Ministers and shadow ministers

This fact sheet investigates the work of ministers (members of the Australian Government with special responsibilities) and shadow ministers (members of the opposition who closely examine the work of the government).


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

The Prime Minister and ministers are part of the executive government. The executive is responsible for developing government policy and putting government decisions into action. The Australian Constitution gives the King executive power; in reality, it is the Prime Minister and ministers who perform the work of the executive government.

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.


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 Health or Treasury. A government department is an organisation of people employed in the Australian Public Service. They assist ministers in developing government policy and putting laws into action.

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 Australian Parliament, they must explain why the proposed 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 and the Public Service are answerable to Parliament. Any member of parliament can hold the government to account by examining the work of any minister and their department. All ministers must be able to appear in Parliament each day during Question Time and respond to questions about how the government is running Australia.

Ministers and top-level officials from government departments may be required to attend Senate estimates hearings to explain the work of the department.

Ministerial code of conduct

Each government sets its own ministerial code of conduct. This code is controlled by the executive, not 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.


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.

Role of frontbenchers in the Australian Parliament.

The role of ministers and shadow ministers: make or scrutinise decisions, specialise in key areas, debate and vote on bills.

Parliamentary Education Office (


This graphic shows that ministers and shadow ministers are also known as 'frontbenchers' because they sit on the front bench of the chamber. Their roles include: making and scrutinising key decisions; specialising in key areas of governance; and debating and voting on bills.