Federal Executive Council (Australia)
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The Federal Executive Council is the formal body holding executive authority under the Constitution of Australia. It is equivalent to the other Executive Councils in other Commonwealth Realms such as the Executive Council of New Zealand and the privy council in Canada and the United Kingdom. The Executive Council is presided over by the Governor-General of Australia and exists to "advise" the Governor-General in the administration of the government. In practice (with only a few exceptions), the Governor-General is bound by convention to act on the Council's advice. Unlike the British and Canadian councils, the Leader of the Opposition is not typically appointed to the Federal Executive Council.
The Council is established by section 62 of the Constitution. Section 64 establishes that all Ministers of State (i.e. Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries) are members of the Council. Membership of the Council is normally for life, although in practice only serving government Ministers are invited to attend meetings. The Executive Council differs from the Cabinet, in that the Cabinet only includes currently serving, senior Ministers. Members of the Executive Council are entitled to the style The Honourable. Even though former Ministers (including those who have retired from political life) are rarely if ever called to attend Executive Council meetings, they formally remain "Executive-Councillors-on-call", and thus are entitled to the title "The Honourable" for life.
The position of Vice-President of the Executive Council is usually given to a Member of the Cabinet. The appointment of Sir James Killen to this post in 1982 was controversial because the office was seen as a sinecure given that he held no Ministerial portfolio. He was nevertheless considered a member of the Ministry by virtue of this office, and he even administered a small, short-lived department (the Department of the Vice-President of the Executive Council; such a department also existed for two months in 1971 under Sir Alan Hulme, who was simultaneously Postmaster-General).
The Governor-General has the power to dismiss any member of the Executive Council, but that power is rarely exercised in practice. It might be exercised if, hypothetically, a minister or former minister were convicted of a serious criminal offence.
One notable case was that of the Queensland Senator Glen Sheil. Malcolm Fraser's government was re-elected at the 1977 election on 10 December, and on 19 December he publicly announced the ministry he would be recommending to the Governor-General, which included Senator Sheil as the new Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Sheil was sworn in as an Executive Councillor but, prior to the scheduled swearing-in of the Ministry, he made public statements about apartheid that were at odds with the government's attitude to the issue. Fraser then advised Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen not to include Sheil in the ministry—advice that Cowen was required by convention to follow. Sheil's appointment as an Executive Councillor without portfolio was terminated on 22 December.
Meetings do not require the Governor-General's attendance, but the Governor-General must be notified of the meeting in order for it to be valid. A quorum for meetings is the Governor-General and two serving ministers or parliamentary secretaries. If the Governor-General is not in attendance, quorum is the Vice-President and two serving ministers or parliamentary secretaries. In the absence of the Vice-President, quorum is three ministers, one of whom, a senior minister, will preside. In practice, meetings will only be attended by a small number of Councillors rather than the full Cabinet.
Most of the powers vested in the Governor-General, such as appointments and the authorisation of budgets, are exercisable only by "the Governor-General in Council" – that is, under advice from the Federal Executive Council. The Council acts as a formal ratification body for decisions of the Cabinet. In a parallel manner to the Royal Assent given to legislative Acts by the Governor-General after they have passed both Houses of Parliament, proposed executive actions will receive the approval of the Governor-General in Council after they have been agreed to by the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
- Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 624
- Federal Executive Council of Australia Handbook, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet