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Prime Minister: Roles, Powers and Restraints

In a Westminster-style parliamentary system of representative and responsible government, such as Australia, it is often said that the prime minister is simply “the first among equals”.

However, there is little doubt that the system has evolved to the point where the prime minister is the pivot point around which the political process revolves. The prime minister is as much the focus of attention as in a presidential system of government.

Prime Minister – A Working Definition

The Prime Minister is the head of government and leader of the executive government. He or she is the person who leads the party or parties that command majority support in the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister is the chief adviser to the Governor-General.

Interestingly, there is no mention of a prime minister in the Australian Constitution. Section 61 simply says 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.”

The Constitution further provides in Section 62 that there shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General.

As for the appointment of ministers, Section 64 states that “the Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish”, and that “such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General.”

In practice, a number of CONVENTIONS and practices have arisen over time:

  • The Prime Minister’s position has evolved so that the Prime Minister is the Governor-General’s Chief Adviser. In practice, the Governor-General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister, except in rare instances, such as the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
  • The Prime Minister is the leader of the party or parties that retain the support of the House of Representatives.
  • The Prime Minister has responsibility for advising the Governor-General of ministerial appointments.

Prime Ministerial Power & Roles

  • The PM allocates ministerial positions. In the Labor Party, the ministry was traditionally elected by the Caucus, although Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard chose their ministries. A Liberal leader is free to choose ministers from within the parliamentary party.
  • The PM chairs the Cabinet, determines the Cabinet agenda and oversees the work of the government. In this, the PM is supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  • The PM chooses election dates. Both parties allow the PM complete discretion to determine election timing.
  • The PM is the public face and spokesperson for the government, both domestically and internationally. Even though a Foreign Minister is appointed, the PM usually takes on the role of international spokesperson for the nation.
  • The PM’s position assumes power and prestige because the media focuses on the PM. This means that the PM is able to go over the head of his colleagues and party and communicate directly with the electorate.
  • The PM has the power of patronage. In Australia, positions such as Governor-General, judge of the High Court, Chairman of the ABC, etc., fall within the gift of the prime minister.

Restraints on the Power of the Prime Minister

  • The Party Room – PMs need to maintain the support of their parliamentary colleagues. Prime Ministers Julia Gillard (2013), Kevin Rudd (2010), Bob Hawke (1991), John Gorton (1971) and Robert Menzies (1941) all fell foul of their colleagues and were deposed as Prime Minister. Consultation is an important ingredient in maintaining party-room support.
  • Cabinet – PMs work with ministries and Cabinets of strong political personalities and ambitions. The management of their ministers is an important skill.
  • The House of Representatives – Party discipline ensures that PMs have relatively few difficulties in the lower house. However, the parliament’s role in scrutinising the executive means that the PM and other ministers must attend Question Time and submit to inquiries from the Opposition.
  • The Senate – Because of the nature of equal State representation in the Senate and the use of the proportional voting system, it is now rare for governments to command majority support in the upper house. The last time this occurred was between 1976 and 1981. The Senate can act as a brake on prime ministerial objectives, such as the deal John Howard was forced to broker with the Australian Democrats in 1999 to gain passage of the Goods and Services Tax legislation.
  • The High Court – The Court’s role as constitutional interpreter means that prime ministerial goals can be thwarted. This happened to Robert Menzies in 1951 when the Court invalidated the Communist Party Dissolution legislation, and to Paul Keating in 1992 when the Court invalidated legislation banning electronic political advertising. In 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysian solution’ policy on asylum seekers was ruled invalid by the High Court.
  • The StatesSection 51 of the Constitution divides responsibilities between the Federal government and the States. Often, co-operation with the States is an important element in ensuring political stability. Disagreements with State Premiers undermined John Gorton’s position as Prime Minister between 1968-71. Equally, the Federal government’s dominance over financial matters has also given prime ministers an edge in dealing with the States.
  • The Governor-General – The Constitution contains reserve powers which may be used against a prime minister. In the first decade of the Commonwealth, there were a number of occasions when requests for elections were denied. In 1983, Sir Ninian Stephen did not immediately grant a double dissolution to Malcolm Fraser. The most dramatic use of the reserve power was Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975.
  • The Electorate – In a parliamentary democracy where elections are held every 3 years, prime ministers need to be attuned to the thinking of the electorate. Opinion polls, by-elections, State elections and pressure group activity all contribute to electoral pressure on the person holding prime ministerial office.
Malcolm Farnsworth
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