‘The Modern Autocrat’: Myths and Debates about the Power of Prime Ministers

By Weller, Patrick | Social Alternatives, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

‘The Modern Autocrat’: Myths and Debates about the Power of Prime Ministers


Weller, Patrick, Social Alternatives


The prime minister left Australia in April on a boat for the United States. While he crossed that continent by train, he instructed that no cabinet decisions be finalised until the draft proposal had been sent to him for approval. He sailed the Atlantic to Britain; there he made a series of decisions on behalf of Australia in the Imperial War Cabinet, often without reference to the Australian cabinet. His ministerial colleagues either read about the decisions in the press or approved them without information. He bought a shipping line for Australia and attended the international peace conference in Versailles where he made commitments on behalf of the country. Finally, he returned home on 23 August: not the same year he had left but a year later. He was overseas as prime minister for 15 months in 1918-19 (Weller 2009: 39-43).

That was exceptional, but also instructive. Billy Hughes may have been unusual in his cavalier disregard for usual practice and for the confidence he took to the Versailles conference as a national representative. He may have stretched the discretionary powers he had given himself to the limit, but he was able to do it. Those actions were an indication of the flexibility of the prime minister's powers and of the uncertain conventions that guided the operations of government. They provide the foundation for any discussion of the modes of prime ministerial authority, for if it was possible for him to act that way, it was possible for any prime minister at that time to do so. His extremes illustrate the powers available to prime ministers.

In this article I want to disaggregate some of the muddled debates that underpin the much-debated topic of too powerful prime ministers and examine them one by one. This will provide an alternative understanding of the more obvious assumptions that are often made.

The Institutional Framework

The institutions provide the framework within which prime ministers must work. In part the institutions are legal constructs, set out in constitutions or enshrined in legislation, that determine the structures within which governments will work. Written constitutions, such as those in Australia or Canada, may be settled in their wording, or so hard to change that it is unlikely that they can be altered. But they still provide only a limited description of how the system actually works. The Australian constitution describes a monarchical system; prime minister and cabinet are never mentioned. The sections in the constitution on executive government are scant, even though everyone knew that these were the key institutions because they had been in operation in the colonial governments for decades. So in part their powers are also grounded in conventions. Their precise powers can vary from year to year because the operation of the institutions will often be adjusted for political advantage. The prime ministers of the new Commonwealth nations thus inherited the powers of the British prime minister (although not initially the unfettered capacity to run their own foreign policy; they were still seen as extensions of the British empire). Those powers still depended for their legitimacy and continuity on the support of a still non-democratic parliament and on their formal authority from the sovereign.

Of course the initial position changed. There never has been a rigid constitution; even if the words do not change, the interpretations do, and those changes will be contested. Universal suffrage and the growth of the size of the electorate alter the relationship between government and voters; but they do not circumscribe the powers of prime ministers nor define them. The position developed as a consequence of that initial inheritance, the actions of the prime ministers themselves and often just sheer luck (Strangio et al. 2016: 3).

On a day-to-day basis those conventions and informal practices engender uncertainty about what prime ministers can do. What is a convention? …

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