Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

Prime Minister and Cabinet

Quick e-introduction to the prime minister

Further reading suggestions

  • Williams, P. 2006. ‘Australia’s system of government’ in R. Eccleston, P. Williams and R. Hollander@@@Foundations of Australian Politics. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Education). The roles of parliament, cabinet and prime minister simply explained.
  • Singleton, G., Aitkin D, Jinks B. and Warhurst J. 2009.@@@Australian Political Institutions. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson). Ch. 6. ‘Executive Government – cabinet and prime minister’ provides a careful description of the role of cabinet, ministers and the prime minister.
  • Anderson. G. 2009. ‘Executive government’ in D. Woodward, A. Parkin, and J. Summers (eds)@@@Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson.)
  • Weller, P. 2007. Cabinet Government in Australia. (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press). Chapter 1 ‘Understanding Cabinet Government’.
  • Vromen, K.A, Gelber, K. and Gauja. A. 2009.@@@Powerscape: Contemporary Australian politics@@@2nd edn. (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin). Ch.5. ‘Running the State: Executive Power’.

A further note on prime ministerial power@@@
Presidential systems of government are clearly more prone to the accumulation of power in the hands of an individual leader than are parliamentary systems. A key difference is that, in the latter, executive power is subject to the continuing support of the legislature (since the prime minister and cabinet are selected by parliament and continue in government only whilst they have the confidence of parliament). In contrast presidents serve fixed terms and do not depend for their survival upon the continuing support of a legislature.@@@

In this context Pat Weller (2004, 67) notes that nowadays governments no longer commonly ‘identified by the name of the party that created them’ so much as by the prime minister at their head . This is evidence of an associated common impression that the office of prime minister has become more ‘presidential’. Yet Weller underlines the relative institutional weakness of prime ministers: there is ‘a contrast however between a presidential and a cabinet system of government. In a presidential system, all advice is directed at the one person with the recognised authority to make final decisions. In cabinet government the forms of government have been, and remain collective. Decisions are, nominally at least, taken by the cabinet, not the prime minister.’@@@

Notice that Weller says that decisions are ‘nominally’ taken collectively by Cabinet. This points to the political reality behind a label such as ‘the Rudd Government’. Nowadays prime ministers are especially powerful and usually able to decide policy decisions as they choose. In practice, as Weller (2004, 68) argues, Australian ‘prime ministers have extensive capacity to control and direct government’. Prime ministers have always been well-placed to dominate their governments. For instance they are able to chair cabinet, control the order of its business, and - significantly, since cabinets do not resolve issues by voting - summarise its decisions. Prime ministers also allocate portfolios to ministers and thereby decide who will sit around cabinet. In the case of the Liberal party, prime ministers actually choose which of their party room colleagues will be ministers. They have the exclusive authority to advise the Governor-General to dismiss ministers and the sole prerogative of deciding when elections will be called. Beyond the institutional advantages which their office has long conferred, some prime ministers have also been able to dominate by the force of their personality or intellect.@@@

However the suggestion that the office of prime minister has grown more ‘presidential’ points to recent developments which have enhanced the power which incumbents are able to wield. Beyond Australia that political scientists have also detected an erosion of cabinet government based on collective responsibility matched by the systematic accumulation of prime ministerial power. But here are clearly some distinctive factors which have contributed to the growth of prime ministerial power in Australia. Notably prime ministers have indirectly benefited from the shifting balance of the federal system which has seen the Commonwealth accrue a greater range of powers at the expense of states. As the Commonwealth has grown more powerful, so too has executive government. Equally the reform and subsequent politicisation of the Australian Public Service (more pronounced in Australia than in comparable countries) has allowed prime ministers to enlarge their patronage and to appoint sympathetic and supportive advisers. Yet the detection of a similar centralisation of prime ministerial power in other Westminster systems suggests the ‘presidentialisation’ of Australian politics has a further explanation.@@@

McAllister@@@(2004, 1-2) argues that prime ministers in countries such as Australia and Britain now exercise ‘unprecedented power in shaping ministerial careers’ which has proven to be ‘a crucial tool in ensuring compliance and centralizing authority’. He explains this newfound power by showing that ‘prime ministers and opposition leaders have replaced many of the roles historically played by political parties’. Of course prime ministers have long benefited from that authority which comes with the leadership of a political party. But the@@@recent@@@evolution of political parties into electoral-professional organisations has greatly enhanced this authority. The central party secretariat now wields much greater authority over state divisions. The decline of parties as mass organisations has meant that prime ministers are no longer constrained by an extensive grassroots membership able to decide policy through party councils. Indeed policies are now decided against the backdrop of extensive opinion research conducted by professional pollsters, and are more malleable. Indeed McAllister (2004, 19) suggests that ‘there is now less emphasis on a party’s policies than in the past, and more emphasis on the personalities of the leaders’. The arrival of television in the 1960s created a national political stage. As political parties thereafter became increasingly reliant upon television to reach voters, the authority of prime ministers as their party’s chief salesperson grew. Eventually prime ministers developed the capacity to ‘appeal to the broad mass of voters over the heads of their party’ (McAllister 2004, 19).@@@

McAllister’s (2004, 25) argument is worth quoting at some length:
The role of the prime minister in Westminster systems has changed significantly over the past half century. In the immediate postwar years the prime minister’s fate was inextricably bound up with that of his or her party; enduring voting patterns, the strength of the party system, and stable institutions of government all combined to ensure that the prime minister was the ‘first among equals’ and nothing more. The first questioning of this traditional model of prime ministerial authority came with the widespread use of television in the 1960s and 1970s to cover elections and politics in general. Declining election participation and partisan dealignment have further suggested that a transition may be underway. Institutional changes to the public service and the increasing complexity of modern decision-making have further served to concentrate power in the executive.
It may be, as McAllister (2004, 25) suggests, that now ‘the debate is not whether the prime minister remains the “first among equals”, but whether he or she is now a president, with all the executive power associated with that position.’ However Weller’s point needs be remembered: prime ministers are not presidents. Finally any argument that prime ministers are more powerful than ever before needs be weighed against a cautionary point that Weller (2004, 68) raises. Skilful prime ministers, he argues, undeniably have ‘an extensive capacity to control and direct government’ and to strengthen their own standing. ‘But they do not always succeed for ever. Most prime ministers eventually fail.’ Unlike presidents, prime ministers have a power which is not constitutionally given: they do not have an ‘unchanging capacity that allows [them] to get their own way. Rather if they are to retain their power, it ‘must be husbanded, protected and used wisely’. In this sense, as we argue in Politics One, a prime minister’s power is built upon ever shifting sands.@@@

Sources@@@
McAllister, I. (2004) 'Political leaders in Westminster Systems'. Draft of a chapter in K. Aarts, A. Blais and H. Schmitt (eds)@@@Political Leaders and Democratic Elections@@@http://polsc.anu.edu.au/McAllisterpaper.pdf@@@Weller, P. (2004) ‘Parliament and Cabinet. The Centre of Government’ in E. Van Acker and G. Curran (eds)@@@Governing Business and Globalisation. 2nd edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson).

Discussion point@@@
Numerous commentators have described the ‘micro management’ that Kevin Rudd exercises over his government. Some have seen this as ‘disfunctional’. Should we be surprised that a prime minister exercises such tight control? Has not the power which prime ministers wield accumulated to a point where the individual beliefs and preferences of the incumbent will now substantially define what governments do?