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Australian prime minister

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Australian prime minister

Prime Minister of Australia
Coat of arms of Australia
Tony Abbott
since 18 September 2013
Style The Honourable
Appointed by Governor-General of Australia
First minister Edmund Barton
Formation 1 January 1901
Term length At Her Majesty's pleasure
Residence The Lodge, Canberra
Kirribilli House, Sydney


The Prime Minister of Australia is the highest minister of the Crown, leader of the Cabinet and head of government, holding office on commission from the Governor-General of Australia. The office of Prime Minister is, in practice, the most powerful political office in Australia. Despite being at the apex of executive government in the country, the office is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia and it exists through an unwritten political convention.

Barring exceptional circumstances, the prime minister is always the leader of the political party or coalition with majority support in the House of Representatives. The only case where a senator was appointed prime minister was that of 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).[1]

The current Prime Minister is Tony Abbott, the leader of the Coalition and the Liberal Party of Australia, after his party defeated the Australian Labor Party at the 2013 federal election.


The Prime Minister of Australia is appointed by the Governor-General of Australia under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution. This empowers the governor-general to appoint Ministers of the Crown and requires such ministers to be members of the House of Representatives or the Senate, or become members within three months of the appointment. Before being sworn in as a minister, 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, 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, his or her 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)".[2]

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 resign immediately. The governor-general's choice of replacement prime minister will be dictated by the circumstances.

Following a resignation in other circumstances, or the death of a prime minister, the governor-general will generally appoint as prime minister the person voted by the governing party as their new leader. 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.
  • In 1967, Harold Holt disappeared while swimming on 17 December 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 five 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).


Most of the prime minister's powers derive from his or her position as the head of the cabinet. In practice, the Federal Executive Council will act to ratify all decisions made by the cabinet and, in practice, 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 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 his or her party, or whose government loses a vote of no-confidence in the House of Representatives, must resign the office or be dismissed by the governor-general.

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.

Salary and benefits

Prime Ministerial pay history
Effective date Salary
2 June 1999 $289,270
6 September 2006 $309,270
1 July 2007 $330,356
1 October 2009 $340,704[3]
1 August 2010 $354,671[4]
1 July 2011 $366,366
1 December 2011 $440,000
15 March 2012 $481,000[5]
1 July 2012 $495,430[6]
1 July 2013 $507,338[7]


The prime minister is the highest-paid member of parliament.

Ministerial salary is expressed as an additional percentage on top of the basic parliamentary salary. The Remuneration Tribunal's Report Number 1 of 2006[8] confirms the prime minister's additional salary as 160% of her or his parliamentary salary, i.e. the prime minister earns in total 260% of the salary of an ordinary parliamentarian.

The prime minister's salary is about five times that of the average full-time adult salary of $67,116, as of February 2010.[9]


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 office, conference room and sleeping compartments. The call-sign for the aircraft is "Envoy".

The prime minister's official residence is The Lodge in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, but not all prime ministers have chosen to make use of it. Jim Scullin preferred to live at the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Hotel); Ben Chifley lived in the Hotel Kurrajong; and John Howard made Kirribilli House in Sydney, New South Wales his primary residence, using The Lodge when in Canberra on official business. 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.) The official residences are fully staffed and catered for both the prime minister and his or her family. A considerable amount of official entertaining is conducted at these residences.

During his first term, Kevin 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.[10]

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).

Former prime ministers continue to be important national figures, and in some cases go on to significant post-prime ministerial careers. Some notable examples have included: Edmund Barton, who was a justice of the High Court; George Reid, Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook and Stanley Bruce, who were High Commissioners to the United Kingdom; Arthur Fadden, who was Treasurer under another prime minister, Robert Menzies; and Kevin Rudd, who became Julia Gillard's Foreign Minister after the 2010 federal election, until 2012.

