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Decipher: Ministers, portfolios and the Cabinet

In the news, you will often hear politicians referred to as the “Minister for Defence” or the “Minister for Education.” These titles refer to government members who have been assigned portfolios, which means that they are in charge of a certain area of policy.

We have discussed the legislative aspect of Australian government. Ministers, portfolios and the Cabinet all fall under the executive branch.

In order to make sense of the Cabinet, Ministry, and Portfolios, we will return to our fictional parliamentarian, Reginald Personson, a member of the “Generally Pleasant Party” and Member for the electorate of Houghnice.

Reginald Personson MP, Member for Houghnice with the Generally Pleasant Party

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Election time has come around again, and the Generally Pleasant Party (the GPP) has received the majority of the seats in the lower house, and have formed Government. Reginald Personson has been re-elected to represent the (fictitious) electorate of Houghnice.

 The leader of the Generally Pleasant Party, Wilma Ainsley, has been appointed as the Prime Minister through a vote of the Parliamentary members of the Generally Pleasant Party. The Generally Pleasant Party must now choose their Ministers.

Ministers of the State

Prime Minister Ainsley has already decided that Reginald Personson, who is particularly proficient and well-established in the areas of politics surrounding niceness, should be the Minister for Being Nice.

Minister is somebody who has been put in charge of a portfolio, or a section of government business for which they will take responsibility.

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Reginald is now responsible for the government’s niceness-related business. He will also oversee government niceness regulatory bodies and government niceness departments. There wasn’t previously a Minister for Being Nice, but the the Prime Minister sees it as an important area of policy.

One Minister can also hold multiple portfolios. The Generally Pleasant Party wishes to make Senator Kentworth both the Minister for Fluffy Domestic Animals and the Minister for Traintracks.

Currently, Australian law says that the governing party or coalition can only have, at most, thirty Ministers.

The Cabinet

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The Cabinet represents the executive branch of government. The executive is in charge of executing and running government business.

When the Australian Federation was established, all of the Ministers in the Government sat in the Cabinet and executed government business. After World War II, with the growth of the Australian population (and the growing number of Ministers), having all Ministers sit in the Cabinet became impractical, and the practice was changed.

The current convention is to have Ministers split up into Cabinet Ministers (sometimes called Senior Ministers) who sit in the Cabinet, and non-Cabinet Ministers.

Because the area of niceness is such an important area of policy to the Generally Pleasant Party, Wilma and the GPP decide that Reginald Personson, as the Minister for Being Nice, should sit in Cabinet.

“The Honourable” Honorific

Reginald is still referred to as the Minister for Being Nice in parliamentary proceedings, but he is also referred to as the Member for Houghnice. The one thing that Reginald is not referred to by is his name. This is because during parliamentary proceedings, Members of Parliament speak on behalf of their portfolio in the party or on behalf of the electorate they represent, not as themselves.

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Senators are referred to as “Senator” and their last name (e.g Senator Kentworth). This is because twelve Senators represent each state (and two represent each territory) so “The Senator for New South Wales” could refer to any one of twelve different people in the Senate.

Parliamentary Secretaries

As well as Ministers (Cabinet and non-Cabinet), the government assigns some of its members to the position of Parliamentary Secretary. Parliamentary Secretaries are halfway between Ministers and regular members. They are referred to as the Honourable but are not Ministers, and are not part of the Cabinet.

Parliamentary Secretaries sit with the rest of their party’s members who are not Ministers. All together, this group is called the backbench. This comes from the fact that Ministers usually sit on the front bench in Parliament so they can more easily walk to the dispatch box and speak. A Parliamentary Secretary position is usually used as an opportunity for parties to give experience and exposure to potential future Ministers.

Opposition Ministers

Shadows4-BeingNiceThe Opposition party (the party with the second largest number of seats behind the governing party) assigns portfolios to some of their members, often mirroring the Ministers on the governing side. These members are known as Shadow Ministers, as they shadow the government’s Ministers and focus on scrutinising that section of the Government’s business.

So The Honourable Reginald Personson, Minister for Being Nice, is targeted by the Shadow Minister for Being Nice. The Shadow Minister is in charge of holding The Honourable Reginald Personson MP to account during question time, as well as developing the opposition party’s policy in regards to Being Nice.

Cabinet Business

First of all, Cabinet meetings are kept secret (unlike Parliament, which can be attended at any time by any member of the public, and is broadcast live on the internet and television). This is so that Cabinet members can have free and frank discussions about highly confidential matters such as national security.

On top of making decisions regarding government business and operation, the Cabinet will vote in solidarity. Even if there are arguments within the Cabinet about specific policies, once outside the Cabinet (for example in party meetings) all members of the Cabinet will vote together with the stance they agreed upon in Cabinet.

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In this particular fictional circumstance, Reginald Personson feels that the Generally Pleasant Party should keep the Rewarding Niceness Act of 2013, introduced during the previous year, but he is outvoted by the rest of the Cabinet Ministers.

Later that day, in a party meeting, Reginald would have to vote against keeping the Rewarding Niceness Act alongside the rest of his Cabinet, despite his personal thoughts and political opinions.

More information

This is just a quick summary of the system in regards to Ministers, portfolios and the Cabinet. For a more in-depth explanation, take a look at this page on the Australian Parliament House website (aph.gov.au)

To see who the current Ministers in Cabinet are, you can always check aph.gov.au for that as well, in particular the Current Ministry List page. It’s useful to know who is in charge of various areas if you want to keep updated on areas of politics that interest you.

**The use of the Honourable honorific in Australia is more complicated than this of course, and requires an understanding of the Federal Executive Council, and how the Australian Constitution differs from convention.

Written for Uniting for Change by Lachlan Macleod
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