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Prime Minister of Australia

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Prime Minister of Australia

Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia
Tony Abbott

since 18 September 2013
Government of Australia
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Style The Honourable
Member of
Reports to Parliament
Seat Canberra
Appointer Governor-General of Australia
Term length At the Governor-General's pleasure
With Federal Elections held no more than three years apart
Inaugural holder Edmund Barton
Formation 1 January 1901
Salary $507,338 (AUD)

The Prime Minister of Australia is the highest minister of the Crown, leader of the Cabinet and head of government, holding office on commission from the Governor-General of Australia. The office of Prime Minister is, in practice, the most powerful political office in Australia. Despite being at the apex of executive government in the country, the office is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia and it exists through an unwritten political convention.

By convention, the prime minister is the leader of the Billy Hughes was overseas).[1]

The current Prime Minister is Tony Abbott, the leader of the Coalition and the Liberal Party of Australia, after the Coalition defeated the Australian Labor Party at the 2013 federal election.


This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The prime minister of Australia is appointed by the governor-general of Australia under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution. This empowers the governor-general to appoint ministers of the Crown and requires such ministers to be members of the House of Representatives or the Senate, or become members within three months of the appointment. Before being sworn in as a minister, a person must first be sworn in as a member of the Federal Executive Council if they are not already a member. Membership of the Federal Executive Council entitles the member to the style of The Honourable (usually abbreviated to The Hon) for life, barring exceptional circumstances. The senior members of the Executive Council constitute the Cabinet of Australia.

The prime minister is, like other ministers, normally sworn in by the governor-general and then presented with the commission (Letters patent) of office. When defeated in an election, or on resigning, the prime minister is said to "hand in the commission" and actually does so by returning it to the governor-general. In the event of a prime minister dying in office, or becoming incapacitated, the governor-general can terminate the commission. Ministers hold office "during the pleasure of the governor-general" (s. 64 of the Constitution of Australia), so theoretically, the governor-general can dismiss a minister at any time, by notifying them in writing of the termination of their commission; however, his or her power to do so except on the advice of the prime minister is heavily circumscribed by convention.

Despite the importance of the office of prime minister, the Constitution does not mention the office by name. The conventions of the Westminster system were thought to be sufficiently entrenched in Australia by the authors of the Constitution that it was deemed unnecessary to detail them. The formal title of the portfolio has always been simply "Prime Minister", except for the period of the Fourth Deakin Ministry (June 1909 to April 1910), when it was known as "Prime Minister (without portfolio)".[2]

If a government cannot get its appropriation (budget) legislation passed by the House of Representatives, or the house passes a vote of "no confidence" in the government, the prime minister is bound by convention to resign immediately. The governor-general's choice of replacement prime minister will be dictated by the circumstances.

Following a resignation in other circumstances, or the death of a prime minister, the governor-general will generally appoint as prime minister the person voted by the governing party as their new leader. There have been four notable exceptions to this:

  • When Joseph Lyons, prime minister and leader of the United Australia Party (UAP), died suddenly in April 1939, the governor-general, Lord Gowrie, called on Sir Earle Page to become caretaker prime minister. Page was the leader of the smaller party in the governing coalition, the Country Party. He held the office for three weeks until the UAP elected a new leader, Robert Menzies.
  • In August 1941, Menzies resigned as prime minister. The UAP was so bereft of leadership at this time that the Country Party leader Arthur Fadden was invited to become prime minister, although the Country Party was the smaller of the two coalition parties. The government depended on support from two independents, who two months later voted against Fadden's budget and brought the government down, paving the way for John Curtin to be appointed as Labor prime minister.
  • In July 1945, John Curtin died suddenly. His deputy, Frank Forde, was sworn in the next day as prime minister, although the Labor Party had not had an opportunity to meet and elect a new leader. Forde served for eight days until Ben Chifley was elected leader. Chifley was then sworn in, replacing Forde, who became Australia's shortest-serving prime minister.
  • In 1967, Harold Holt disappeared while swimming on 17 December and was declared presumed dead on 19 December. The governor-general, Lord Casey, commissioned the Leader of the Country Party, John McEwen, to form a government until the Liberal Party elected a new leader. McEwen was prime minister for 23 days, until the election of (then Senator) John Gorton.

