Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

The constitution and the 'Rules Governing Government'

Quick e-introduction to the Constitution:

Further reading suggestions. 

Here are some reading suggestions which compliment our account of the ‘rules governing government’.
  • Miragliotta, N. And Errington, W. 2009 The Australian Political System in Action. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press). Chapter 2. ‘The Australian Constitution and Constitutional Practice’
  • Parkin, A. and John Summers 2009. ‘The constitutional framework’ in D. Woodward, A. Parkin, and J. Summers (eds) Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson.)
  • Maddox, G. 2005. Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice. 5th edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Longman) Ch.4 begins with a discussion of constitutionalism before turning to the Australian Constitution and desirability of amending it.
  • Crisp, L.F. 1974. Australian National Government. (Hawthorn: Longman). The first chapter of this classic textbook on Australian politics provides a history of the creation of Australia’s Constitution.
  • Irving, H. 2004. Five Things to Know about the Australian Constitution. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Useful links 
The Australian Constitution is reproduced in Politics One. But it can also be accessed in a searchable form on line at several different websites, including http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/general/constitution/ 

A further note on the Governor-General 
The Australian Constitution places a great deal of executive authority in the hands of the Governor-General although s/he plays a far less prominent part in governing Australia than this suggests. A discussion of this role can be found on the Governor-General’s website. Westminster conventions dictate that Governors-General should exercise the powers invested in their office as the prime minister advises for as long as the prime minister has the confidence of the House of Representatives and is able to guarantee the passage of the supply bills. However as the representative of the Queen the Governor-General possesses the same discretionary ‘reserve powers’ that the monarch enjoys. These are grounded in convention. They might allow a Governor-General to delay Royal Assent for bills passed by parliament, or to refuse or force the dissolution of parliament. As the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government demonstrates, the Governor-general’s reserve powers extend to dismissing and appointing prime ministers. 

These ‘reserve powers’ are argued to provide the Governor-General a valuable means of resolving unforeseen political crises—say by appointing a prime minister or ordering a new ballot in circumstances where an election produces a ‘hung parliament’ and no clear victor. However their critics see the reserve powers as an ill-defined and unnecessary vestige of an outmoded monarchy. Their existence underlines that the Governor-General is not simply a rubber stamp for the prime minister and cabinet of the day. However Governor-Generals have very rarely used their reserve powers and normally remain ‘above’ politics. 

Nonetheless over the past decade the office of Governor-General has drawn some controversy. During his tenure William Deane was especially outspoken on a number of social issues. His successor, the Right Reverend Dr Peter Hollingworth, came under sustained public attack and was forced to resign following a disastrous public interview in 2003 (given in the wake of the release of an Anglican Church report finding that, as the responsible Church official, he had earlier mishandled allegations of sexual abuse by Anglican priests). For a discussion of the role of the Governor-General and an argument that the public role of the office should not be widened to enable Governors-General to speak on more controversial topics, see Craven, G., (2004) ‘The Developing Role of the Governor-General: the Goldenness of Silence’,Federal Law Review V.32 (2), pp.281-90.

Discussion point 
In 2007 Australians rejected one, and elected a new, prime minister. Many who voted to place the reigns of power in the hands of Kevin Rudd may not have known that the Australian Constitution makes no mention at all of the prime minister. Is this appropriate? 
Should the authority of the prime minister be expressly defined in the Constitution?