|George Reid||1904-05||Free Trade|
As well as being a federation, Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the formal Head of State. The Governor-General, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, is the Queen's representative in Australia, and fulfils the traditional role of 'advising, encouraging and warning' in relation to the government of the day. The Governor-General exercises formal executive powers subject to the principles of responsible government and on the advice of Ministers. The Governor-General also performs a range of ceremonial and other functions.
The practice of governor-general and governors acting on advice of ministers is a convention, not a law. In strict legal terms their powers are still extensive, and by convention sometimes they can use their powers without the advice of ministers or even against the advice of ministers. These are called the reserve powers. These include the right to dismiss a government which is acting illegally or unconstitutionally, to refuse an early election to a prime minister or premier who has lost majority support in the lower house, and to choose a prime minister where no one party has a clear majority in the house (if the prime minister so chosen could not acquire majority support, he or she would have to resign). In such situations the governor-general and the governors are the stabilisers and protectors of the system.
The Constitution is silent on the role of political parties in parliament. It does not make any reference to a government party, an opposition party or minor parties, or to roles like Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. These are conventions that have been adopted to assist the smooth operation of the legislature. The party which holds a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament forms the government. If a party is short of a majority it might rely on the support of another party or independent members to form a government. Governments usually change when a party loses an election and what was formerly the opposition party wins a majority of seats and forms a government.
The leader of the party is elected by the party members. This person becomes the prime minister when the party is the majority party. In the Liberal Party the prime minister chooses the ministers. In the Labor Party they are elected by the party room meeting (the caucus). In both parties, prime ministers will only keep their job if they have the support of a majority of the party. If a prime minister is unpopular the party may replace him or her, with the party itself remaining in government. Prime ministers have been removed by parties. This is the ultimate hold a party has over its government. Some experts would still use the term ‘responsible government’, but the responsibility of ministers is now to the party rather than the parliament. With strong party discipline, once a ministry is formed, it will be supported in office by the members who are of the same party as the ministers.
The executive is the administrative arm of government, and is made up of government employees (the public service) working in a number of departments and agencies. The executive is empowered by the laws of Australia to put those laws into operation and uphold those laws once they have begun to operate.
A Minister is a member of the legislature who has been chosen to also work as part of the executive, usually with responsibility for matters on a specific topic (his portfolio). The Prime Minister also serves as Australia's Head of Government. Ministers (including the Prime Minister) are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but their roles are accepted as being important conventions that help to ensure an efficient executive.
Commonwealth Ministers must sit in Parliament, as Senators or members of the House of Representatives, and are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. They have responsibility for administering the various Commonwealth Portfolios assigned to each Cabinet Minister. Each portfolio may contain one or more agencies. An example is the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio. The agencies that constitute this portfolio are the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Trade Commission, the Australian Agency for International Development, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. The makeup of portfolios may change over time as governments review their policy priorities, with agencies moving between portfolios or new agencies being created.
Ministers meet together as the cabinet. In the Commonwealth government where there are a large number of ministers, there is an inner and outer ministry. Only the members of the inner group constitute the cabinet. If it is to work effectively it cannot be too large; at more than 13 or 14 members it becomes a meeting rather than a working body. Ministers who are outside the cabinet are called in to meetings when a decision has to be taken in the area of their portfolio (the name of a minister’s responsibility). In the States and Territories all ministers are members of the cabinet.
The meetings of a cabinet are where the decisions of the executive government are taken. ‘To execute’ means simply to carry out, but the executive now does much more than administer the laws passed by parliament.
It decides what bills will be introduced into parliament. Theoretically any member may introduce a bill for a new law, but except in very rare circumstances only those bills introduced and backed by the government have any chance of becoming law. This is the effect of the government having a guaranteed majority in at least the lower house due to the strength of party discipline. This kills off bills coming from any other quarter: the opposition or minor parties. Unless the government controls both houses, it cannot be sure its bills will become law. It can be sure that no one else’s will.
The leading members of the chief opposition party form a shadow cabinet with individual members being appointed as shadow ministers. They watch or ‘shadow’ the real ministers. A shadow minister must learn about the responsibilities of the real minister and be able to criticise the minister’s actions and show that the opposition party would handle matters better. The shadow ministry is one of the great strengths of the parliamentary system. Electors and the media can watch and assess the alternative government and decide whether it would be better than the ministers who hold office.
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