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Why the Prime Minister doesn't have to 'serve a full term'

This was originally published on 23rd August, 2018, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.

In all the sudden kerfuffle over the past few days in Australian politics, one of the most consistent criticisms being levelled at the Liberal Party (and the Labor Party before them) is that Prime Ministers should be allowed to serve out a full term in that position, and that preventing such a thing from happening is detrimental to democracy and unfair to voters.

But is this a reasonable criticism?

Leadership contenders doing the maths — do any of them have the numbers? (Image: Andrew Meares/AFR)

There are two ways to answer this question. One answer, which we will examine first, deals with the way our electoral and government systems operate; the second answer is more about perception.

First, the letter of the law. Our political system is mostly based on that of Britain (the Westminster system), in which the position of “Prime Minister” is given to the leader of the majority party or coalition in the Parliament, that majority having formed a government. This is why the role is not mentioned in the Australian constitution, which only says the the following: that executive power (the powers of government) is given to the monarch and their representative, the Governor-General; that ministers must be members of Parliament; and that a Federal Executive Council is to advise the Governor-General on which legislation is to be enacted by the government, for their stamp of approval.

The non-existence of the Prime Minister and of the Cabinet in the constitution means that their existence in the real world is down to convention, inheriting the traditions that come from the British system. The Federal Executive Council tends to only consist of members of the Cabinet, of which the Prime Minister is considered the head, but beyond that there is no requirement for a Prime Minister (at least constitutionally. Attempting to run the business of government without a PM would be difficult, but this is only because it’s an accepted tradition that government business has been built around).

This also means that at an election, voters do not vote for a Prime Minister. If they live in a particular electorate, such as Wentworth (which Malcolm Turnbull is the sitting member of), they may end up voting for the person who is the Prime Minister, but they aren’t voting for them to fill that position. They are instead voting for them to be their representative in the Parliament.

This is perhaps one of the most obvious ways that the ‘office’ of Prime Minister has been presidentialised, in that there is a certain weight given to the position that does not match its constitutional ghostliness, nor its historical place within the Westminster system. While the Prime Minister is expected to lead their ministers (hence the name), and therefore the government, they only do so with the support of those ministers, who are free to choose someone else to lead them if they so choose.

There is therefore no requirement within the Australian system, legally speaking, no even an expectation that someone who has become the Prime Minister should be able to go to the next election in that position. Voters elect members of parties, thereby letting those members decide who leads them.

However, it is also true that the turbulence being experienced at the moment in Federal politics is something that hasn’t been seen for a long time. In fact, there are some pretty clear parallels with the period between 1966, when Robert Menzies retired, and 1975, when Malcolm Fraser took part in a constitutional crisis that set up a period of stable, long-serving government. Australia went through seven Prime Ministers in nine years, including Menzies (who retired) and McEwen (who was a caretaker). By comparison, since 2007 there have been six Prime Ministers, including Howard, but one has taken that role twice.

Holt (centre), McEwen (furthest right) and McMahon (second from left) didn’t even serve a full term between them. (Image: The Australian)

Furthermore, Whitlam served out a full term, and Holt would have had he not gone swimming. Indeed, the turbulence of the period was really brought about by Holt’s disappearance, without which business would have carried on as usual for some time. Today, in contrast, we are facing a decade of instability brought about purely by short-term electoral concerns, unmatched in Australian history. The early years saw plenty of people take on the role of PM, but generally they would lose it due to an election or shifting coalitions and parties, only to get it back again later. Parties stuck with their leaders for much longer, believing that it was up to the party to put forward the right policy and ideology, rather than the leader to get across the right message.

Voters are quite right to be perturbed by the way politicking is conducted in Australia at the moment — but is voting for the other major party (whichever one it is) likely to change anything? Both major parties have now been engaging in this behaviour for a decade, while simultaneously treating each other worse and worse, year upon year. Friendships across the aisle are increasingly rare, despite (or, as I argue, because of) the ideological similarities between the parties.

The constant changing of Prime Ministers is emblematic of the rot that exists in both parties, which are well past their use-by date and consist of two wings that would be at each other’s throat were it not for the existence of the other major party, and even then that doesn’t stop them. As long as that arrangement continues, don’t expect full terms from any Prime Ministers, constitutionally absent or not.


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