Federal Executive Council

The Federal Executive Council was established by the Constitution to perform similar functions in Australia to those performed by the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, that is, to advise the Crown.[215] It is the formal, constitutional and legal body responsible for advising the Governor-General (as distinct from Cabinet). The Executive Council is the legal means of ratifying executive acts (as distinct from prerogative acts) by or on behalf of the Governor-General. Any reference to the Governor-General in Council in the Constitution or elsewhere refers to the Governor-General acting on and with the advice of the Executive Council. The Acts Interpretation Act provides that where the Governor-General is referred to in an Act, the reference shall, unless the contrary intention appears, be read as referring to the Governor-General acting with the advice of the Executive Council.[216] The Governor-General’s advice, however, does not come from the total membership of the Executive Council, but is limited to that group of members who are currently Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries, the Chief Adviser being the Prime Minister.

Members of the Federal Executive Council are chosen, summoned and sworn in by the Governor-General[217] and hold office during the Governor-General’s pleasure which, generally, is for life. An exception was Senator Sheil who was appointed to the Executive Council on 20 December 1977 without portfolio but following certain public statements on policy matters had his appointment terminated on 22 December 1977.[218] There have been instances of Honorary Ministers and Assistant Ministers being appointed to the Executive Council. Parliamentary Secretaries have been appointed since 1990. At any one time there are many Executive Councillors no longer holding executive office and in practice the only Executive Councillors who are summoned to Council meetings are those who are, currently, Ministers of State or Parliamentary Secretaries. Members of the Executive Council may use the title ‘Honourable’ while they are Executive Councillors, that is, usually for life.

There is nothing in the Constitution which determines the modus operandi of the Executive Council, which is for the Council itself to decide. In practice formal processes have been established. Two Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries, in addition to the person presiding, are rostered to attend its meetings, which are held regularly throughout the year (normally fortnightly in Government House, Canberra). The matters dealt with are recommendations by Ministers, for the approval of the Governor-General in Council, that something be done—for example, that a regulation be made, a treaty be ratified, or a person be appointed to a position. The processes involved in bringing each matter before the Council ensure that it is properly documented and that the action has legal authority.[219]

Meetings of the Executive Council are presided over by the Governor-General or, if the Governor-General is unable to be present, by a Deputy appointed by the Governor-General.[220] The Deputy is usually the Vice-President of the Executive Council or, in the absence of the Vice-President, the senior member of the Executive Council present at the meeting may preside if so authorised.[221] This delegation of authority is limited to presiding over meetings and signifying approval of the proceedings. The delegation does not carry with it authority to make appointments and perform other acts on behalf of the Governor-General; it is limited to signifying to the Governor-General the approval of the Council to the recommendation (minute) placed before the Council.[222]

The provisions of the Constitution applying to the Governor-General also apply to any person appointed by the Queen to administer the Government of the Commonwealth.[223] Hence, in the absence of the Governor-General, the Administrator presides over meetings of the Executive Council and signs Executive Council Minutes.