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Ministers and Shadow Ministers

Fact Sheet – Ministers and Shadow Ministers [PDF 347kb, 2 pages]

Ministers

Ministers are members of the government who have been allocated an area of responsibility for how Australia is run. This area of responsibility is known as a portfolio. The way in which portfolios are created varies according to the government of the day. Some examples of ministerial portfolios include health, environment, finance, education, defence, foreign affairs, trade, community welfare, and immigration.

The Prime Minister and ministers make up executive government. The executive is responsible for developing government policy and putting government decisions into action.

How ministers are chosen

The Prime Minister chooses experienced and knowledgeable government members to be ministers, and expects them to work together on behalf of the government.

There are usually about 20 ministers in the House of Representatives and about 10 in the Senate.

The most high-profile portfolios are given to the most experienced government members, and they become part of the Cabinet. This is the main decision-making group within executive government (see Cabinet).

Role

Most ministers are in charge of a government department or assist in the administration of a department, such as the Department of Defence, Department of Treasury or the Department of Health and Ageing. A government department is an organisation of people employed in the Australian Public Service. They assist ministers in developing government policy and implementing laws. Ministers work with their department, community organisations and professional associations to prepare new laws and change existing laws which need updating or improving. When a minister introduces a bill (proposed law) into the Parliament, they must explain why the law is necessary and how it will solve a particular problem. If the bill becomes a law, the minister and their department are responsible for putting the law into action.

Ministerial responsibility

Ministers are accountable for the actions of their department; if something goes wrong they are expected to take responsibility for it.

Ministers are answerable to the Parliament. Any member of parliament can examine and criticise the government through the work of each minister. All ministers must be able to stand up in Parliament each day during Question Time and answer questions about how the government is running Australia (see Question Time).

Ministerial code of conduct

Each government sets its own ministerial code of conduct. This code is controlled by the executive, not the Parliament. It is not a law or regulation and can be changed.

Shadow ministers

Shadow ministers are members of the opposition, chosen by the Leader of the Opposition.

Shadow ministers have the important responsibility of scrutinising (closely examining) the work of the government and individual ministers. Each shadow minister concentrates on the work of a particular minister and government department. Shadow ministers also put forward and explain opposition policies.

Top-level shadow ministers form a Shadow Cabinet which meets regularly to develop these policies.

If there is a change of government a shadow minister may become a minister. This is why it is important for them to understand the work of the department they 'shadow' and consider how they would run their portfolio.

Frontbencher

Ministers and shadow ministers are also referred to as frontbenchers, as they sit on the front row of seats in the House of Representatives or the Senate.