Office of profit under the Crown

14 Jun 2018

Executive summary

Section 44(iv) of the Constitution provides that a person is incapable of being chosen as a Member of Parliament if he or she holds an ‘office of profit under the Crown’. This is also a ground for disqualification from office for existing members and senators under section 45. There has been considerable uncertainty about what is meant by holding an office of profit under the Crown.

First the person must hold an ‘office’. This is a position to which duties attach of a work-like nature. It is usually, but not always the case, that the office continues to exist independently of the person who holds it. However, a person on the ‘unattached’ list of the public service still holds an office.

Second, it must be an ‘office of profit’. This means that some form of ‘profit’ or remuneration must attach to the office, regardless of whether or not that profit is transferred to the office-holder. Reimbursement of actual expenses does not amount to ‘profit’, but a public servant who is on leave without pay or an office-holder who declines to accept a salary or allowances still holds an office of profit. The source of the profit does not matter. Even if it comes from fees paid by members of the public or other private sources, as long as the profit is attached to the office, that is sufficient.

Third, the office of profit must be ‘under the Crown’. It is under the Crown if the office-holder is appointed at the will of the executive government. In such a case it does not matter whether the executive government also has the power to dismiss the office-holder, control the profit attached to the office, or direct or supervise the performance of functions by the office-holder. If, however, the office is not one appointed at the will of the executive government, but the executive government maintains effective control over removal from the office or its remuneration, then it may also be ‘under the Crown’. Public servants hold offices ‘under the Crown’. Offices to which a person is appointed by a House of Parliament are not held ‘under the Crown’. There is uncertainty as to whether the offices of staff of members of Parliament, certain statutory offices and the offices of employees of government business enterprises are ‘under the Crown’.

An office is ‘under the Crown’ if it is under the Crown in right of the Commonwealth or the Crown in right of a state or territory. Hence a person who holds the office of a state public servant is also disqualified from being chosen as a member of the Commonwealth Parliament.

There is also uncertainty about when a person ‘holds’ an office. Does this occur upon acceptance of the office, or upon steps being taken to formalise the appointment, such as approval by the Executive Council or the issue of letters patent, or only once the person commences to fulfil the functions of the office? This was the subject of debate during the 1974 Gair affair and has not yet been resolved.

Ministers hold offices of profit under the Crown, but are exempt from the application of section 44(iv). Parliamentary secretaries also avoid disqualification by being formally appointed as ministers administering a department.

Senators-elect will be disqualified if they take up an office of profit under the Crown after their valid election but before their term commences.

While there is no constitutional prohibition upon a member or senator in the Commonwealth Parliament also holding the office of a member of a State Parliament, there is legislation that prohibits it.

Members of the reserve defence forces who are not employed full-time are exempt from disqualification under section 44(iv). There is doubt, however, about reservists who are on full-time duty and members of Parliament who are on active service during a war.

While there was previously doubt about whether a judicial appointment was ‘under the Crown’, it is now clear that as long as a judge is appointed at the will of the executive (rather than through a process controlled by an independent body), then the holder is disqualified from being chosen as a member of Parliament. In any case, the holder of a judicial office could not simultaneously hold office as a member of Parliament as this would breach the separation of powers or the doctrine of incompatibility derived from Chapter III of the Constitution.

Ambassadors clearly hold offices of profit under the Crown. As members of Parliament are sometimes appointed as ambassadors, there is a timing question about when the office is first ‘held’, as this vacates the seat of the member.

Whether a local councillor holds an office of profit under the Crown has long been contested, given that the office is an elected one. In Re Lambie, the Court applied a test of whether the executive has effective control over the continued holding of the office or continued profiting from it. While the Tasmanian local government legislation did not evince such a degree of effective control, it remains possible that the office of local councillor in another jurisdiction could be an office of profit under the Crown. It will depend upon the relevant legislation in each jurisdiction concerning removal from office and remuneration.

Persons who hold offices in universities are employed by a body corporate that is given the title of ‘university’ by statute. They are therefore unlikely to hold offices of profit under the Crown unless the university represents the Crown or is otherwise sufficiently controlled by the Crown to be regarded as part of the executive government. So far this has not been found to be the case.

Receiving social security or superannuation benefits does not give rise to a disqualification under section 44(iv) for receipt of a pension. The disqualification is directed only at pensions payable during the pleasure of the Crown. Such discretionary pensions were granted a long time ago to people such as war heroes, but are now no longer relevant.

There remain difficulties concerning identifying the timing of when an office of profit is held, when a person is ‘chosen’ and when an election period ends. This is relevant not only to the vacation of seats, but also to whether Senate vacancies are to be filled by a special count or as a casual vacancy.

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