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Executive Council

The Executive Council is one of those arcane rituals so common in the Australian political system.

It dates to a time when the English monarch ruled and occasionally condescended to take “advice” from lesser mortals.

Historical Origins of the Executive Council

The English monarch once ruled with absolute power. A monarch’s decree was law. In time, assisted by civil war and parliamentary rebellions, the monarch’s power shifted to the elected members of the parliament. However, the tradition has continued where the monarch, or the monarch’s representative, acts on the advice of ministers.

In Australia, this means that the executive power is exercised by the Governor-General with the advice of the Executive Council. In practice, the monarch exercises no real power. But all decisions by the executive government are made in the name of the crown. All legislation passed by parliament is enacted in the monarch’s name.

It’s All In The Constitution

Firstly, Section 61 of the Australian Constitution states that “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.”

This section is one of the most significant parts of the Constitution that is not taken literally. By convention, the Governor-General only acts on the advice of his or her ministers. Those ministers represent the party or parties that command a majority in the House of Representatives.

Secondly, Section 62 of the Constitution establishes the Executive Council as a body “to advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth.” It stipulates that “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.”

All Ministers Are Executive Councillors For Life

In practice, ministers are the only active members of the Executive Council. In recent times, Parliamentary Secretaries have also been members of the Council. By convention, Executive Councillors retain their positions for life, but only current ministers are called on to advise the Governor-General.

Powers and Functions of the Executive Council

Under the Constitution, the Executive Council is required to undertake a range of functions, including:

  • giving Royal Assent to legislation
  • make proclamations, regulations and ordinances as delegated by various Acts of Parliament
  • issue writs for elections
  • appoint public servants
  • appoint judges and members of the armed forces

An Executive Council meeting is usually held once a fortnight. It usually requires the presence of two ministers and the Governor-General. Ministers are rostered for the meetings that are held each fortnight. Junior ministers tend to be assigned the task of attending Executive Council meetings.

Federal Executive Council Handbook 2017

This is the handbook of the Federal Executive Council. It is issued by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024