Executive Government

The Executive Government is the arm of government theoretically responsible for the implementation of the laws passed by the Parliament.

In Australia, the Executive Government is the ministry led by the Prime Minister. The executive works with the Public Service in administering the apparatus of government.

The concept of executive government centres around the notion of three arms of government:

  1. Legislative: the Parliament which makes the laws
  2. Executive: the Ministry which implements the laws
  3. Judicial: the Courts which interpret and apply the laws

However, the Executive Government does not simply implement the laws passed by Parliament. Because the Executive is drawn from the Parliament and is able to dominate it because of party discipline, in practice the Executive determines policy and the Parliament debates the legislation proposed by the Executive.

The relationship between the Parliament and the Executive is an important aspect of the study of politics in a parliamentary democracy. Parliament is supposed to hold the executive to account, seek information from the executive about its actions, and monitor the expenditure of public money. Some critics argue that the Parliament no longer adequately fulfills these roles and that the balance of power has shifted from the Parliament to the Executive.

According to Section 61 of the Australian Constitution:

“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.”

According to Section 62 of the Constitution:

“there shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth, and the members of the Council shall be chosen and summoned by the Governor-General and sworn as Executive Councillors, and shall hold office during his pleasure.”

Taken at face value, the Constitution would appear to make the Governor-General the most important political figure in the Commonwealth Government. All decisions, appointments and legislation require the consent of the Governor-General. The meetings and decisions of the Executive Council would appear to be most significant.

This structure appears to be out of keeping with the modern idea of democracy, but it is the result of the evolution over 1000 years from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. The “advisers” to the monarch are now decided by parliamentary elections and the monarch has become a figurehead.

In practice, the Governor-General acts on the advice of his chief adviser, the Prime Minister. There are many sections of the Constitution which invest the Governor-General with specific powers, some of which can be exercised alone (such as Section 28 which allows the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives), and some of which can only be exercised in conjunction with the Executive Council (such as Section 32 which allows the Governor-General to issue writs for an election).

In practice, meetings of the Executive Council take place with one or two ministers and the Governor-General. Government decisions are rubber-stamped at these meetings. Ministers are rostered to attend the meetings which are usually held once a week. From a political perspective, the real decisions have been made by ministers, the Prime Minister, Cabinet and Parliament.

Chapter 2 of the Constitution, which deals with the Executive Government, is one of the most contentious chapters. In particular, the debate about Section 64, which permits the Governor-General to appoint ministers at his pleasure, and was used by Sir John Kerr to dismiss Gough Whitlam in 1975, has never been fully resolved, and is at the heart of the debate about a future Australian republic.

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