Executive government

Marija Taflaga

Key terms/names

accountability, bureaucracy, centralisation, chain of delegation, Crown authority, executive, governor-general, ministerial responsibility, ministerial selection, parliamentary system, partisan, politically appointed staff, presidential system, prime minister, Prime Minister and Cabinet, principal–agent problem, responsible government, responsible party government, semi-parliamentarism, semi-presidentialism


The executive is one of the three branches of government, alongside the legislature and the judiciary. As the name suggests, its function is to execute laws and regulations. In Australia, the executive is the part of government containing the prime minister, Cabinet, ministerial offices and the head of state, the governor-general. Thus, while our first thought might be that the executive is ‘the prime minister’, it is in fact a collection of institutions that are bundled together, with complementary, and sometimes competing, responsibilities.

In a modern state, the ‘executive’ cannot govern alone – it is bound to other institutions. Depending on the exact nature of the regime (democratic/authoritarian or presidential/parliamentarian), the executive may be constrained by some institutions (e.g. the judiciary), dominant over others (e.g. the bureaucracy) and possibly even co-equal with some (e.g. the legislature in a presidential system). However, the principal relationship that defines how political scientists classify regimes is the executive–legislative relationship. In this chapter, we will first consider how executive regimes can be classified across the world and then examine Australia in depth.

Executive–legislative regimes

Historically, executive power grew out of a monarch’s governing councils and the administrative machinery through which they ruled. We can still see evidence of this in the UK, where the lord chancellor – a role that was created 1,400 years ago to manage the monarch’s correspondence – was the name for the minister of justice until 2005. Different approaches to tradition and modernisation mean that the precise organisation of executives can be idiosyncratic, though there are broad patterns across different executive regimes.

In the modern world, monarchs have either been replaced by presidents (presidential regimes) or their powers have been displaced and taken up by parliaments (parliamentary regimes). Exactly how monarchical power was translated into modern (democratic) governance is important for how government institutions are organised and how decisions are made. These rules matter for how power is distributed across government and, in democracies, how citizens hold their governments to account.

In democracies, what makes presidential regimes distinct is the fact that the legislative and executive branches are separate and receive mandates through separate elections. Presidents are not directly accountable to their legislatures, nor do they sit within them. In turn, presidents have limited capacity to directly influence legislatures, just as legislatures have constrained capacities to limit the actions of presidents. Once elected, the president selects her executive, who will help to run her government; members of the executive are usually recruited from outside of the legislature. The president is also both the head of state and the head of government.1

By contrast, in parliamentary regimes only one mandate is sought from the people, when they elect the legislature. The executive (or just ‘the government’) is then formed from within this legislative pool. The party or coalition of parties that can command the greatest (or most stable) number of parliamentary seats has secured the ‘confidence’ of the chamber and forms the government. Members of the executive in parliamentary systems retain their positions in the legislature; they are both legislative representatives and ministers of state. They are able to directly influence, and even dominate, the workings of parliament. But they are also directly accountable to parliament. In fact, the (executive) government’s very survival rests on its ability to retain a majority (or confidence) within parliament. This distinguishes parliamentary regimes from presidential systems, in which a government cannot be dissolved with a legislative vote.

Hybrid systems

To make matters more confusing, the executive–legislative systems of some countries are hybrids: either semi-presidential or semi-parliamentary systems.2 Semi-presidential systems (e.g. France) are similar to presidential systems, but with some parliamentary characteristics. The president and the legislature are separately elected, and the parliament appoints the prime minister. In this model, presidents and prime ministers share executive powers, and the actual practice of politics can be significantly shaped by whether or not the president’s party has a majority in the legislature.

Recently, some scholars have argued that we should recognise the existence of semi-parliamentary systems.3 Semi-parliamentary systems resemble parliamentary systems, but the way the legislature and the executive relate to each other means that the upper and lower chambers can pursue different democratic aims. Put another way, semi-parliamentary systems are executive–legislative systems where the legislature is divided into two equally legitimate parts, but the survival of the executive only depends upon the confidence of one part of the legislature. In Australia, only the lower house must supply confidence for the Cabinet. The Senate, which has near equal powers, can and does align itself to different democratic aims.4 This makes it different from parliamentary systems like the UK and Canada. It also may go some way to explaining why conflicts between the House and the Senate endlessly circle around whether or not the Senate’s use of its constitutional powers is legitimate. It is!5

The Australian executive

Responsible government

When the Australian colonies sought self-government in the 1850s, this meant ‘responsible government’ as practised in Westminster. Responsible government means that the executive must be formed from within the legislature and is responsible to the legislature. Responsibility is twofold: the executive (the government, or more specifically the Cabinet) is collectively responsible to the legislature and each individual minister is also responsible to the legislature. The implication is that if the executive loses the confidence of the legislature, it must resign. Losing the confidence of the parliament is not the same as losing a vote on a single piece of legislation. In that case, it would be up to the government to decide if it could reasonably continue or run the risk of a failed motion of no confidence. In contemporary Australian politics, this is rare because of party discipline and because governments have enjoyed majorities in the House of Representatives. However, the recent hung parliaments in 2010–13 and 2018–19 have demonstrated that this institutional design is still potent, despite decades of dormancy.

Modern Australia differs from the UK because at Federation the decision was made to borrow features from the USA and Switzerland. Australia not only became federal, it also became meaningfully bicameral, creating a very powerful second chamber, the Senate.6 These institutional differences have proven important for shaping how the executive relates to the legislature and what powers it can exercise. As noted, the Senate has near equal powers to the House. Since the mid-1960s, governments have had their legislative programs thwarted by the Senate and, more often, have been forced to adopt changes to their policy programs. However, loss of confidence by the Senate does not see the defeat of the government – the government rarely enjoys a majority in that chamber. This is because the executive is only responsible to, and must retain the confidence of, the House of Representatives. It is for this reason that some scholars argue that Australia is ‘semi-parliamentary’ or ‘not parliamentary’.7

The governor-general

The governor-general acts as the Queen’s representative in Australia, as outlined in sections 61 to 64 of the Constitution. The governor-general and her Executive Council appear both powerful and dominant. Indeed, you might be forgiven for thinking the governor-general is the most important institution in the Australian executive. After all, no election can be held and no law can come into force unless assented to by the governor-general. The governor-general also has the power to withdraw the commission and terminate appointment of the government – and Sir John Kerr did so in 1975. But, in practice, the post is largely ceremonial and ‘dignified’. The powers of Crown authority are now exercised by the prime minister and her Cabinet and, by convention, the governor-general is obliged to follow the advice of her ministers.

The prime minister

First among the monarch’s ministers, the prime minister is not mentioned in the Australian Constitution. The prime minister is the chief executive who leads the government in the executive and in the legislature. In the executive, the prime minister is the head of the Cabinet and can draw on the resources of her own department (Prime Minister and Cabinet [PMC]). Through her ministers, the prime minister is indirectly responsible for all the actions of her government. But, as we shall see, this principle doesn’t translate neatly into practice.8 Finally, prime ministers have the power to ask the governor-general to dissolve parliament, and in recent times prime ministers have asserted their power to declare war.

Today, the prime minister is also the leader of a formally organised political party and, by convention only, drawn from the House of Representatives. The evolution of political parties and their impact upon legislative politics has influenced the practice of the prime ministership. The prime minister has either large or total discretion in selecting her Cabinet and has the luxury of relying on strong party discipline when advancing her program in the legislature. Further, prime ministers will bring this partisan perspective, and their responsibilities as a partisan (party) leader, to virtually all aspects of the prime ministerial role.

Powers of the prime minister

We can see that the explicit power and, even more so, the potential influence of the prime minister extends from the executive and the bureaucracy to the legislature and to her own party. It is no surprise then that the role of the prime minister is poorly defined in Westminster systems like Australia. Few specific rules, laws or handbooks of practice have been written about the role. Instead, roles and responsibilities are in part a product of tradition and convention and in part a product of the prime minister’s own creativity. A prime minister’s capacity to exercise all of this power is influenced not only by the official rules, or even conventions, but also by other political actors’ perceptions of her power. Strong prime ministers may expand their role into new domains or appropriate powers to themselves that were previously executed by other ministers, actors or institutions. They can do this because the role is not codified and in circumstances where other actors’ perception of the prime minister’s personal authority is high enough to overcome internal resistance.