Official state car

The Prime Minister of Australia is usually seen in a white Holden Caprice tailed by Ford Territory and Holden Caprice models.[11] It is also escorted by police vehicles from state and federal authorities. The Prime Minister's car bears the number plate "C1" (meaning "Commonwealth 1") and a centrally mounted Australian flag.[12]

List of prime ministers

Below is a list of Prime Ministers of Australia by name, date assumed office, date left office, political party, total time in office and state represented in parliament. The state(s) represented in parliament is not necessarily the one with which the person had the strongest association; the most extreme example being Bob Hawke who was born in South Australia, spent his formative years in Western Australia, worked in and represented Victoria and retired to New South Wales.

The parties shown are those to which the prime ministers belonged at the time they held office. Several prime ministers belonged to parties other than those given before and after their prime ministerships.

For a list showing further details, see List of Prime Ministers of Australia.

      Protectionist       Labor       Free Trade       Commonwealth Liberal       National Labor/Nationalist/United Australia       Country       Liberal

# Name Post-nominals
as PM
Full later post-
Took office Left office Party Term In Office State Represented
in Parliament
1 Sir Edmund Barton GCMG KC 1 January 1901 24 September 1903 Protectionist 2 years, 267 days New South Wales
2 Alfred Deakin 24 September 1903 27 April 1904 Protectionist 0 years, 217 days Victoria
3 Chris Watson 27 April 1904 18 August 1904 Labor 0 years, 114 days New South Wales
4 George Reid KC GCB GCMG KC 18 August 1904 5 July 1905 Free Trade 0 years, 322 days New South Wales
(2) Alfred Deakin 5 July 1905 13 November 1908 Protectionist 3 years, 132 days Victoria
5 Andrew Fisher 13 November 1908 2 June 1909 Labor 0 years, 202 days Queensland
(2) Alfred Deakin 2 June 1909 29 April 1910 Commonwealth Liberal 0 years, 332 days Victoria
(5) Andrew Fisher 29 April 1910 24 June 1913 Labor 3 years, 57 days Queensland
6 Joseph Cook GCMG 24 June 1913 17 September 1914 Commonwealth Liberal 1 year, 86 days New South Wales
(5) Andrew Fisher 17 September 1914 27 October 1915 Labor 1 year, 41 days Queensland
7 Billy Hughes KC CH KC 27 October 1915 9 February 1923 Labor/Nationalist 7 years, 106 days New South Wales/Victoria
8 Stanley Bruce CH MC 9 February 1923 22 October 1929 Nationalist 6 years, 256 days Victoria
9 James Scullin 22 October 1929 6 January 1932 Labor 2 years, 77 days Victoria
10 Joseph Lyons CH 6 January 1932 7 April 1939 United Australia 7 years, 92 days Tasmania
11 Sir Earle Page GCMG GCMG CH 7 April 1939 26 April 1939 Country 0 years, 20 days New South Wales
12 Robert Menzies KC 26 April 1939 28 August 1941 United Australia 2 years, 122 days Victoria
13 Arthur Fadden GCMG 28 August 1941 7 October 1941 Country 0 years, 40 days Queensland
14 John Curtin 7 October 1941 5 July 1945 Labor 3 years, 272 days Western Australia
15 Frank Forde 6 July 1945 13 July 1945 Labor 0 years, 8 days Queensland
16 Ben Chifley 13 July 1945 19 December 1949 Labor 4 years, 160 days New South Wales
(12) Sir Robert Menzies KT CH QC KT AK CH QC 19 December 1949 26 January 1966 Liberal 16 years, 39 days Victoria
17 Harold Holt CH 26 January 1966 19 December 1967[13] Liberal 1 year, 328 days Victoria
18 John McEwen GCMG CH 19 December 1967 10 January 1968 Country 0 years, 23 days Victoria
19 John Gorton GCMG AC CH 10 January 1968 10 March 1971 Liberal 3 years, 60 days Victoria
20 William McMahon CH GCMG CH 10 March 1971 5 December 1972 Liberal 1 year, 271 days New South Wales
21 Gough Whitlam QC AC QC 5 December 1972 11 November 1975 Labor 2 years, 342 days New South Wales
22 Malcolm Fraser CH AC CH GCL 11 November 1975 11 March 1983 Liberal 7 years, 121 days Victoria
23 Bob Hawke AC AC GCL 11 March 1983 20 December 1991 Labor 8 years, 285 days Victoria
24 Paul Keating 20 December 1991 11 March 1996 Labor 4 years, 83 days New South Wales
25 John Howard SSI OM AC SSI 11 March 1996 3 December 2007 Liberal 11 years, 268 days New South Wales
26 Kevin Rudd 3 December 2007 24 June 2010 Labor 2 years, 204 days Queensland
27 Julia Gillard 24 June 2010 27 June 2013 Labor 3 years, 3 days Victoria
(26) Kevin Rudd 27 June 2013 18 September 2013 Labor 0 years, 84 days Queensland
28 Tony Abbott 18 September 2013 Incumbent Liberal 0 years, 321 days New South Wales

