Federal Executive Council Handbook refreshed


Former governor-general Peter Cosgrove and members of the Federal Executive Council secretariat gather around the great seal. Image: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

A new guide to preparation of Commonwealth Executive Council submissions has been published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The latest handbook — not to be confused with the cabinet handbook — contains all updates to drafting standards explained in circulars issued since the last edition was published in 2017.

The ExCo secretariat in PM&C produces the guide to help public servants prepare submissions for the Executive Council. Its officers also check them before they go to the minister, to prevent “embarrassment and delay” from incorrectly presented papers, and later stamps them with the “great seal” of vice-regal approval to make things official.

The introductory chapters provide a detailed overview of how the executive arm of the Commonwealth government operates at its most formal level. There are detailed notes on the role of the Governor-General, caretaker conventions and the strict rules for ExCo submissions and meetings. There are processes for exceptions like late submissions or special meetings but protocols generally aim to ensure they are only invoked on rare occasions.

Late items require a letter from the PM to be considered. It must set out “compelling reasons” that involve “urgent and unavoidable circumstances” and the minister being unavailable to sign the document is not a valid excuse. Public servants are encouraged to take note of deadlines:

“Departments and agencies are encouraged to consult early with the Secretariat on the preparation of documents for Executive Council consideration, and to lodge drafts for clearance as soon as possible.”

If the government wants to argue there are compelling reasons for a late submission to be allowed, the responsible minister has to first write to the PM, who then writes to the G-G.

A note from the Governor-General’s official secretary, Paul Singer, observes, “All papers prepared for the Executive Council must be high quality; it is essential that they be accurate, reflect the Governor-General’s constitutional powers, and clearly set out the recommendations being made.”

His predecessor, Mark Fraser, said the same in a nearly identical foreword to the 2017 edition.

One of the many things that have not changed in the new handbook is the warning that “under no circumstances” should public servants contact the G-G’s secretary directly about late submissions, and certainly not with requests for approval of a ministerial announcement of matters before they go to the Executive Council.

Again there must be genuine “compelling reasons” for prior announcements.

“Concern about speculation over an appointment, for example, would not of itself be regarded as valid justification. In general, following consultation, the request should be made in writing to the Secretary to the Executive Council by the minister, the senior member of the minister’s office, or the secretary, or deputy secretary of the relevant department. The letter must clearly indicate that the request is being made on behalf of the minister.”

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