Cabinet is both an administrative and a partisan forum. This team of rivals (even enemies) is responsible to the parliament but also to their party room. A key principle of Cabinet government is collective decision making or ‘collective responsibility’. Cabinet is a deliberative body, where frank discussions about policy proposals, spending and administrative decisions and political strategies are undertaken.

As prime ministers have historically served at the pleasure of their parties, it is essential for prime ministers to meet with their colleagues frequently and for Cabinet to discuss the most difficult issues facing the government. Once a decision has been made by the Cabinet, all members agree to support the decision – this is known as ‘Cabinet solidarity’. In this sense, we might think of Cabinet as a ‘corporate person’ because it collectively comes to a decision and then speaks with one voice to the parliament and the people.

Cabinet makes up the most senior ministers that are responsible for executing government decisions. As the size of the state has expanded, so too has Cabinet. In Australia, both citizens’ increasing expectations of the services that the state ought to provide and the accrual of powers from state governments to the federal government has seen the expansion of the size of the federal Cabinet. We can observe this by considering the nine Cabinet portfolios from 1901, compared to the legal maximum of 30 (currently 23 in Cabinet, seven in the outer ministry) today (see Table 1).

Cabinet portfolios in 1901

Cabinet portfolios in 2019

Prime Minister and External Affairs


Trade and Customs

Home Affairs



Post-master General

Minister without portfolio (×2)

Prime Minister; Public Service

Deputy Prime Minister; Infrastructure and Transport and Regional Development


Indigenous Australians

Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management

Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure



Foreign Affairs; Women

Trade, Tourism and Investment

Attorney-General; Industrial Relations


Home Affairs

Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts


Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business

Industry, Science and Technology

Resources and Northern Australia

Energy and Emissions Reduction



Families and Social Services

National Disability Insurance Scheme; Government Services

Table 1 Cabinet portfolios in 1901 and 2019. Source for 2019 portfolios: Parliament of Australia 2019.

To encourage strong internal debate, but also to shield members of the Cabinet who disagree, all Cabinet deliberations are held in secret. It is for this reason that Cabinet leaks are considered so serious – they signal disloyal dissent from the heart of government. It is not the dissent that is disloyal, but the act of exposing private conversations, undermining the secrecy that keeps Cabinet debates robust. Indeed, members of the Cabinet that feel they cannot publically support the Cabinet’s collective decision must resign.9

Like several other aspects of Westminster executives, what happens in Cabinet is largely governed by convention. Prime ministers chair Cabinet and decide how it will function. Issues are placed on the agenda and submissions supporting or opposing a policy idea, spending proposal or line of political attack are circulated beforehand. Smaller subcommittees of Cabinet may also meet to deliberate on specific policy domains. Some of these smaller committees, such as the Expenditure Review Committee, make recommendations on spending in the budget and are consequently very powerful. Exactly how many and who sits on these smaller subcommittees is determined by prime ministerial discretion.10


As government has become more complex, the number of functions it undertakes has required more ministers (see Table 1). Menzies split the ministry into the Cabinet (12 members) and the outer ministry (10) by convention in 1956. Whitlam at first overturned this practice, but later formalised an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ ministry because of the difficulties he faced in managing his oversized Cabinet. The Hawke government moved to a portfolio system, which made the executive more clearly hierarchical. Cabinet ministers would oversee large portfolio domains, like defence, and be assisted by outer (assistant) ministers who would have responsibility for a specific domain within the portfolio, such as veterans’ affairs. Several ministers could work within one portfolio because the prime minister would outline their specific responsibilities in charter letters. Outer ministers would only attend Cabinet when matters directly relating to their portfolio were discussed. Reforms in 1987 also added a third tier: parliamentary secretaries (junior ministers), who support ministers or the prime minister but are not formally sworn in.

Ministers are formally delegated power via the Crown in section 64 of the Constitution, but in practice via the prime minister. Ministers are responsible for making decisions and administering their departments. The functions ministers undertake are varied and include administrative and partisan aspects:

  • administering their department
  • designing and announcing policies and government decisions
  • introducing and shepherding legislation through parliament
  • implementing and enforcing legislation, policy programs and regulations
  • advocating for and educating the public about government decisions
  • managing appointments to government posts and statutory authorities within their portfolio (e.g. High Court judges, telecommunications ombudsman or ambassadors)
  • making discretionary decisions (e.g. the right of immigration ministers to overturn visa decisions made by their department)
  • establishing inquiries
  • submitting to and responding to scrutiny of their and their department’s activities by parliament, the media, statutory authorities (where relevant) and the public.