Graphical timeline

Living former prime ministers

There are currently seven living former Prime Ministers of Australia:

Name Term of office Date of birth
Gough Whitlam 1972–1975 (1916-07-11) 11 July 1916 (age 98)
Malcolm Fraser 1975–1983 (1930-05-21) 21 May 1930 (age 84)
Bob Hawke 1983–1991 (1929-12-09) 9 December 1929 (age 84)
Paul Keating 1991–1996 (1944-01-18) 18 January 1944 (age 70)
John Howard 1996–2007 (1939-07-26) 26 July 1939 (age 75)
Kevin Rudd 2007–2010; 2013 (1957-09-21) 21 September 1957 (age 56)
Julia Gillard 2010–2013 (1961-09-29) 29 September 1961 (age 52)

The most recently deceased prime minister was John Gorton (1968–1971), who died on 19 May 2002.

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.

Gough Whitlam has lived in the lifetime of every prime minister of Australia and has achieved a greater age than any other prime minister.



Ten of Australia's prime ministers were born in Victoria, seven in New South Wales, three in Queensland and one each in South Australia and Tasmania. Seven were born overseas: six in the United Kingdom (Cook, Hughes and Abbott in England, Reid and Fisher in Scotland, Gillard in Wales) and Watson in Chile.


Melbourne Grammar School produced the most number of prime ministers (Deakin, Bruce and Fraser). Other secondary schools where more than one prime minister studied include Geelong Grammar School (Gorton, Fraser), Sydney Grammar School (Barton, McMahon) and Wesley College, Melbourne (Menzies, Holt).

Six prime ministers graduated from University of Sydney (Barton, Page, McMahon, Whitlam, Howard, Abbott). Four studied at the University of Melbourne (Deakin, Menzies, Holt, Gillard) and four at Oxford University (Gorton, Fraser, Hawke, Abbott). Rudd studied at the Australian National University. Eight prime ministers did not complete any form of higher education.


Eleven prime ministers practised law prior to becoming Prime Minister. Of these, Barton, Deakin, Reid, Hughes, Bruce, Menzies and Whitlam practised as barristers (with all save Deakin and Bruce having taken silk prior to becoming Prime Minister), while McMahon, Howard and Gillard practised as solicitors; Holt practised briefly as a barrister before spending the bulk of his legal career as a solicitor. (In addition Hawke and Abbott acquired law degrees, but never practised law.) Seven prime ministers (all members of the Australian Labor Party) had served as trade union officials. Other occupations performed by prime ministers include journalism (Watson, Scullin, Curtin, Abbott), teaching (Lyons and Forde), diplomacy (Rudd), mining (Fisher, Cook), medicine (Page), engine driving (Chifley) and accountancy (Fadden).

