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Prime Minister of Australia

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The Prime Minister of Australia (sometimes informally abbreviated to PM) is the head of government of Australia. The individual who holds the office is the most senior Minister of the Crown, the leader of the Cabinet and the chairperson of the National Security Committee. The Prime Minister also has the responsibility of administering the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The office is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia and exists only through longstanding political convention and tradition. Despite this, in practice it is the most powerful parliamentary position in Australia. The individual who holds the office is commissioned by the Governor-General of Australia.

Prime Minister of Australia
Coat of Arms of Australia.svg
Malcolm Turnbull DFAT official.jpg
Malcolm Turnbull

since 15 September 2015
Member of
Reports to Parliament
Seat Canberra
Appointer Governor-General of Australia
subject to the appointee's ability to command confidence and supply in the Australian Parliament
Term length At the Governor-General's pleasure
contingent on the Prime Minister's ability to command confidence and supply in the Australian Parliament
Inaugural holder Edmund Barton
Formation 1 January 1901
Deputy Barnaby Joyce
Salary $527,852 (AUD)

Almost always and according to convention, the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party or largest party in a coalition of parties in the House of Representatives. However, there is no constitutional requirement that the Prime Minister sit in the House of Representatives, or even be a member of the federal parliament (subject to a constitutionally prescribed limit of three months), though by convention this is always the case. The only case where a member of the Senate was appointed Prime Minister was John Gorton, who subsequently resigned his Senate position and was elected as a member of the House of Representatives (Senator George Pearce was acting Prime Minister for seven months in 1916 while Billy Hughes was overseas).[2]

Malcolm Turnbull has held the office of Prime Minister since 15 September 2015. He received his commission after replacing Tony Abbott as the leader of the Liberal Party, the dominant party in the Coalition government, following the outcome of the September 2015 Liberal leadership ballot.[3]


Constitutional basis and appointmentEdit

Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton at the central table in the House of Representatives in 1901.

The Prime Minister of Australia is appointed by the Governor-General of Australia under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution, which empowers the Governor-General, as the official representative of the monarch, to appoint government ministers of state and requires them to be members of the House of Representatives or the Senate, or become members within three months of the appointment. The Prime Minister and Treasurer are traditionally members of the House, but the Constitution does not have such a requirement.[4] Before being sworn in as a Minister of the Crown, 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, or for other reasons, 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, their 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)".[5]

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 immediately advise the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a fresh election.

Following a resignation in other circumstances, or the death of a Prime Minister, the governor-general will generally appoint as Prime Minister the person elected as leader by the governing party or, in the case of a coalition, the senior party in the coalition. 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.
  • Harold Holt disappeared while swimming on 17 December 1967 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 three 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, Alfred Deakin, George Reid and 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).

Powers and roleEdit

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 Government. In practice, the Federal Executive Council will act to ratify all decisions made by the cabinet and 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 Prime Minister is also the responsible minister for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which is tasked with supporting the policy agendas of the Prime Minister and Cabinet through policy advice and the coordination of the implementation of key government programs, to manage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy and programs and to promote reconciliation, to provide leadership for the Australian Public Service alongside the Australian Public Service Commission, to oversee the honours and symbols of the Commonwealth, to provide support to ceremonies and official visits, to set whole of government service delivery policy, and to coordinate national security, cyber, counterterrorism, regulatory reform, cities, population, data, and women's policy.[6]

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 their party, or whose government loses a vote of no-confidence in the House of Representatives, are expected to advise an election of the lower house or resign the office. If they fail to do this they will be dismissed by the Governor-General.[7]

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.

Privileges of officeEdit


Prime Ministerial salary history
Effective date Salary
2 June 1999 $289,270
6 September 2006 $309,270
1 July 2007 $330,356
1 October 2009 $340,704[8]
1 August 2010 $354,671[9]
1 July 2011 $366,366
1 December 2011 $440,000
15 March 2012 $481,000[10]
1 July 2012 $495,430[11]
1 July 2013 $507,338[12]
1 January 2016 $517,504[13]
1 July 2017 $527,852[14]

On 1 July 2017, the Australian Government's Remuneration Tribunal adjusted the Prime Ministerial salary, raising it to its current amount of $527,852.