There were only five other cases where someone other than the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives was prime minister:

  • Federation occurred on 1 January 1901, but elections for the first parliament were not scheduled until late March. In the interim, an unelected caretaker government was necessary. In what is now known as the Hopetoun Blunder, the governor-general, Lord Hopetoun, invited Sir William Lyne, the premier of the most populous state, New South Wales, to form a government. Lyne was unable to do so and returned his commission in favour of Edmund Barton, who became the first prime minister and led the inaugural government into and beyond the election.
  • During the second parliament, three parties (Free Trade, Protectionist and Labor) had roughly equal representation in the House of Representatives. The leaders of the three parties, Chris Watson each served as prime minister before losing a vote of confidence.
  • During the 1975 constitutional crisis, on 11 November 1975, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labor Party's Gough Whitlam as prime minister. Despite Labor holding a majority in the House of Representatives, Kerr appointed the Leader of the Opposition, Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister, conditional on the passage of the Whitlam government's Supply bills through the Senate and the calling of an election for both houses of parliament. Fraser accepted these terms and immediately advised a double dissolution. An election was called for 13 December, which the Liberal Party won in its own right (although the Liberals governed in a coalition with the Country Party).


The first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton (sitting second from left), with his Cabinet, 1901.

Most of the prime minister's powers derive from being head of the cabinet. In practice, the Federal Executive Council will act to ratify all decisions made by the cabinet and, in practice, decisions of the cabinet will always require the support of the prime minister. The powers of the governor-general to grant Royal Assent to legislation, to dissolve and prorogue parliament, to call elections and to make appointments are exercised on the advice of the prime minister.

The formal power to appoint the Governor-General lies with the Queen of Australia, but this appointment is done on the formal advice of the Prime Minister. By convention, this advice is provided by the Prime Minister alone, and thus the appointment is effectively the Prime Minister's personal choice. The Prime Minister may also advise the monarch to dismiss the Governor-General, though it remains unclear how quickly the monarch would act on such advice in a constitutional crisis. This uncertainty, and the possibility of a "race" between the Governor-General and Prime Minister to sack the other, was a key question in the 1975 constitutional crisis.

The power of the prime minister is subject to a number of limitations. Prime ministers removed as leader of his or her party, or whose government loses a vote of no-confidence in the House of Representatives, must resign the office or be dismissed by the governor-general.

The prime minister's party will normally have a majority in the House of Representatives and party discipline is exceptionally strong in Australian politics, so passage of the government's legislation through the House of Representatives is mostly a formality. Attaining the support of the Senate can be more difficult as government usually lacks an absolute majority because the Senate's representation is based on overall proportion of votes and often includes minor parties.

Salary and benefits

Prime Ministerial pay history
Effective date Salary
2 June 1999 $289,270
6 September 2006 $309,270
1 July 2007 $330,356
1 October 2009 $340,704[3]
1 August 2010 $354,671[4]
1 July 2011 $366,366
1 December 2011 $440,000
15 March 2012 $481,000[5]
1 July 2012 $495,430[6]
1 July 2013 $507,338[7]



Prime Ministers Curtin, Fadden, Hughes, Menzies and Governor-General The Duke of Gloucester in 1945.

The Royal Australian Air Force's No. 34 Squadron transports the prime minister within Australia and overseas by specially converted Boeing Business Jets and smaller Challenger aircraft. The aircraft contain secure communications equipment as well as office, conference room and sleeping compartments. The call-sign for the aircraft is "Envoy".