Three prime ministers served in the First World War (Bruce, Page and McEwen; only Bruce was involved in actual combat). Four served in the Second World War (Holt, Gorton, McMahon, and Whitlam; Gorton and Whitlam served as air crew in the Royal Australian Air Force).

Prior to participating in federal politics, prime ministers had been elected to the state Parliaments of New South Wales (Barton, Watson, Reid, Cook, Hughes), Queensland (Fisher, Fadden, Forde), Victoria (Deakin, Menzies) and Tasmania (Lyons). In addition Page had been the Mayor of Grafton. After leaving the federal Parliament, Forde was appointed High Commissioner to Canada, and on his return to Australia was re-elected to the Queensland Parliament.

Personal relationships and family

All prime ministers except for Gillard have married at least once. McEwen married twice, but was the only Prime Minister to be a widower throughout his premiership. Bruce, Scullin, Chifley, McEwen and Gillard were childless, while Lyons had twelve children (one died in infancy).

Acting Prime Ministers

From time to time Prime Ministers are required to leave the country on business, and a deputy is appointed to take his or her place during that time. In the days before jet airplanes, such absences could be for extended periods. For example, William Watt was Acting Prime Minister for 16 months, from April 1918 until August 1919, and Senator George Pearce held the position for more than seven months in 1916.


John Curtin is the only prime minister to serve time in jail (three days for failing to comply with an order for a compulsory medical examination for conscription, during World War I).[14]

Births and deaths

Seventeen prime ministers were born prior to the Federation of Australia, 1 January 1901. The earliest-born prime minister was George Reid, born 25 February 1845.

Three prime ministers died in office: Joseph Lyons (1939), John Curtin (1945) and Harold Holt (1967). Holt's was a most unusual case – he disappeared while swimming, was declared presumed dead two days later, and his body was never recovered. It was not until almost 38 years later, in 2005, that he was officially declared by the Victorian Coroner to have drowned at the time of his disappearance.

The first person born after Federation to serve as prime minister was Harold Holt, born 5 August 1908. (Sir William McMahon, who was a later prime minister, was born 23 February 1908, and is the earliest-born of the prime ministers born after Federation.)

The first person born after the First World War to serve as prime minister was Malcolm Fraser, born 21 May 1930. (Bob Hawke, who succeeded Fraser, was born 9 December 1929, and is the earliest-born of the prime ministers born after WWI.)

The first person born after the Second World War to serve as prime minister was Kevin Rudd, born 21 September 1957.

The only prime ministers born during either of the world wars are Gough Whitlam, born 11 July 1916, during the First World War, and Paul Keating, born 18 January 1944, during the Second World War.

Three prime ministers died outside of Australia: Sir George Reid, Andrew Fisher and Viscount Bruce died in the United Kingdom. Reid and Fisher are buried there.


The three youngest people when they first became prime minister were:

  • Chris Watson – 37
  • Stanley Bruce – 39
  • Robert Menzies – 44

The three oldest people when they first became prime minister were:

  • John McEwen – 67
  • William McMahon – 63
  • Ben Chifley – 59 years 10 months (George Reid was 59 years 6 months).

The three youngest people to last leave the office of prime minister were:

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

Time in office

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 6th 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.

Post-office longevity

Seven former prime ministers are living: Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard.

Ben Chifley died only one year six months after leaving the prime ministership. Alfred Deakin lived another nine years and five months.

All the others who have left office at least 10 years ago 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 lasted 29 years and 8 months).

The longest-surviving is Gough Whitlam, who has lived 37 years and 11 months and counting. On 25 September 2013, Whitlam surpassed Stanley Bruce's previous record of 37 years and 10 months after leaving the office.

See also


External links

  • Official website of the Prime Minister of Australia
  • Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Australia's Prime Ministers – National Archives of Australia reference site and research portal
  • Biographies of Australia's Prime Ministers / National Museum of Australia
  • Classroom resources on Australian Prime Ministers

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