Prime Ministers Curtin, Fadden, Hughes, Menzies and Governor-General The Duke of Gloucester 2nd from left, in 1945.

Whilst in office, the Prime Minister has two official residences. The primary official residence is The Lodge in Canberra. Most Prime Ministers have chosen The Lodge as their primary residence because of its security facilities and close proximity to Parliament House. There have been some exceptions, however. James Scullin preferred to live at the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Hotel) and Ben Chifley lived in the Hotel Kurrajong. More recently, John Howard used the Sydney Prime Ministerial residence, Kirribilli House, as his primary accommodation. 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.) During his first term, 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.[15] The official residences are fully staffed and catered for both the Prime Minister and their family. In addition, both have extensive security facilities. These residences are regularly used for official entertaining, such as receptions for Australian of the Year finalists.

The Prime Minister receives a number of transport amenities for official business. 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 an office, conference room and sleeping compartments. The call-sign for the aircraft is "Envoy". For ground travel, the Prime Minister is transported in an armoured BMW 7 Series model (a German-made car, rather than British). It is referred to as "C-1", or Commonwealth One, because of its licence plate. It is escorted by police vehicles from state and federal authorities.[16]

After officeEdit

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. Stanley Bruce was defeated in his own seat in 1929 while Prime Minister, but was re-elected to parliament in 1931. Other Prime Ministers were elected to parliaments other than the Australian federal parliament: Sir George Reid was elected to the 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).

Acting and interim Prime MinistersEdit

From time to time Prime Ministers are required to leave the country on government business and a deputy acts in their place during that time. In the days before jet aircraft, such absences could be for extended periods. For example, William Watt was acting prime Minister for 16 months, from April 1918 until August 1919, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes was away at the Paris Peace Conference,[17] and Senator George Pearce was acting Prime Minister for more than seven months in 1916.[18] An acting Prime Minister is also appointed when the prime minister takes leave. The Deputy Prime Minister most commonly becomes acting Prime Minister in those circumstances.

Three Prime Ministers have died in office – Joseph Lyons (1939), John Curtin (1945) and Harold Holt (1967) – and Robert Menzies resigned as Prime Minister in 1941. In each of these cases the Deputy Prime Minister (an unofficial office at the time) became an interim Prime Minister, pending an election of a new leader of the government party. In none of these cases was the interim Prime Minister successful at the subsequent election, however, The United Party agreed to make Arthur Fadden the Prime Minister, and leader of the Coalition, despite the fact that he was leader of the Party of the Junior Members

The powers and duties of an acting or interim Prime Minister is analogous to that of a caretaker Prime Minister.

Former Prime MinistersEdit

As of February 2018, there are six living former Australian Prime Ministers.[19]

Bob Hawke
In office: 19831991
Age: 88
Paul Keating
In office: 19911996
Age: 74
John Howard
In office: 19962007
Age: 78
Kevin Rudd
In office: 20072010; 13
Age: 60
Julia Gillard
In office: 20102013
Age: 56
Tony Abbott,
In office: 20132015
Age: 60

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.

Of the other Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley died only one year and six months after leaving the Prime Ministership and Alfred Deakin lived another nine years and five months.[20]

All the others who have left office 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 lived for 29 years and 8 months following service). Bob Hawke, who is, as of 2017, still alive, has also lived 25 years beyond the end of his prime ministership.