The prime minister's official residence is The Lodge in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, but not all prime ministers have chosen to make use of it. Jim Scullin preferred to live at the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Hotel); Ben Chifley lived in the Hotel Kurrajong; and John Howard made Kirribilli House in Sydney, New South Wales his primary residence, using The Lodge when in Canberra on official business. On her appointment on 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard said she would not be living in The Lodge until such time as she was returned to office by popular vote at the next general election. (She became prime minister mid-term after replacing the incumbent, Kevin Rudd, who resigned in the face of an unwinnable party-room ballot.) The official residences are fully staffed and catered for both the prime minister and his or her family. A considerable amount of official entertaining is conducted at these residences.

During his first term, Kevin Rudd had a staff at The Lodge consisting of a senior chef and an assistant chef, a child carer, one senior house attendant, and two junior house attendants. At Kirribilli House in Sydney, there is one full-time chef and one full-time house attendant.[8]

Prime ministers are usually granted certain privileges after leaving office, such as office accommodation, staff assistance, and a Life Gold Pass, which entitles the holder to travel within Australia for "non-commercial" purposes at government expense.

Only one prime minister who had left the Federal Parliament ever returned. UK House of Commons (after his term as High Commissioner to the UK); and Frank Forde was re-elected to the Queensland Parliament (after his term as High Commissioner to Canada, and a failed attempt to re-enter the Federal Parliament).

Former prime ministers continue to be important national figures, and in some cases go on to significant post-prime ministerial careers. Some notable examples have included: Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook and Stanley Bruce, who were High Commissioners to the United Kingdom; Arthur Fadden, who was Treasurer under another prime minister, Robert Menzies; and Kevin Rudd, who became Julia Gillard's Foreign Minister after the 2010 federal election, until 2012.

Official state car

A motorcade transporting senior members of the official party to an event in Canberra in November 2009. The black car at the left with the numberplate ADF1 carried the chief of the defence force, the white car behind it with the numberplate C1 carried the Prime Minister and the black car second from the right carried the Governor General

The Prime Minister of Australia is usually seen in a white Holden Caprice tailed by Ford Territory and Holden Caprice models.[9] It is also escorted by police vehicles from state and federal authorities. The Prime Minister's car bears the number plate "C1" (meaning "Commonwealth 1") and a centrally mounted Australian flag.[10]


Living former prime ministers

There are currently six living former Prime Ministers of Australia:

Name Term of office Date of birth
Malcolm Fraser 1975–1983 (1930-05-21) 21 May 1930
Bob Hawke 1983–1991 (1929-12-09) 9 December 1929
Paul Keating 1991–1996 (1944-01-18) 18 January 1944
John Howard 1996–2007 (1939-07-26) 26 July 1939
Kevin Rudd 2007–2010; 2013 (1957-09-21) 21 September 1957
Julia Gillard 2010–2013 (1961-09-29) 29 September 1961

The most recently deceased prime minister was Gough Whitlam (1972–1975), who died on 21 October 2014.

The greatest number of living former prime ministers at any one time was eight. This has occurred twice:

  • Between 7 October 1941 (when John Curtin succeeded Arthur Fadden) and 18 November 1941 (when Chris Watson died), the eight living former prime ministers were Bruce, Cook, Fadden, Hughes, Menzies, Page, Scullin and Watson
  • Between 13 July 1945 (when Ben Chifley succeeded Frank Forde) and 30 July 1947 (when Sir Joseph Cook died), the eight living former prime ministers were Bruce, Cook, Fadden, Forde, Hughes, Menzies, Page and Scullin.

Gough Whitlam lived in the lifetime of every prime minister of Australia and achieved a greater age than any other prime minister.

Acting prime ministers

From time to time prime ministers are required to leave the country on business, and a deputy is appointed to take his or her place during that time. In the days before jet airplanes, such absences could be for extended periods. For example, [12]


John Curtin is the only prime minister to serve time in jail (three days for failing to comply with an order for a compulsory medical examination for conscription, during World War I).[13]

Births and deaths

Seventeen prime ministers were born prior to the George Reid, born 25 February 1845.

