Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

Ministers in the Senate

The Constitution vests the executive power of the Commonwealth in the Governor-General as the monarch’s representative (s. 61). In practice the Governor General acts only on the advice of the government, which is formally tendered through the Executive Council, of which all ministers are members. Parliamentary secretaries (see below) are also appointed to the Council.

Ministers are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Constitution requires that no minister “shall hold office for a longer period than three months unless he is or becomes a senator or a member of the House of Representatives” (s. 64). The number of ministers and the maximum amount of funds that can be appropriated to cover their salaries is prescribed, under sections 65 and 66 of the Constitution, by the Ministers of State Act 1952 as amended.

Traditionally the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are members of the House of Representatives. When Senator John Gorton became Prime Minister consequent upon his election to the position of leader of the Liberal Party on 10 January 1968 he sought to become a member of the House of Representatives as soon as practicable. He resigned from the Senate on 1 February 1968 and was elected as member of the House of Representatives on 24 February 1968.

Although there are no constitutional or statutory requirements that any ministers be members of the Senate, all governments since federation have appointed senators to the ministry. In recent decades senators have usually comprised approximately one quarter to one third of the ministry.

From time to time the proposition has been advanced that there should be no ministers in the Senate, the argument being that the Senate is not the House which determines the composition of the government, the Senate’s role should be one of review and the presence of ministers inhibits that role. For example, on 22 February 1979 Senator Hamer moved:

  1. That, in the opinion of the Senate —

    1. Senators should no longer hold office as Ministers of State, with the exception of any Senator holding the office of Leader of the Government in the Senate, who, in order adequately to represent Government priorities to the Senate, should remain a member of the Cabinet; and

    2. Chairmen of the Senate’s Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees should be granted allowances, staffs and other entitlements similar to those currently granted to Ministers other than Ministers in the Cabinet. ...

This motion was debated but not resolved (22/2/1979, J.571, SD, pp 229-40). Notice of a similar motion was given by Senator Rae. It remained on the Notice Paper until 16 December 1982 but it was not moved and not debated (22/3/1979, J.619; 4/12/1980, J.57). Such a change might well strengthen the Senate’s role as the house of legislation and review, as distinct from the electoral college role of the House of Representatives of determining the party composition of the government. Unless the major parties agree not to appoint ministers in the Senate, which is unlikely, the change could come about only by a constitutional amendment.

The Senate’s procedures give ministers certain exclusive powers, most of which are concerned with the management of government business. The standing orders provide that ministers may:

  • arrange the order of their notices of motion and orders of the day on the Notice Paper as they think fit (SO 65)

  • move a motion connected with the conduct of the business of the Senate at any time without notice (SO 56); for discussion of this power see the section on the rearrangement of business in Chapter 8, Conduct of Proceedings

  • move that a bill be declared urgent and, if the motion is agreed to, move further motions concerning the time allocated for consideration of the bill (SO 142)

  • move at any time that the Senate adjourn (SO 53(2))

  • move for the adjournment of a debate after having spoken in that debate (SO 201(6))

  • move that the question be now put on more than one occasion, and after having spoken in the debate (SO 199(3))

  • present documents (SO 61 and 166)

  • present a message from the Governor-General at any time, but not during a debate or so as to interrupt a senator speaking (SO 173).

Ministers may authorise senators who are not ministers to exercise these powers on their behalf.

Ministers may be asked questions relating to public affairs at question time (SO 72). Committees examining the estimates may ask ministers for explanations concerning items of proposed expenditure (SO 26).

A document relating to public affairs quoted by a minister may not be ordered to be laid on the table, if the minister states that the document is of a confidential nature or should more properly be obtained by address (SO 168(1); see Chapter 18, Documents).

Ministers in the Senate represent one or more ministers who are members of the House of Representatives for the purposes of answering questions without notice, tabling documents and taking charge of bills. Conversely, Senate ministers are represented in the House of Representatives by a minister who is a member of that House. These representational arrangements are determined by the government.

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