Albo for Tokyo throws up a constitutional conundrum

by Mark Sawyer | May 18, 2022 | Lobbyland

Anthony Albanese’s growing confidence that the prize is near has been reflected in his assertive behaviour at media conferences. He’s getting presumptuous, Scott Morrison said on Wednesday.

But Albo isn’t strutting. He won’t be quaffing a beer in public the day before polling day, as Bill Shorten did to honour Bob Hawke in 2019. But the Labor leader’s confidence is reflected in his vow to attend the Quadrilateral meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday, meaning he would be sworn in as PM on Sunday or Monday. Penny Wong would also attend the session of the US, Australia, India and Japan as foreign minister.

This has opened up a mini constitutional conundrum. As pointed out on ABC news today, there would be nobody in the post of acting prime minister while Albanese and Wong were away. The solution may be to make deputy leader Richard Marles the third minister.

Even so, there would be no other legally constituted figures in the Labor ministry, leaving dozens of portfolios vacant.

The rapid transition is necessary to avoid a defeated Scott Morrison and Marise Payne attending the meeting as lame-duck prime minister and foreign minister, or Australia sending no elected official.

The long-shot alternative is that the Governor-General agrees to swear in the entire (former) shadow ministry, even if some have lost their seats. That’s possible, because the constitution allows ministers to serve for a limited time without holding a seat in parliament. But it would likely be one of Australia’s shortest-lived governments, replaced by the ‘‘proper’’ ministry within a fortnight.

If just Albanese and Wong are sworn in to administer all the portfolios, it would be the first two-person ministry since 1972. Labor’s Gough Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard introduced the word ‘‘duumvirate’’ to most of the population when they administered 27 portfolios for a fortnight while awaiting the full election results.

Whatever the case, Australia will see the quickest transition to a new government in 50 years. There was a leisurely gap of 11 days between the 2013 election and the swearing-in of Tony Abbott. John Howard waited nine days in 1996, as did Kevin Rudd in 2007. Labor generally grabs the reins much faster. For Hawke in 1983, it was six days. Whitlam, leading the first Labor government in 23 years, couldn’t wait a minute more than necessary, receiving his commission in three days.


Mark Sawyer is a journalist with extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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