CAVAN HOGUE. President or Prime Minister? 

The current political cult of personality obscures the fact that Australian prime ministers are not American presidents. The Prime Minister told voters that they had a clear choice between him and Bill Shorten. No they don’t Scomo! They have a choice between two parties and cabinets that take decisions.  

The present campaign has made it very clear that the politicians and probably most of the voters choose not to understand how the Australian political system works. The Prime Minister put it very clearly when he told voters they should decide who they could trust and that they had a simple choice between him or Bill Shorten. No they don’t Scomo! They have a choice between a Coalition Government and a Labor Party Government. The Australian Prime Minister is simply a primus inter pares and the position does not exist in the |Constitution. They are not like American presidents whose cabinet members are chosen by them and can be changed at any time as they see fit. In Australia, Cabinet members are elected members of parliament and important decisions are taken by the Cabinet, not by the Prime Minister.

As any public servant or politician can tell you, prime ministers can be and have been rolled in cabinet. Prime ministers do not always get what they want but have to persuade cabinet members of the worthiness of their submissions just like any other cabinet member. A strong prime minister can have considerable influence but that is all.

The current cult of personality extends to the media as well as politics but it is the political scene where it is misleading. Australians are saturated with US TV and other media so that they are probably more familiar with US politics than Australian. Young people do not watch TV or read newspapers but get their information from social media most of which is American and therefore reflects that system. So voters are more familiar with the Presidential system. Many voters get confused when faced with a ballot paper that does not contain the name of the party leaders and requires them to vote for someone they have never heard of.

I suppose it is too much to ask that ego infested prime ministerial candidates explain how the system works. The simple answer to Scomo’s question about who do you trust is none of you.

Cavan Hogue is a former public servant who has prepared cabinet submissions.


Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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4 Responses to CAVAN HOGUE. President or Prime Minister? 

  1. Brian Dillon says:

    I do not think we should blame either the present Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition for the mistaken impression harboured by so many of the Australian public. That blame clearly lies with the Australian Press, which finds it much easier to “personalise” a particular message it might be trying to sell by endowing the P.M. with a form of “Presidential” status. While most members of the Australian public obviously understand the structure of the Australian Parliamentary system, it is much easier for
    most to personalise their political hopes and, most particularly, their grievances

  2. I don’t agree with this. It was Malcolm Turnbull’s theory of the constitution:

    We know how that ended.

    For a better theory of how our government works, when it works well, see Crossman’s introduction to Bagehot’s English Constitution, esp. p.51ff (Fontana, 1963).

  3. Philip Bond says:

    The current prime minister has deliberately made himself the election focus in a very presidential campaign whereas, the opposition has a talented front bench capable and able to seize the mantle from day one. No more barney’s rubble, ministers dutton, cash, Frydenberg, Birmingham, Fifield, Canavan, Hunt, Littleproud and Taylor.

  4. Andrew Farran says:

    This is an accurate description of how Cabinet government actually works. But it is not seen like that by the average punter who perceives it ‘presidentially’.
    So if you are the leader and running for office it is best to exploit the public perception as it is. Indeed it would be foolish not to !

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