally prescribed limit of three months), though by convention this is always the case. The only case where a member of the Senate was appointed Prime Minister was John Gorton, who subsequently resigned his Senate position and was elected as a member of the House of Representatives.
Despite the importance of the office of Prime Minister, the Constitution does not mention the office by name. The conventions of the Westminster system were thought to be sufficiently entrenched in Australia by the authors of the Constitution that it was deemed unnecessary to detail these. Indeed, prior to Federation in 1901 the terms State Premier and Prime Minister were used interchangeably.
If a government cannot get its appropriation (budget) legislation passed by the House of Representatives, or the House passes a vote of "no confidence" in the government, the prime minister is bound by convention to immediately advise the governor-general to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a fresh election.
Following a resignation in other circumstances or the death of a prime minister, the governor-general generally appoints the deputy prime minister as the new prime minister, until or if such time as the governing party or senior coalition party elects an alternative party leader. This has resulted in the party leaders from the Country Party (now named National Party) being appointed as Prime Minister, despite being the smaller party of their coalition. This occurred when Earle Page became caretaker prime minister following the death of Joseph Lyons in 1939, and when John McEwen became caretaker prime minister following the disappearance of Harold Holt in 1967. However in 1941, Arthur Fadden became the leader of the Coalition and subsequently Prime Minister by the agreement of both coalition parties, despite being the leader of the smaller party in coalition, following the resignation of UAP leader Robert Menzies.
Excluding the brief transition periods during changes of government or leadership elections, there have only been a handful of cases where someone other than the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives was Prime Minister:
- Federation occurred on 1 January 1901, but elections for the first parliament were not scheduled until late March. In the interim, an unelected caretaker government was necessary. In what is now known as the Hopetoun Blunder, the governor-general, Lord Hopetoun, invited Sir William Lyne, the premier of the most populous state, New South Wales, to form a government. Lyne was unable to do so and returned his commission in favour of Edmund Barton, who became the first prime minister and led the inaugural government into and beyond the election.
- During the second parliament, three parties (Free Trade, Protectionist and Labor) had roughly equal representation in the House of Representatives. The leaders of the three parties, Alfred Deakin, George Reid and Chris Watson each served as Prime Minister before losing a vote of confidence.
- As a result of the Labor Party's split over conscription, Billy Hughes and his supporters were expelled from the Labor Party in November 1916. He subsequently continued on as prime minister at the head of the new National Labor Party, which had only 14 members out of a total of 75 in the House of Representatives. The Commonwealth Liberal Party – despite still forming the official Opposition – provided confidence and supply until February 1917, when the two parties agree to merge and form the Nationalist Party.
- During the 1975 constitutional crisis, on 11 November 1975, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labor Party's Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister. Despite Labor holding a majority in the House of Representatives, Kerr appointed the Leader of the Opposition, Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister, conditional on the passage of the Whitlam government's Supply bills through the Senate and the calling of an election for both houses of parliament. Fraser accepted these terms and immediately advised a double dissolution. An election was called for 13 December, which the Liberal Party won in its own right (although the Liberals governed in a coalition with the Country Party).
Powers and role
Most of the prime minister's power derives from being the head of government. In practice, the Federal Executive Council acts to ratify all executive decisions made by the government and requires the support of the prime minister. The powers of the prime minister are to direct the governor-general through advice to grant Royal Assent to legislation, to dissolve and prorogue parliament, to call elections and to make government appointments, which the governor-general follows.
The formal power to appoint the governor-general lies with the queen of Australia, on the advice of the prime minister, whereby convention holds that the queen is bound to follow the advice. The prime minister can also advise the monarch to dismiss the governor-general, though it remains unclear how quickly the monarch would act on such advice in a constitutional crisis. This uncertainty, and the possibility of a "race" between the governor-general and prime minister to dismiss the other, was a key question in the 1975 constitutional crisis. Prime ministers whose government loses a vote of no-confidence in the House of Representatives, are expected to advise the governor-general to dissolve parliament and hold an election, if an alternative government cannot be formed. If they fail to do this, the governor-general may by convention dissolve parliament or appoint an alternative government.
The prime minister is also the responsible minister for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which is tasked with supporting the policy agendas of the prime minister and Cabinet through policy advice and the coordination of the implementation of key government programs, to manage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy and programs and to promote reconciliation, to provide leadership for the Australian Public Service alongside the Australian Public Service Commission, to oversee the honours and symbols of the Commonwealth, to provide support to ceremonies and official visits, to set whole of government service delivery policy, and to coordinate national security, cyber, counterterrorism, regulatory reform, cities, population, data, and women's policy. Since 1992, the prime minister also acts as the chair of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), an intergovernmental forum between the federal government and the state governments in which the prime minister, the state premiers and chief ministers, and a representative of local governments meet annually.
Privileges of office
As of 1 July 2019, Australia's prime minister is paid a total salary of $549,250. This is made up of the 'base salary' received by all Members of Parliament ($211,250) plus a 160 percent 'additional salary' for the role of Prime Minister. Increases in the base salary of MPs and senators are determined annually by the Australian Government's Remuneration Tribunal.
