On Saturday 24 November 2007 the Australian people changed their national government. We did this by writing numbers in pencil on pieces of paper. In many countries around the world their citizens risk being thrown into prison or shot on the streets in attempting to do what we did that day in November with those pencils and pieces of paper.Within hours of the polls closing we knew that we had rejected the old government and elected a new one.
That same evening the defeated Prime Minister appeared on national television and made a gracious concession speech in which he congratulated the incoming government. The Leader of the Opposition followed soon after and made a gracious acceptance speech in which he promised to govern for all Australians. The speeches of both John Howard and Kevin Rudd included generous references to their political opponent.
That night some Australians went to bed pleased and happy, others disappointed and sad, but next morning life went on as usual for the vast majority of us. The Australian Electoral Commission resumed its counting of the votes, the Australian Public Service prepared to receive its new masters, and the Governor-General prepared to take the steps which the Constitution required of him in order to install the new government.
In the lead-up to the election the Governor-General had dissolved the House of Representative; had issued writs to the Australian Electoral Commission directing it to hold the election and setting out the time-table to be followed; and had earlier advised State Governors of his intentions and had invited them to issue writs for the holding of elections for Senators for their respective States. All of these preliminary steps, and the holding of the election itself, were taken in accordance with the Constitution and additional legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament established by that Constitution.
On Monday 26 November, two days after polling day, Prime Minister John Howard, in accordance with constitutional convention, resigned his commission as Prime Minster and advised the Governor-General to invite the Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, to form a government. The Governor-General asked Mr. Howard and his Ministers to continue in office in a caretaker capacity until a new government had been sworn in. The Governor-General then invited Mr. Rudd to form a government.
On Thursday 29 November, five days after polling day, Mr. Rudd advised the Governor-General of his proposed government and received His Excellency’s approval to announce it. Mr. Rudd and his wife Ms Therese Rein then called at the Prime Minister’s Lodge in Canberra where they were warmly welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Howard.
On Monday 3 December, eight days after polling day, the Governor-General accepted Mr. Howard’s resignation and swore in the new Rudd government.
Section 62 of the Constitution provides that “There shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth, and the members of the Council shall be chosen and summoned by the Governor-General and sworn as Executive Councillors, and shall hold office during his pleasure.”
Section 64 of the Constitution provides that “The Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish. Such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General. They shall be members of the Federal Executive Council, and shall be the Queen’s Ministers of State for the Commonwealth.”
Before proceeding with the swearing in, the Governor-General asked Mr. Rudd to give his assurances that he had been elected leader of the party holding a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, that he can form a government, and that he will have the confidence of the House of Representatives. On receiving the assurances from Mr. Rudd, the Governor-General said that he would now accept the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Hon. John Howard, which had the effect of terminating all the appointments of the former government.
First the Governor-General administered the Executive Councillor’s oath and the oath of office to Mr. Rudd as Prime Minister, and the Executive Councillor’s affirmation to Ms Julia Gillard. With the required quorum of two Executive Councillors, the Governor-General was now able to preside over a meeting of the Federal Executive Councill. Acting on the advice of Mr. Rudd and Ms Gillard, the Governor-General approved a new Administrative Arrangements Order changing the structure of Commonwealth government departments, allocating functions and legislation to them, and assigning responsibility for those functions and legislation to the respective Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.
The Governor-General then signed instruments of appointment, counter-signed by the Prime Minister, appointing all remaining Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries to their respective offices. The way was now clear for the Governor-General to administer the Executive Councillor’s oath or affirmation to those being appointed for the first time (other than Ms Gillard), and the oath or affirmation of office to all Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries (other than Mr. Rudd). As Mr. Rudd announced the names and portfolios of each of his Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries in turn, the Governor-General administered the necessary oaths or affirmations.
At the conclusion of the swearing in the Governor-General congratulated all Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, and particularly Mr. Rudd on his appointment as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister and Ms Gillard on her appointment as Australia’s first female Deputy Prime Minster. His Excellency commented on the conduct of the 2007 Federal election campaign, the good will evident after the election, and the courtesies observed in the smooth transition of executive power. The Governor-General described these events as a wonderful example of Australia’s democratic process at its best, and a tribute to our proud record as one of the world’s oldest democracies. He wished the new government every success in the supreme task of governing our country wisely and well.
The processes and procedures that I have described were all carried out peacefully, orderly, and in accordance with our Constitution, its inherent checks and balances, and its conventions. The task that was begun by those pencils and pieces of paper in polling booths around the country was put into effect by the Governor-General in a dignified ceremony at a happy family occasion in the Drawing Room at Government House, Canberra. We really are a fortunate country.
*[Sir David Smith was Official Secretary to five Governors-General from 1973 to 1990. His book Head of State: the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal (Macleay Press 2005) was launched by former Governor-General Mr. Bill Hayden.]