The longest-surviving was Gough Whitlam, who lived 38 years and 11 months after office, surpassing Stanley Bruce's previous record of 37 years and 10 months after leaving the office.[21]


The three youngest people when they first became Prime Minister were:

  • Chris Watson – 37[22]
  • Stanley Bruce – 39[23]
  • Robert Menzies – 44[24]

The three oldest people when they first became Prime Minister were:

  • John McEwen – 67[25]
  • William McMahon – 63[26]
  • Malcolm Turnbull – 60

The three youngest people to last leave the office of Prime Minister were:

  • Chris Watson – 37
  • Arthur Fadden – 46 years 5 months 22 days[27]
  • 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

List and timelineEdit

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.


  Australian Labor Party   Liberal Party of Australia   Australian Country Party   Nationalist Party of Australia   United Australia Party   Commonwealth Liberal Party   National Labor Party   Free Trade Party   Protectionist Party

No. Name
Portrait Party Term of office Electorate served Elections won Ministry Ref
1 Sir Edmund Barton
  Protectionist 1 January
24 September
Hunter, NSW,
1901–1903 (resigned)
1901 Barton [28]
2 Alfred Deakin
  Protectionist 24 September
27 April
Ballaarat, Vic,[Note 1]
1901–1913 (retired)
1903 1st Deakin [29]
3 Chris Watson
  Labour 27 April
18 August
Bland, NSW,
South Sydney, NSW,
1906–1910 (retired)
Watson [22]
4 George Reid
  Free Trade 18 August
5 July
East Sydney, NSW,
1901–1909 (resigned)
Reid [30]
(2) Alfred Deakin
  Protectionist 5 July
13 November
Ballaarat, Vic,[Note 1]
1901–1913 (retired)
2nd Deakin
1906 3rd Deakin
5 Andrew Fisher
  Labour 13 November
2 June
Wide Bay, Qld,
1901–1915 (resigned)
1st Fisher [31]
(2) Alfred Deakin
  Commonwealth Liberal 2 June
29 April
Ballaarat, Vic,[Note 1]
1901–1913 (retired)
4th Deakin
(5) Andrew Fisher
  Labor 29 April
24 June
Wide Bay, Qld,
1901–1915 (resigned)
1910 2nd Fisher
6 Joseph Cook
  Commonwealth Liberal 24 June
17 September
Parramatta, NSW,
1901–1921 (resigned)
1913 Cook [32]
(5) Andrew Fisher
  Labor 17 September
27 October
Wide Bay, Qld,
1901–1915 (resigned)
1914 3rd Fisher
Billy Hughes
  Labor 27 October
14 November
West Sydney, NSW,
Bendigo, Vic,
North Sydney, NSW,
Bradfield, NSW,
1949–1952 (died)
1st Hughes [33]
7 National Labor 14 November
17 February
2nd Hughes
Nationalist 17 February
9 February
3rd Hughes
1917 4th Hughes
1919 5th Hughes
8 Stanley Bruce
9 February
22 October
Flinders, Vic,
1918–1929 (defeated) ;
1931–1933 (resigned)
1922 1st Bruce [23]
1925 2nd Bruce
1928 3rd Bruce
9 James Scullin
  Labor 22 October
6 January
Corangamite, Vic,
19101913 (defeated)
Yarra, Vic,
19221949 (retired)
1929 Scullin [34]
10 Joseph Lyons
  United Australia
6 January
7 April
Wilmot, Tas,
1929–1939 (died)
1931 1st Lyons [35]
1934 2nd Lyons
3rd Lyons
1937 4th Lyons
11 Sir Earle Page
7 April
26 April
Cowper, NSW
19191961 (defeated)
Page [36]
12 Robert Menzies
  United Australia
26 April
28 August
Kooyong, Vic,
1934–1966 (resigned)
1st Menzies [24]
2nd Menzies
1940 3rd Menzies
13 Arthur Fadden
28 August
7 October
Darling Downs, Qld
McPherson, Qld
1949–1958 (retired)
Fadden [27]
14 John Curtin
  Labor 7 October
5 July
Fremantle, WA,
19281931 (defeated) ;
1934–1945 (died)
1st Curtin
1943 2nd Curtin
15 Frank Forde
  Labor 6 July
13 July
Capricornia, Qld,
19221946 (defeated)
16 Ben Chifley
  Labor 13 July
19 December
Macquarie, NSW,
19281931 (defeated) ;
1940–1951 (died)
1st Chifley
1946 2nd Chifley
(12) Sir Robert Menzies
19 December
26 January
Kooyong, Vic,
1934–1966 (resigned)
1949 4th Menzies
1951 5th Menzies
1954 6th Menzies
1955 7th Menzies
1958 8th Menzies
1961 9th Menzies
1963 10th Menzies
17 Harold Holt
26 January
19 December
Fawkner, Vic,
Higgins, Vic,
1949–1967 (disappeared)
1st Holt
1966 2nd Holt
18 John McEwen
19 December
10 January
Echuca, Vic,
Indi, Vic,
Murray, Vic,
1949–1971 (resigned)
19 John Gorton
10 January
10 March
Senator 1950–1968 (resigned)[Note 2]

