The Australian prime minister

While Australians have notable favourites among the 27 individuals who have served as prime minister, we have no measure to assess their roles in our political history.

Prime ministers are bound by Australia’s Constitution in terms of their ministerial role and the powers of their governments. Our Constitution sets out the key role of ministers as advisers to the British Crown as our head of state, and to the Governor-General as representative of the Crown. But our head of government, the prime minister, is not mentioned at all.

There is actually no fixed role that each person occupying the office must perform. Instead there is a range of potential capacities, and within limitations like those indicated below, prime ministers have an opportunity to enhance the position depending on their vision and other qualities.

Prime Minister RG Menzies at a round table with members of the Australian War Cabinet

Prime Minister RG Menzies with members of the Australian War Cabinet, 1939

NAA: A5954, 1299/2 Photo 2

There are many, often competing, pressures on prime ministers. Their success depends primarily on the political and personal relationships that they develop and maintain. An Australian prime minister must develop good relations with the Crown, the Cabinet, the parliament, party and press; the states, the nation, and the leaders of other nations. Less obvious but no less important are the prime minister's professional, business and family connections.

In Australia Cabinet is central to government, and the prime minister is central to Cabinet. The inner web of relations with other Cabinet ministers are the most important of all and no matter his party, the prudent ‘first minister’ remembers his title means first among equals.

And then there is the unanticipated. Prime ministerial performance depends as much on unexpected circumstance as on established rule. In accordance with convention the prime minister is always an elected member of the House of Representatives. The exception was John Gorton (prime minister 1968–71), who resigned as a senator a week after he was sworn in as prime minister; it was five weeks before the by-election that won him the necessary House of Representatives seat. Another circumstance is perhaps the most unexpected of all – accidental death, such as that of Prime Minister Harold Holt, presumed drowned in December 1967.

In all there have been three sudden prime ministerial deaths, each resulting in ‘caretaker’ prime ministers with little chance to shape their own role, Earle Page (1939), Frank Forde (1945), and John McEwen (1967–68). As long-serving ministers however, the powerful influence of each of these men on the roles of successive prime ministers reminds us of this key relationship.

Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, John Howard (1996–2007), was as firm a leader of the Liberal Party as Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies (1939–41 and 1949–66) who had founded the party in 1949. The early establishment of the Australian Labor Party meant that the role of Labor prime ministers was always more strongly shaped by party relationships. Only two Labor prime ministers have exerted sufficient influence to choose their own ministry – the first, Chris Watson, prime minister for a mere four months in 1904; and the eleventh, Kevin Rudd.

Some prime ministers with relatively short terms in office still made their historical mark on the office through a rare combination of vision, determination and intellect, like Alfred Deakin (1903–04, 1905–08, 1909–10) and Gough Whitlam (1972–75). Some had greater opportunity for effective leadership because of timing, like wartime prime ministers William Morris Hughes (1915–23) and John Curtin (1941–45) and postwar prime ministers Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1923–29) and Ben Chifley (1945–49). Jim Scullin (1929–32) was unlucky in his economic times and so too was Malcolm Fraser (1975–83) whose eight-year term had less impact than his subsequent career as statesman and humanitarian.

The least effective prime ministers are those unable to maintain good relationships with their ministerial colleagues, like George Reid (1904–05), Arthur Fadden (1941), John Gorton (1969–71), or William McMahon (1971–72). Especially when governing in coalition, they faced an insurmountable obstacle to realising their potential. But the prime ministership of Joseph Lyons (1932–39) suggests it is possible to perform beyond one’s potential, with the support of an influential media and a talented wife.

Only two prime ministers chose their own termination date, Robert Menzies and Edmund Barton, and all face the reality that in a democracy the duration of their prime ministerial term is the choice of the electorate.

This is the way we, the people, shape the role the prime minister can play. In building a democracy, the expectations of the people are the most vital of all the pressures on a prime minister. It is our expectations of our head of government that most help us get his or her measure.