Common(wealth) Knowledge #7: The difficulty of picking a foreign affairs minister
Updated: Apr 7
Penny Wong currently serves as Australia's foreign minister.
Over the last week, social media and the media have been dominated by a single story: former Prime Minister Scott Morrison taking on multiple ministerial portfolios in secret. This had led to many discussions about the role of ministers and their relationship with the Prime Minister. Arguably the most difficult ministerial position to fill is the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In this article, we will look at exactly why that is the case, and the threat that they pose to the Prime Minister.
In countries around the world, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or an equivalent position, is one of the highest-ranking government posts. In the United Kingdom, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, or the Foreign Secretary, is the fourth-highest ranking member of the elected government. In the United States, the Secretary of State is the fourth in line to replace the President. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs is similarly important in Australia.
This means that the Minister of Foreign Affairs must be both a competent politician and skilled in diplomacy. However, someone with that skill set would also be a good candidate for Prime Minister, and therefore could call for a vote of no confidence or orchestrate a leadership spill in the party room and replace the Prime Minister. Therefore, deciding who to appoint as Minister of Foreign Affairs is one of the first challenges a Prime Minister faces.
To answer this question, it is important to look at a few examples from Australian history, before finishing by examining Australia’s more recent Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the current UK leadership spill. To make this a bit easier, we won’t look at any minister before the 1941 election. This is because the UK, through the Colonial Office, initially controlled much of Australia’s foreign policy, so often the Prime Minister handled the post of Minister of External Affairs.
This first changed with the Balfour Declaration. No, not the one from World War I, the less famous one from 1926. This was an agreement made between the UK government and the governments of their Dominions, including Australia, that their foreign policies would be independent. But this didn’t do much until the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth), when this separation was enacted through legislation.
The first true Minister of External Affairs was Herbert Vere Evatt, appointed after Labor formed a minority government in 1941, shortly after Menzies resigned. He would remain in this role during the Curtin, Forde, and Chifley governments, until 1949. Evatt was a very competent politician, and is the only person in Australia to resign from the High Court of Australia to join Parliament, which he did in the 1940 election. Aware of his skill, all three Labor Prime Ministers kept him in the same position. For example, he managed to run the small and young Department of External Affairs while also helping create the United Nations and serving as the fourth President of the UN General Assembly in 1948. He was the only Australian to serve as its President.
Had Evatt stayed in Australia, it is likely that he would have tried to replace any of the three Labor Prime Ministers in a leadership spill. Given how long travel took in the 1940s, at least compared to today, keeping Evatt overseas meant that he wouldn’t build a network amongst Labor MPs in Australia to win enough votes to topple the Prime Minister. As an example of what he was capable of, he replaced Ben Chifley in 1951 as Labor Party leader after the party lost the 1949 and 1951 elections. Evatt led the party through three consecutive defeats, in 1954, 1955, and 1958, until he resigned in 1960. Yet he was still competent enough to win the support of his colleagues and defeat three challenges to his leadership. This proved that he may have been successful in replacing Curtin, Forde, or Chifley if he had the chance to.
Three Ministers of External Affairs under Robert Menzies’ second Liberal-Country government are worth mentioning. Richard Casey was Minister of External Affairs from 1951-1960. He was a rival of Menzies, and had served in Menzies’ 1939-1941 government as a minister. Like Evatt, he was a competent Minister of External Affairs, and shaped the Department during the start of the Cold War. Although he also sought to replace Menzies, he did not have the success that Evatt did in the party room.
When the Suez Crisis happened in 1956, Casey cautioned the government against siding with the UK against the United States; however, as was often the case, he was ignored by the rest of the government. The eventual outcome of siding with the UK would be an international embarrassment for Australia, and especially for Casey, as Minister for External Affairs. His inability to win support in the party room led him to lose the vote for Liberal Party Deputy Leader in 1956 to Harold Holt, just one before the Suez Crisis, and he left Australian politics in 1960, though he joined the UK House of Lords as Baron Richard Casey, and later became Governor-General.
Casey’s replacement was Garfield Barwick, who served in that role from 1961-1964. He was immensely popular with the public, and had served for several decades as one of Australia’s best barristers. His entry into politics in 1958 was the same path that Menzies had tread three decades prior. It was expected that he would replace Menzies, even though Holt was Menzies’ deputy at the time. This threatened the Menzies-Holt alliance. However, he came to dislike Parliament, and faced the same problems that Casey did, forcing him to retire in 1964, when he became Chief Justice of the High Court for 17 years.
Menzies’ final Minister of External Affairs was Paul Hasluck, who replaced Barwick. He was yet another Minister for External Affairs with leadership potential. Though he did not contest Holt’s replacement of Menzies, once Holt disappeared he was a likely candidate to replace Holt. In the resulting leadership election, he would lose 51-30 to Senator John Gorton. He exited politics in 1969, to become Governor-General. Although he had arguably had less impact than his predecessors on the ministry, he was much better than Barwick and Casey in the party room. This is shown in the fact that he beat Billy Snedden, a future Liberal Party leader, in the leadership election.
In the 21st century, the internet and speed of travel mean that it is harder to send the Minister of Foreign Affairs away for a long period of time and keep them from building a network of loyal supporters. For example, following UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation, which was forced by the mass resignation of his government in protest against him, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss may replace him as party leader and Prime Minister.
In Australia, leadership spills have become a lot more common. After Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and Prime Minister, Rudd spent 1.5 years as Minister of Foreign Affairs. After leaving the ministry in February 2012, he successfully brought a challenge against Gillard, and resumed the position of party leader and Prime Minister. While he certainly benefited from being a former leader, he almost certainly benefited from the internet and faster speed of travel than the earlier Ministers.
Senator Marise Payne was a loyal supporter of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. She was also a senior figure within the party, leading to her appointment as the ‘Prime’ Minister for Women. As it is against constitutional convention for Senators to serve as Prime Minister, Morrison was safe from a leadership challenge by her. This meant that she could not rival Morrison in the same way that Casey did, and her loyalty to Morrison led to a close alliance, like that of Holt and Menzies. However, it meant that when the Liberal Party was defeated in the 2022 election, and Morrison resigned as party leader, she lost her influential portfolios, to help prevent Morrison from trying to undermine the new leadership.
The relationship between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has always been a difficult one. Had Rudd been in a similar position to Evatt, it is possible that Gillard would have remained in power longer, just like Curtin, Forde, and Chifley could. For the Prime Minister, an ideal pick for Minister of Foreign Affairs is someone who is competent as a Minister but lacks connections in the party room. However, as happened with Casey and Barwick, this could have a negative impact on foreign policy. Instead, a better pick might be Hasluck. Although Marise Payne’s tenure demonstrates that, as technology develops, the relationship between the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs can change, Rudd and Truss demonstrate that the original dynamics are still important.
Stuart Jeffery is a freelance researcher & digital editor for 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.
Sign up to our new free newsletter to catch up on all our original reporting you may have missed & to read the latest from the editor - click here.
Help support unbiased journalism & keep us independent: donate just $4 a month on Patreon & receive exclusive benefits.
Want to inform others? Share the link to this story on social media & with your family & friends using the buttons below.
Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 (La Trobe University Press, 2nd edition, 2021).