The Cabinet is the focal point of the decision-making process of government. It is composed of either the full Ministry, or a specified group of Ministers selected by the Prime Minister. The latter has been the practice of non-Labor Governments since 1956 and Labor Governments since 1983. This practice resembles more closely the model of Cabinet Government developed in the United Kingdom. The group of Ministers known as the Cabinet is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution nor by any other law. The relationship between Cabinet and Parliament is of no greater or lesser significance than the relationship between the Ministry as a whole and Parliament. In a purely parliamentary context the existence of a Cabinet is of little procedural consequence. It is in basic terms an administrative mechanism to facilitate the decision-making process of the Executive Government.
The Australian Cabinet system between 1956 and 1972 and since 1975 has followed the British practice of including only selected Ministers in the Cabinet. The periods of government when the Cabinet was composed of the full Ministry were due in part to its relatively small size (11 in number in 1941), but may also have been influenced by the provision of the Constitution which determines that a Federal Executive Council, which constitutionally and in practice is composed of all Ministers of State, is to advise the Governor-General.
A Cabinet is an administrative arrangement for government decision-making. In constitutional terms certain decisions of government may be made by Cabinet but can only be formally implemented via the Federal Executive Council (see page 96).
Quick and Garran describes the Cabinet as:
…an informal body having no definite legal status; it is in fact an institution unknown to the law; it exists by custom alone, and yet is the dominant force in the Executive Government of every British country . . .
There are thus two commonly recognized qualifications necessary for ministerial appointment, (1) membership of the Privy or Executive Council, (2) membership of Parliament. From the point of view of the first qualification the ministry may be described as a select committee of the Privy or Executive Council; the remaining members of that body not being summoned to attend either the meetings of committees or the ordinary meetings of the Council. From the point of view of the second qualification the ministry may be called a Parliamentary committee, whose composition and policy is determined by the party commanding a majority in the national chamber.
Quick and Garran also states some of the time-honoured and pre-eminent features of Cabinet organisation and some of the rules of Cabinet discipline and government:
The proceedings of the Cabinet are conducted in secret and apart from the Crown. The deliberations of the Executive Council are presided over by the representative of the Crown. Resolutions and matters of administrative policy requiring the concurrence of the Crown, decided at meetings of the Cabinet, are formally and officially submitted to the Executive Council, where they are recorded and confirmed. The principle of the corporate unity and solidarity of the Cabinet requires that the Cabinet should have one harmonious policy, both in administration and in legislation; that the advice tendered by the Cabinet to the Crown should be unanimous and consistent; that the Cabinet should stand or fall together.
The Cabinet as a whole is responsible for the advice and conduct of each of its members. If any member of the Cabinet seriously dissents from the opinion and policy approved by the majority of his colleagues it is his duty as a man of honour to resign.
Advice is generally communicated to the Crown by the Prime Minister, either personally or by Cabinet minute. Through the Prime Minister the Cabinet speaks with united voice.
This concise statement of principles attaching to Cabinet organisation is regarded as having continuing validity, even though the rules have from time to time been broken or qualified under exceptional political circumstances.
On a number of occasions Prime Ministers have organised their Ministry to form small Cabinet groups composed of selected Ministers. Following the reconstruction of the Lyons Ministry on 7 November 1938, Prime Minister Lyons reorganised Cabinet to form an ‘inner group’ of Ministers to examine and formulate policy prior to submission to the full Cabinet. This scheme ceased with Lyons’ death on 7 April 1939 but later found an equivalent in the War Cabinet formed on 15 September 1939 by Prime Minister Menzies.
As noted by Sawer, the War Cabinet, which originally consisted of six Ministers:
…was the inverse of the Lyons scheme for an ‘inner group’, because full Cabinet remained responsible for general policy and the function of War Cabinet was detail and execution; however, in practice War Cabinet tended to become the first formulator of general policies having a relation to the war, which came to mean most issues of political significance. The War Cabinet developed secretarial and recording procedures which profoundly influenced the subsequent development of federal Cabinet as a whole.
The War Cabinet was continued by successive Governments until January 1946 when the powers vested in it reverted to the Cabinet composed of the full Ministry. Other forms of Cabinet committee organisation have occurred to facilitate the work of Cabinet including an ‘Economic Cabinet’ instituted in 1939. World War II also produced an Advisory War Council which included senior Ministers and senior opposition Members.
The Inner Cabinet system was first introduced informally by Prime Minister Menzies in 1954, primarily in the form of a Cabinet committee structure. The present practice, whereby the Cabinet is comprised of some but not all Ministers, was formally adopted on 11 January 1956 and has characterised all Governments since, with the exception of the Whitlam Government when all Ministers comprised the Cabinet, thereby reverting to the pre-1956 practice.
Subsequently, the size of Cabinet has ranged between 11 and 22 Ministers, while the Ministry has ranged from 22 to 30 Ministers.
In 1976 the Remuneration Tribunal reinstated the pre-1973 practice of dividing the Ministry, for the purposes of salary of office, into two groups. During the period of office of the Labor Government 1983–96, the practice again reverted to Cabinet and non-Cabinet Ministers receiving equal salaries. The two-tier system was reinstated following the change of government in 1996.
Under the Inner Cabinet system, a Minister not in Cabinet may be called to Cabinet meetings when affairs relating to his or her own department are under discussion. The work of Cabinet under this system is facilitated by the formation of various Cabinet committees on which Ministers not in Cabinet may serve.
Under the two-tier ministerial arrangements introduced in 1987 (see page 59) each senior or ‘portfolio’ Minister was a member of the Cabinet. The system was modified in 1996 by the Howard coalition Government; two portfolio Ministers (including the Attorney-General) were not members of Cabinet and one portfolio had two Cabinet Ministers. In the second and later Howard Ministries, and the subsequent Rudd Labor Ministry (2007), all portfolio Ministers were Cabinet Ministers. In the second Gillard Ministry, where the Cabinet had expanded to 22 Ministers, several portfolios had two Cabinet Ministers and several Cabinet Ministers had responsibilities in more than one portfolio.