Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

The Senate and the ministry

Section 1 of the Constitution provides that the Parliament consists of the monarch, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The titular head of the executive government is therefore also part of the legislature and joins in the exercise of the legislative power. The monarch’s powers and functions are in effect delegated to the Governor-General (s. 2) whom the monarch appoints, usually for a term of five years, on the advice of the government; in practice the appointment is controlled by the prime minister.

Section 61 of the Constitution vests the executive power of the Commonwealth in the Governor-General representing the monarch, but in practice that power is exercised by ministers appointed by the Governor-General, who are members of the Federal Executive Council, an advisory body to the Governor-General, and who are required to be members of the Senate or the House of Representatives (ss 62 to 64). This latter requirement is the only reference in the Constitution to the practice of responsible or cabinet government, under which the ministry holds office so long as it retains the confidence of the House of Representatives. In practice this means that the prime minister is the leader of the party or coalition of parties which holds a majority in that House, and the other ministers are members of that party or coalition nominated by the prime minister or selected by the party or coalition. Through its party majority, the ministry controls the House of Representatives.

The tenure of office of the ministry is therefore not directly affected by the composition or actions of the Senate, and the party forming the ministry has not normally had a majority in the Senate. Ministers individually and the ministry collectively, however, are required by the Senate to be accountable to the Senate for their policies and their conduct of the executive government. This accountability to the Senate is provided for in the procedures of the Senate, and is imposed through questioning of ministers, examination of government legislative proposals, and inquiries into government activities.

This chapter examines relations between the Senate and the executive government and the accountability of the executive generally. The scrutiny of legislation and inquiries into government activities are examined in Chapters 12 and 13 on Legislation and Chapters 16 and 17 on Committees and Witnesses.

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