However, in contemporary politics, the prime minister is likely to have a significant influence over many of the functions listed. In complex policy areas, multiple ministers may try to co-ordinate their actions across government. Some functions of the executive are beyond the scope of a single minister, including:

  • the overall co-ordination of government
  • designing, shepherding and implementing the budget
  • negotiating with the states and managing the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
  • waging war
  • responding to disasters.

Recall that under responsible government, ministers are individually responsible to parliament for the actions of their departments. Ministers may be subject to questioning in parliament, but this obligation does not extend to parliamentary secretaries. Ministers can also be held to account through parliamentary committee activities, statutory authorities such as the Australian National Audit Office, Freedom of Information requests and, in the most extreme cases, royal commissions. Should a minister lose the confidence of the House due to maladministration within her department, she may resign. Far worse is losing the confidence of her party room or her prime minister. In the best case scenario, a minister may be quietly eased out at the next Cabinet reshuffle; in the worst, she may face the ignominy of being sacked. Individual ministerial responsibility is a principle underpinned by norms and practised as convention, and is therefore open to interpretation. Further issues of accountability are discussed below.

Ministerial selection

Chief executives (in Australia, prime ministers) have a large say in ministerial selection, but they do operate under constraints. In Australia, the principal constraints on prime ministers relate to party and strategic considerations. In other executive–legislative regimes, constitutional considerations, such as the way prime ministers must negotiate appointments with presidents in semi-presidential systems, may also be important. Before the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007, Labor prime ministers were unable to directly select their ministry. Instead, Labor leaders had the power to allocate portfolios among candidates either elected by the caucus or approved by a smaller advisory committee. However, even where prime ministers enjoy full powers to hire ministers, they often consider representational constraints, such as state (well accommodated) and gender (poorly accommodated) balance. In Australia, party considerations include factional alignment and an appropriate balance between parties in a governing coalition. Strong party discipline, the role of factions, the small selection pool and the emphasis on relatively even state representation mean that Australian prime ministers are more heavily constrained than they appear at first glance.11

On face value, we might think that prime ministers only want the best performers as ministers. Yet, strategically, prime ministers need a mix of skills within Cabinet – some ministers to drive policy agendas, others who can act as steady hands. Then there are those who cannot be ignored because of their ambition or other party reasons, even if they lack the skills that make strong ministers. Some ministers may be appointed solely as a reward, to secure loyalty or to keep enemies under close observation.

Managing the executive

A minister is a partisan and temporary head of department. Ministers only serve as long as the prime minister retains their services and their government survives. By contrast, the bureaucracy is the non-partisan and permanent institution that’s purpose is to serve the government by offering advice and transforming executive will into reality.

In short, ministers – the principal actors – delegate their authority to their bureaucracies – their agents. But, in practice, it is not that simple. The principal– agent problem between ministers (principals) and bureaucrats (agents) is one of information asymmetry. Even though ministers are in charge, the bureaucrats that serve them are often more expert and more experienced; through this information asymmetry, bureaucrats can have a greater influence on the eventual outcome.12 One reason for this is that opposition is only partial preparation for government, offering no experience in running a large organisation like a government department. In cases where information asymmetry is large and a minister is uncritical, that minister may even be considered ‘captured’ by the bureaucracy.

Politically appointed staff

In Australia, the 1970s saw growing complaints by both major parties that the bureaucracy was insufficiently ‘responsive’ to the (partisan) needs of ministers. Similar complaints were repeated in other countries. Politicians identified two problems. First, governments felt that an overly powerful bureaucracy diluted ministers’ power to implement the political mandate they had secured at the election. Ministers were outnumbered in ministerial offices and lacked their own (partisan) sources of advice. Second, a non-partisan bureaucracy was poorly equipped to assist ministers with the political aspects of their job, such as advocating and overseeing the implementation of ideologically compatible policies.13

Today, Australia has around 450 political staff at the federal level. Political staff have become an institutionalised component of executive office. They offer both partisan and personal support to their ministers. Staff also support ministers’ executive function by undertaking overtly partisan policy work, such as agenda setting, bargaining and negotiating within government. They also undertake other policy work that overlaps with the roles of the minster and the bureaucracy, such as meeting with stakeholders and working with the bureaucracy to ‘deliver’ outcomes.14 However, political staff are not accountable in the same manner as ministers or senior public servants. They are not required to present themselves before parliament and cannot be called before parliamentary committees.