While in office, the prime minister has two official residences. The primary official residence is The Lodge in Canberra. Most prime ministers have chosen The Lodge as their primary residence because of its security facilities and close proximity to Parliament House. There have been some exceptions, however. James Scullin preferred to live at the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Hotel) and Ben Chifley lived in the Hotel Kurrajong. More recently, John Howard used the Sydney Prime Ministerial residence, Kirribilli House, as his primary accommodation. On her appointment on 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard said she would not be living in The Lodge until such time as she was returned to office by popular vote at the next general election, as she became Prime Minister by replacing an incumbent during a parliamentary term. Tony Abbott was never able to occupy The Lodge during his term (2013–15) as it was undergoing extensive renovations, which continued into the early part of his successor Malcolm Turnbull's term. Instead, Abbott resided in dedicated rooms at the Australian Federal Police College when in Canberra.
During his first term, Rudd had a staff at The Lodge consisting of a senior chef and an assistant chef, a child carer, one senior house attendant, and two junior house attendants. At Kirribilli House in Sydney, there is one full-time chef and one full-time house attendant. The official residences are fully staffed and catered for both the prime minister and their family. In addition, both have extensive security facilities. These residences are regularly used for official entertaining, such as receptions for Australian of the Year finalists.
The prime minister receives a number of transport amenities for official business. The Royal Australian Air Force's No. 34 Squadron transports the prime minister within Australia and overseas by specially converted Boeing Business Jets and smaller Challenger aircraft. The aircraft contain secure communications equipment as well as an office, conference room and sleeping compartments. The call-sign for the aircraft is "Envoy". For ground travel, the prime minister is transported in an armoured BMW 7 Series model. It is referred to as "C-1", or Commonwealth One, because of its licence plate. It is escorted by police vehicles from state and federal authorities.
Politicians, including prime ministers, are usually granted certain privileges after leaving office, such as office accommodation, staff assistance, and a Life Gold Pass, which entitles the holder to travel within Australia for "non-commercial" purposes at government expense. In 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the pass should be available only to former prime ministers, though he would not use it when he was no longer PM.
Only one prime minister who had left the Federal Parliament ever returned. Stanley Bruce was defeated in his own seat in 1929 while Prime Minister but was re-elected to parliament in 1931. Other prime ministers were elected to parliaments other than the Australian federal parliament: Sir George Reid was elected to the UK House of Commons (after his term as High Commissioner to the UK), and Frank Forde was re-elected to the Queensland Parliament (after his term as High Commissioner to Canada, and a failed attempt to re-enter the Federal Parliament).
Acting prime minister
It is a convention for the deputy prime minister to serve as acting prime minister when the prime minister is travelling outside Australia or absent due to illness. If the deputy prime minister is also unavailable, another senior member of the government is appointed as acting prime minister.
In the early 20th century, overseas travel generally required long journeys by ship. As a result, some held the position of acting prime minister for significant periods of time, including William Watt (16 months, 1918–1919), George Pearce (7 months, 1916), Alfred Deakin (6 months, 1902), Joseph Cook (5 months, 1921), James Fenton (19 weeks, 1930–1931), John Forrest (4 months, 1907), and Arthur Fadden (4 months, 1941). Fadden was acting prime minister for a cumulative total of 676 days (over 22 months) between 1941 and 1958.
Former prime ministers
The greatest number of living former prime ministers at any one time was eight. This has occurred twice:
- Between 7 October 1941 (when John Curtin succeeded Arthur Fadden) and 18 November 1941 (when Chris Watson died), the eight living former prime ministers were Bruce, Cook, Fadden, Hughes, Menzies, Page, Scullin and Watson.
- Between 13 July 1945 (when Ben Chifley succeeded Frank Forde) and 30 July 1947 (when Sir Joseph Cook died), the eight living former prime ministers were Bruce, Cook, Fadden, Forde, Hughes, Menzies, Page and Scullin.
Ben Chifley lived the least of all former prime ministers, as he died one year and six months after his term as prime minister. All other deceased former prime ministers have lived at least another 10 years, with the longest surviving former prime minister being Gough Whitlam, who lived 38 years and 11 months after office, surpassing Stanley Bruce's previous record of 37 years and 10 months.
The youngest person to become prime minister was Chris Watson – 37, who was also 37 when he ceased being prime minister. The oldest person to become prime minister was John McEwen – 67 as an interim prime minister, otherwise William McMahon – 63. Robert Menzies was the oldest person to ever be prime minister, leaving office at 71 years old.
The longest-serving prime minister was Sir Robert Menzies, who served in office twice: from 26 April 1939 to 28 August 1941, and again from 19 December 1949 to 26 January 1966. In total Robert Menzies spent 18 years, 5 months and 12 days in office. He served under the United Australia Party and the Liberal Party respectively.
The shortest-serving prime minister was Frank Forde, who was appointed to the position on 6 July 1945 after the death of John Curtin, and served until 13 July 1945 when Ben Chifley was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party.
The last prime minister to serve out a full government term in the office was John Howard, who won the 2004 election and led his party to the 2007 election, but lost. Since then, the five subsequent prime ministers have been either voted out of the office mid-term by the caucuses of their own parties, assumed the office mid-term under such circumstances, or both.
- Deputy Prime Minister of Australia
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Prime Minister of Australia
- Official website of the prime minister of Australia
- Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
- Australia's Prime Ministers – National Archives of Australia reference site and research portal
- Biographies of Australia's Prime Ministers / National Museum of Australia
- Classroom resources on Australian Prime Ministers