Rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers* for the Deputy PM: Why Mathias Cormann will be Acting PM

February 15, 2018 Alistair Nicholas 0 Comments

With Arnold Schwarzenegger-sounding Mathias Cormann as Acting Prime Minister next week against the backdrop of the “Barnaby Joyce Affair” (as some in the media have referred to it) it is tempting to reprise some of the actor’s greatest lines, like “Hasta la vista, baby”, “You want to be a farmer, here’s a couple of acres”, and “Consider that a divorce.” But it raises an important question on how a member of the Senate is able to take on the acting role (no pun intended) when the Prime Minister is required to sit in the House of Representatives.

In actual fact, the Prime Minister is not required to sit in the lower house by force of law so much as by force of tradition. Readers might recall that John Gorton remained a Senator while Prime Minister for almost one month until he was able to contest Harold Holt’s seat of Higgins in February 1968 to enter the House of Representatives. But that was to comply with the Westminster tradition that the Prime Minister sit in the “House of Commons” not because of a Constitutional requirement.

So there’s no Constitutional impediment to a Senator taking on the role of Acting Prime Minister while the Prime Minister is travelling overseas or on leave. In fact, there is precedent. In 1916 Senator George Pearce was Acting Prime Minister for seven months while then Prime Minister Billy Hughes was attending the Paris Peace Conference. If Prime Minister Turnbull decides it is all too much and extends his travel plans, Senator Cormann could remain Acting Prime Minister for an extended period.

While we are on the subject of Australian political trivia, it should be noted that the position of Deputy Prime Minister does not exist by necessity of the Constitution. Rather it was an honorary position prior to 1922. The role only became formalised after the Nationalist Party (a predecessor of the Liberal Party) was forced into a coalition government with the Country Party (the predecessor of the Nationals) following the 1922 federal election. Since then the position has always been held by the leader of the junior party in the Coalition Government whenever the Liberal and National parties (and their predecessors) have ruled.

But with Senator Cormann in the hot seat next week you can bet the resting Deputy PM will be hoping not to hear some other Big Arnie classic lines from the Acting PM, like “You are terminated”. That would make Senator Cormann a real “party pooper”.


*  For the uninitiated, a guide to Arnold Schwarzenegger film quotes used in this article:

– “Rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers” – Last Action Hero (1993);

– “Hasta la vista, baby” – Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991);

– “You want to be a farmer, here’s a couple of acres” – Last Action Hero;

– “Consider that a divorce” – Total Recall (1990);

– “You are terminated” – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

– “I’m the party pooper” – Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Article by Alistair Nicholas, Executive Vice President – Director, Special Projects