Seven prime ministers were born outside of Australia: Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook, Billy Hughes, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were born in the United Kingdom, while Chris Watson was born in Chile.

Three prime ministers died in office: Joseph Lyons (1939), John Curtin (1945) and Harold Holt (1967). Holt's was a most unusual case – he disappeared while swimming, was declared presumed dead two days later, and his body was never recovered. It was not until almost 38 years later, in 2005, that he was officially declared by the Victorian Coroner to have drowned at the time of his disappearance.

Three prime ministers died outside of Australia: Sir George Reid, Andrew Fisher and Viscount Bruce died in the United Kingdom. Reid and Fisher are buried there.


The three youngest people when they first became prime minister were:

  • Chris Watson – 37
  • Stanley Bruce – 39
  • Robert Menzies – 44

The three oldest people when they first became prime minister were:

  • John McEwen – 67
  • William McMahon – 63
  • Ben Chifley – 59 years 10 months (George Reid was 59 years 6 months).

The three youngest people to last leave the office of prime minister were:

  • Chris Watson – 37
  • Arthur Fadden – 46 years 5 months 22 days
  • Stanley Bruce – 46 years 6 months 7 days

The three oldest people to last leave the office of prime minister were:

  • Robert Menzies – 71
  • John Howard – 68
  • John McEwen – 67

Time in office

The longest-serving prime minister was Sir Robert Menzies, who served in office twice: from 26 April 1939 to 28 August 1941, and again from 19 December 1949 to 26 January 1966. In total Robert Menzies spent 18 years, 5 months and 12 days in office. He served under the United Australia Party and the Liberal Party respectively.

The shortest-serving prime minister was Frank Forde, who was appointed to the position on 6 July 1945 after the death of John Curtin, and served until 13 July 1945 when Ben Chifley was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party.

Post-office longevity

Six former prime ministers are living: Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard.

Ben Chifley died only one year six months after leaving the prime ministership. Alfred Deakin lived another nine years and five months.

All the others who have left office at least 10 years ago have lived at least another 10 years. Nine of them (Bruce, Cook, Fadden, Forde, Fraser, Gorton, Hughes, Watson, and Whitlam) lived more than 25 years after leaving the office, and all but one of them have survived longer than 30 years (Hughes lasted 29 years and 8 months).

The longest-surviving was Gough Whitlam, who lived 38 years and 11 months after office. On 25 September 2013, Whitlam surpassed Stanley Bruce's previous record of 37 years and 10 months after leaving the office.

See also


  1. ^ "Pearce, Sir George Foster (1870–1952)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2010. 
  2. ^ Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia – Historical information on the Australian Parliament – Ministries and Cabinets – 7. Deakin Ministry
  3. ^ "Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and MPs in line to get a 3% pay rise". 
  4. ^ Hudson, Phillip (25 August 2010). "Politicians awarded secret pay rise". Herald Sun (Australia). 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "Tony Abbott defends increase in MP salary, saying he's working hard for every Australian". Herald Sun. 5 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Peatling, Stephanie (June 14, 2013). "PM's salary tops $500,000". Sydney Morning Herald. 
  8. ^ Metherell, Mark (19 February 2008). "Rudds' staff extends to a child carer at the Lodge". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 24 June 2010. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ (6 April 2009). "25% of government car fleet foreign made". Car Advice. Retrieved 12 December 2011. 
  11. ^ "Australian Dictionary of Biography - William Alexander Watt". ADB ANU. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "Australian Dictionary of Biography - Sir George Foster Pearce". ADB ANU. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  13. ^ "Curtin, John (1885–1945)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2010. 

External links

  • Official website of the Prime Minister of Australia
  • Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Australia's Prime Ministers – National Archives of Australia reference site and research portal
  • Biographies of Australia's Prime Ministers / National Museum of Australia
  • Classroom resources on Australian Prime Ministers
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