Commonwealth Knowledge #40: An independent Prime Minister - once in a teal moon
A look at whether it is possible for an independent to become the Prime Minister of Australia.
As the court case between Monique Ryan and staffer Sally Rugg over alleged unreasonable work expectations, including 70-hour work weeks, continues, the Federal Court’s Justice Debra Mortimer has commented that it is unlikely that Rugg would be able to work for Dr Ryan while the case is resolved. According to Rugg, these expectations were placed on her because Dr Ryan said she intended to work her way up to Prime Minister, although Dr Ryan said this was only a joke. But can an independent MP even become the Prime Minister?
To understand whether it is possible for an independent or a member of a minor party to become Prime Minister, it is helpful to compare this Commonwealth role with State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, collectively known as ‘First Ministers.’
There is no actual constitutional requirement for the Prime Minister to be from a particular party. But that is somewhat misleading, because the Prime Minister isn’t actually mentioned in the Australian Constitution at all. This means that there are two relevant factors to consider: constitutional conventions and political realities.
Constitutional conventions are the unwritten rules of the Constitution. Check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #16 for an explanation of how they work. They serve to fill in the blanks in the Constitution, and are the result of the Westminster system of government used by Australia.
The First Minister is picked by the Crown’s representative, meaning the Governor-General, Governor, or Northern Territory Administrator, because they can secure the support of half of the lower house to pass appropriation bills, which allows the government to spend money, and thus ensures that it is able to actually function. Under Section 53 of the Constitution, appropriation bills originate in the lower house, and the upper house can only pass or reject them. Since the Whitlam Dismissal, it has become a convention that the major parties won’t use their numbers in the Senate to purposefully stop the government from functioning.
The importance of appropriation bills is why the Prime Minister was originally known as the ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ in the United Kingdom, because they held the metaphorical keys to the government’s treasury. This gave the Prime Minister a lot of power, and so eventually there was an incentive to develop formal political parties to help centralise control over this power.
In colonial Australia, parties were less formal, and were more like coalitions and alliances, so it was easier for more MPs to become Premier. But, after Federation, and following the lead of Victoria and New South Wales, proper parties were established in all Australian jurisdictions.
It is theoretically possible for an independent or member of a minor party to become a First Minister, but the reality of politics and constitutional convention dictates that this will indefinitely remain only a theoretical possibility.
It would require a minority government, with a massive crossbench made up of independents and minors, probably with a majority of MPs on the crossbench, for this to even happen, because to force a so-called ‘major party’ to give up the position of First Minister would require a lot of political leverage. Sure, Archimedes may have said “give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” but in this case, the lever would have to be infinitely long.
If such a situation did happen, it would require either a large minor party, probably the Greens, or a coalition of independents, likely the teal independents, as only they would have the necessary numbers to have any leverage. Fortunately for Dr Ryan, she falls into the second category.
In reality, there are only two Australian jurisdictions where a non-major party First Minister would have any chance of happening: Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.
Both of these jurisdictions have electorates that elect more than one representative, meaning that it is more likely that minor parties and independents would see representation in the lower house. And it is unsurprising that the Greens have multiple MPs in both lower houses, although the ACT only has a Legislative Assembly, with no upper house.
While it is virtually impossible for an independent MP to become the Prime Minister, and difficult for even the Greens to achieve as a minor party, as a Teal independent, Dr Ryan is in the best possible position to. But, if the Teals were to have that much power in Parliament, it may only be a matter of time before they unite into a formal party, just like UK MPs did more than two centuries ago to control the position of Prime Minister.
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Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) 63 & 64 Vict, c 12.
Elijah Granet’s ‘Better AustLII’ web extension.