Executive government and accountability

Governance relies on delegation. In a (semi-)parliamentary democracy we can conceptualise delegation as shown in Figure 1. This is a simple model of delegation; the delegation of the authority to act passes from one principal (e.g. voters) to their agent (e.g. parliament). Functioning accountability measures are what distinguishes democracy from non-democratic forms of governance.

A figure of five rectangles with arrows flowing into the next one, starting with voters and ending with bureaucracy.

Figure 1 The model of parliamentary delegation.

However, as we have already discovered, the actual practice of executive governance in Australia is more complicated. Agency problems arise across the chain of delegation. One of these problems may relate to a difference of preferences between principals and their agents; what voters want and what parliament legislates may be very different.

As we have seen, prime ministers and ministers have developed new institutions – PMC and politically appointed staff – to help them to solve delegation problems between the prime minister and ministers, and between ministers and the bureaucracy. However, these new institutions have also complicated the chain of delegation and, in turn, the chain of accountability. Who is responsible in a complex policy area when something goes wrong? Given the size of government departments, with thousands of employees, at what point do ministers or even prime ministers become responsible if they know an issue has arisen? What is the precise role of politically appointed staff? To what extent can they speak for their minister and in what ways should they be subject to scrutiny?

In the last 30 years, these issues have concerned scholars and bureaucrats, who continue to debate whether or not Cabinet government still exists, whether the chain of accountability still functions appropriately given the new role of politically appointed staff and whether the balance between ministers, their staff and the bureaucracy is appropriate to achieve good government.15

Responsible party government

Executive governance in Australia is a set of practices and norms supported by institutions both within and outside the executive. As we have seen, the executive is subject to the significant influence of political parties, both within the legislature and outside the official institutions of government. Outside elections, accountability to the party room may be more potent than accountability to the parliament. As outlined above, actors exercising executive roles are partisan, subject to party discipline and with their eyes always on the next election. Alongside the official rules and the unwritten conventions of their offices, these partisan considerations shape executive actors’ choices. Although we officially call our system ‘responsible government’, currently a better label is ‘responsible party government’ because power is interpreted and exercised through a party lens.16


Australia’s system of Cabinet government is flexible and open to interpretation. This has been its primary strength, allowing it to adapt to changing circumstances, such as the rise of parties, and respond to the needs of creative prime ministers through the creation of new institutions. However, it has also bred its own problems. These issues have come to the fore through inquiry along the accountability chain. The expansion of the committee system in parliament, the development of statutory authorities like the Australian National Audit Office, the creation of Freedom of Information laws and the debate around establishing a national integrity commission are just one set of responses to constraining executive power and keeping the executive accountable to citizens. As long as accountability remains a priority of our political system, this discussion will be ongoing.


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About the author

Dr Marija Taflaga is a lecturer at the Australian National University. Her primary research focus is Australian politics in comparative context, including political parties and parliament, the career paths of political elites and Australian political history. She has undertaken research fellowships at the Australian Parliamentary Library and the Australian Museum of Democracy at Old Parliament House. She has also worked in the Australian Parliamentary Press Gallery as a researcher for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

1 Lijphart 1999.

2 Duverger 1980; Ganghof 2017.

3 Ganghof 2017.

4 Ganghof, Eppner and Pörschke 2018.

5 Taflaga 2018.

6 Galligan 1995.

7 Bach 2003.

8 Jennings 1966.

9 Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2018.

10 Weller 2007.

11 Dowding and Lewis 2015.

12 The comedy classic Yes, Minister is replete with amusing examples of this problem.

13 Taflaga 2017.

14 Maley 2000.

15 Podger 2007; Shergold 2007; Tiernan 2007; Weller 2003.

16 Lucy 1993.