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Democracy's hidden wiring

By J R Nethercote - posted Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Before Australian politics is absorbed in election business the mechanics of Kevin Rudd's return to the Prime Minister's Lodge should be appraised.

The course events on 26-27 June 2013 is deeply revealing of the locus of power in Australia's parliamentary and governmental arrangements, in particular, the malleability of Australia's governing framework in meeting the convenience of prevailing party leadership (for the time being).

Inherent in thus exalting party leadership, even leadership lacking assured support in the House of Representatives, is a perceptibly limited view of the vice-regal role and responsibilities.


This is reinforced by emergence of the solicitor-general as key vice-regal adviser in such situations. This practice needs close scrutiny before it is set in concrete.

Finally, where it might be expected that the House could claim more than a bit part in the dramatis personae, it finishes up as little more than an extra as events run their course.

The June 2013 changeover is complex because no party nor combination of parties has a majority in the House. Merely claiming party leadership from an incumbent prime minister does not necessarily carry majority support with it.

Leading up to Rudd's elevation, there were warnings that succession might entail more than a win in caucus followed by a trip to Yarralumla. There was also the question of how the House might react.

Sometime after the fateful votes Julia Gillard travelled to Yarralumla taking a letter in which she advised Her Excellency the Governor-General to "send for Mr Rudd and ask him to accept appointment to the office of Prime Minister." She included her wish to resign "with effect from the appointment of Mr Rudd."

Later Her Excellency met the Acting Solicitor-General, Dr Robert Orr, QC, at Government House. She sought advice "as to the course of action she should take" in response to Gillard's letter. (Dr Orr's visit was not reported in the daily program published by Government House.)


Subsequently the Official Secretary wrote to Dr Orr requesting confirmation of his "oral advice . . . that the Governor-General should commission Mr Rudd as Prime Minister based upon the Prime Minister's tendered advice."

He continued: "I confirm the Governor-General's view . . . that it would be her intention, if your advice is to commission Mr Rudd as Prime Minister, that she seek an assurance that he will announce his appointment at the first possible opportunity to the House of Representatives in order to give the House the opportunity for whatever, if any, action it chooses to take."

Dr Orr confirmed that Rudd should be commissioned, adding that it was open to Her Excellency "to seek an assurance from Mr Rudd that he will announce his appointment at the first possible opportunity" to the House.

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This article was first published in the Canberra Times.

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About the Author

J R Nethercote, visiting research fellow, ACU Public Policy Institute, was on the staff of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by J R Nethercote

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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