MP for Higgins, Vic,
19681975 (retired)[Note 3]

1st Gorton
1969 2nd Gorton
20 William McMahon
10 March
5 December
Lowe, NSW,
1949–1982 (resigned)
21 Gough Whitlam
  Labor 5 December
11 November
Werriwa, NSW,
1952–1978 (resigned)
1972 1st Whitlam
2nd Whitlam
1974 3rd Whitlam
22 Malcolm Fraser
11 November
11 March
Wannon, Vic,
1955–1983 (resigned)
1st Fraser
1975 2nd Fraser
1977 3rd Fraser
1980 4th Fraser
23 Bob Hawke
  Labor 11 March
20 December
Wills, Vic,
1980–1992 (resigned)
1983 1st Hawke
1984 2nd Hawke
1987 3rd Hawke
1990 4th Hawke
24 Paul Keating
  Labor 20 December
11 March
Blaxland, NSW,
1969–1996 (resigned)
1st Keating
1993 2nd Keating
25 John Howard
11 March
3 December
Bennelong, NSW,
19742007 (defeated)
1996 1st Howard
1998 2nd Howard
2001 3rd Howard
2004 4th Howard
26 Kevin Rudd
  Labor 3 December
24 June
Griffith, Qld,
1998–2013 (resigned)
2007 1st Rudd
27 Julia Gillard
  Labor 24 June
27 June
Lalor, Vic,
1998–2013 (retired)
1st Gillard
2010 2nd Gillard
(26) Kevin Rudd
  Labor 27 June
18 September
Griffith, Qld,
1998–2013 (resigned)
2nd Rudd
28 Tony Abbott
18 September
15 September
Warringah, NSW,
since 1994
2013 Abbott
29 Malcolm Turnbull
15 September
Incumbent Wentworth, NSW,
since 2004
1st Turnbull
2016 2nd Turnbull

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c The Electoral Division of Ballaarat was spelled with a double a until 1977.
  2. ^ Gorton was elected to the Senate at the general election of 10 December 1949, but his term did not commence until 22 February 1950. He was appointed Prime Minister on 10 January 1968; resigned from the Senate on 1 February; and was elected to the House of Representatives at a by-election on 24 February.
  3. ^ Gorton retired from the House of Representatives at the double dissolution of 11 November 1975, and stood for an Australian Capital Territory Senate seat as an independent at the general election of 13 December 1975, but was unsuccessful.


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  13. ^ Mannheim, Markus (10 December 2015). "Politicians, judges and top public servants to gain 2% pay rise after wage freeze". Canberra Times. 
  14. ^ "Politicians under fire for pay increases while penalty rates cut, One Nation wants to reject rise". 23 June 2017. 
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Further readingEdit

  • Strangio, Paul; t'Hart, Paul & Walter, James (2016). Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 9780522868722. 
  • Strangio, Paul; t'Hart, Paul & Walter, James (2017). The Pivot of Power: Australian Prime Ministers and Political Leadership, 1949-2016. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 9780522868746. 

External linksEdit