The office of Prime Minister is in practice the most powerful political office in the Commonwealth of Australia. By convention, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party or coalition which has the most seats in the lower house of the Federal Parliament, the House of Representatives. In times of constitutional crisis, however, this convention can be broken if neccessary; this has occured once, during the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, when Malcolm Fraser was appointed to replace Gough Whitlam.
By convention the Prime Minister is always a member of the lower house of parliament. The Prime Minister can remain in office for as long as they retain the majority support of the lower house of parliament and retain their own seat in Parliament. In the rare event that their party wins an election but they lose their seat, it is possible for the Governor-General to appoint someone other than a member of Parliament a Minister, and hence Prime Minister, for up to three months. During this time a member of the Prime Minister's party with a safe seat would be forced to resign, and the Prime Minister would then be elected as member for that seat.
The constitutional crisis of 1975 shows that a Prime Minister may be removed from their position if they are seriously opposed in the Senate, even though they may have the support of the majority of the House. This however only applies if the Senate refuses to pass essential Government legislation, like the Budget. The Senate in recent years has frequently refused to pass major (though non-essential) government legislation.
The formal holder of executive power in the Commonwealth is Governor-General. However, by convention the Governor-General can only act with the Prime Minister's consent. The Governor-General appoints and can dismiss the Prime Minister and the other ministers, though his power to do so is heavily circumscribed by convention.
The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen; by convention she appoints the person recommended to her by the Prime Minister. The Queen can also sack the Governor-General, which by convention she would do if the Prime Minister requested it. Since the Governor-General can sack the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister can (by advising the Queen to do so) sack the Governor-General, the possibilty arises of a race between the two to see who can sack the other first. However, thus far this has been a largely theoretical possibility, though it might have happened during the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, had the events at the time played out differently.
The office of Prime Minister is nowhere mentioned in the Australian Constitution, although it does provide for the Governor-General to be advised by ministers. However, since the framers of the Australian constitution from the beginning intended it to largely follow the Westminster system, the office of Prime Minister has existed since the earliest days of the Commonwealth.
The Prime Minister chairs the Cabinet, a council of ministers where executive decision-making occurs, which can dictate its views on any aspect of government policy allowed by ministerial discretion. Like the Prime Minister, the Cabinet is nowhere explicitly provided for in the Australian Constitution. The intention nonetheless was for it always to exist, again following the Westminster model.
The Australian Constitution does explicitly provide for the Executive Council, which is composed of the Governor-General and the Ministers. (Former Ministers are also technically members, although only current members are permitted to attend its meetings.) The Executive Council makes no real decisions, serving mainly to rubber stamp decisions of Cabinet. This separation between the Executive Council and the Cabinet is similar to that existing between the Privy Council and Cabinet in the United Kingdom, or between the Canadian Privy Council and the Cabinet in Canada.
The power of the Prime Minister is subject to a number of limitations. If a Prime Minister acts against the wishes of their parliamentary supporters they may be removed as leader of their party and thus lose the support of the lower house. If this occurs, they must resign their office or they will be dismissed by the Governor-General, in accordance with convention. The Prime Minister must recieve the support of both houses of Parliament for any legislation (though secondary legislation, called Regulations, can be made by ministerial decree). Whilst the Prime Minister normally will have a majority in the House of Representatives, attaining the support of the Senate can be more difficult, since there the Government will often be in a minority.
So, while their formal powers are minimal, their practical powers as chief spokesperson for the government and leader of the strongest party in parliament in the relatively rigid Australian party system are very considerable.
List of Prime Ministers of Australia
(N.B. below list counts persons who were PM multiple times only once, but lists them for each time.)
- Barton, 1st PM
- Deakin, 2nd PM
- Watson, 3rd PM
- Reid, 4th PM
- Deakin, again
- Fisher, 5th PM
- Deakin, again
- Fisher, again
- Cook, 6th PM
- Fisher, again
- Hughes, 7th PM
- Bruce, 8th PM
- Scullin, 9th PM
- Lyons, 10th PM
- Page, 11th PM
- Robert Menzies (??-??), Liberal Party, 12th PM
- Fadden, 13th PM
- Curtin, 14th PM
- Forde, 15th PM
- Chifley, 16th PM
- Robert Menzies (), again
- Harold Holt (??-??), 17th PM
- McEwen, 18th PM
- Gorton, 19th PM
- McMahon, 20th PM
- Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), Labor Party, 21st PM
- Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983), Liberal Party, 22nd PM
- Bob Hawke (1983-1991), Labor Party, 23rd PM
- Paul Keating (1991-1996), Labor Party, 24th PM
- John Howard (1996-present), Liberal Party, 25th PM