Introduction to the Cabinet and its records

Though not mentioned in the Constitution, the Cabinet is the key decision-making body of the Australian Government. Comprising the Prime Minister and senior government ministers, the Cabinet has been a key part of the Australian political system since Federation in 1901.

Cabinet decisions are given legal effect by their formal ratification by the Executive Council, which comprises all ministers, with the Governor-General presiding.

Cabinet records represent the top of a three-tier system of Australian Government recordkeeping. The other two levels are the files of the Cabinet Office and the records of government departments.

Cabinet records reflect decisions made at the highest levels of government. Yet they also reveal how the Cabinet has been concerned with issues affecting the states, local communities and individuals, as well as with those affecting the nation as a whole, its international relations and its defence. The decisions recorded in Cabinet records have profoundly shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia.

Like any committee, when Cabinet meets it has a formal agenda and discusses individual issues one by one. Among the most important records of Cabinet are the submissions and decisions, each of which deals with a specific item on the agenda.

Because the number of issues requiring Cabinet's attention is too great to be handled by the Cabinet as a single body, it delegates responsibility to smaller groups of ministers, called Cabinet subcommittees. These subcommittees deal with certain areas of government policy, and either make a decision or examine the issues and report back to the full Cabinet. Cabinet subcommittees also generate submissions and decisions. They have responsibility for a number of areas including defence, security, foreign affairs and trade.

Access to Cabinet records

Up until 2010 Cabinet records became publicly available once they were more than 30 years old. Under an amendment to the Archives Act 1983 approved by Parliament in May 2010 the open access period for most Australian Government records (including Cabinet records) will begin after 20 years instead of 30. This change will be phased in over the next 10 years with the closed period reducing by a year on 1 January each year until 2020.

From 1 January 2013 Cabinet records for 1984 and 1985 became available for the first time.

Below is a brief introduction to the types of records created by Cabinet and the government bodies that assist it.

Cabinet Secretariat and Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Secretariat, and later the Cabinet Office, was responsible for managing the business and records of the Cabinet and its committees. It registered and circulated submissions, prepared the business lists (the agenda) for Cabinet meetings, and drafted the text of Cabinet decisions.

Cabinet submissions

The matters that come before Cabinet are usually the responsibility of specific ministers. The briefing papers canvassing the key issues are usually prepared by their public service advisers. These briefing papers (submissions) are prepared specifically for Cabinet. They are circulated to the members of Cabinet prior to a meeting, by the minister whose department has responsibility for the matter being discussed. Submissions are considered by Cabinet in reaching its decision.

After receiving Cabinet submissions, the Cabinet office registered them and allocated a unique number. The first submission received by Cabinet Office during the term of a particular Ministry was registered as number 1, with subsequent submissions being allocated consecutive running numbers. Each submission is filed with its decision.

Cabinet submissions, once lodged, could be withdrawn by their originating department or minister. This could happen because:

  • in the waiting period they were overtaken by events or some of the content had become superseded
  • the length of time that had elapsed since lodgement without being listed for consideration indicated that the matter was not a priority
  • the Cabinet Office returned them as they did not comply with technical requirements (for example, there had been inadequate consultation).

Submissions were normally considered to have lapsed if an election was called before they had been considered. In such cases all copies, other than a master copy retained by Cabinet Office, were required to be returned to the originating department. Withdrawn submissions are not always found in the folders of submissions but can usually be found in the relevant Cabinet file.

A change in Cabinet Office management procedures, introduced with the swearing in of the Second Hawke Ministry in December 1984, saw submissions and memoranda combined into a single series. While still being identified as either a 'submission' or a 'memorandum', papers were controlled within a single sequential numbering system. Rather than commencing with '1' this new series commenced with '1962', which was the first number after allowing for the combined total of numbers used for the issue of submissions and memoranda through the life of the First Hawke Ministry.

Cabinet memoranda

Cabinet memoranda provided a means – other than a formal Cabinet submission – by which a minister could, with the prior consent of the Prime Minister, place a matter before Cabinet.

The Cabinet memoranda format was introduced in February 1979 following a review of Cabinet Office arrangements and replaced the earlier Cabinet papers series.

Cabinet was concerned that the submission should remain the main vehicle by which matters were placed before it. Cabinet memoranda, though, would allow for the presentation to Cabinet of supplementary or other factual information not contained in an original submission, or additional information on a matter specifically called for by Cabinet.

Memoranda were in a format specifically prepared for presentation to Cabinet, and included recommendations, making it more straightforward for Cabinet to reach a decision. They were registered and copies retained by Cabinet Office. Where a memorandum resulted in a decision by Cabinet, a copy of the decision is attached to the memorandum.

A change in Cabinet Office management procedures, introduced with the swearing in of the Second Hawke Ministry in December 1984, saw submissions and memoranda combined into a single series. While still being identified as either a 'submission' or a 'memorandum', papers were controlled within a single sequential numbering system. Rather than commencing with '1' this new series commenced with '1962', which was the first number after allowing for the combined total of numbers used for the issue of submissions and memoranda through the life of the First Hawke Ministry.

Cabinet decisions

Cabinet decisions are the formal record of the decisions Cabinet makes on a particular issue. In their published form they are called Cabinet minutes.

Although most Cabinet business was conducted through formal submissions, the Prime Minister could raise, or allow a colleague to raise, a matter without submission. The Cabinet decision itself is the only formal record of such deliberations and these decisions are termed 'Decisions without submission'.

As for submissions and memorandum, Cabinet decisions were allocated a unique number in sequence. However, the decision or memorandum number is not the same as the submission number to which it relates. This is because decisions are not made in order of receipt of submissions and memoranda and many decisions were made without a submission or memorandum. Decisions are recorded in the form of minutes, usually with details of Cabinet's discussion.

Cabinet notebooks

Meetings of Cabinet and Cabinet committees are usually attended by officials of the Cabinet Office. Their role includes the recording of proceedings so that minutes accurately reflecting the decisions made or conclusions reached can be prepared. These records of proceedings are referred to as the Cabinet notebooks. Cabinet notebooks often provide a fuller picture of Cabinet's discussions than do Cabinet decisions alone.

The first examples of Cabinet notebooks can be found among the records of the War Cabinet. The War Cabinet was a Cabinet subcommittee formed during World War II to ensure that decisions about civil defence, military operations and the defence of Australia were made quickly. Public servants attending War Cabinet meetings recorded the discussions of the War Cabinet, including the views expressed by individual ministers. The current system of maintaining Cabinet notebooks dates from 1950.

Under Section 22A of the Archives Act 1983 Cabinet notebooks became publicly available 50 years from the year of creation. The changes to the public access provisions of the Archives Act approved by Parliament in May 2010 saw the period reduced to 30 years. The change is being phased in over 10 years, with the closed period reducing by two years on 1 January each year until 2020.

In 2013 Cabinet notebooks up to and including 1968 are in the open access period.

Cabinet Office files

The Cabinet Office coordinates and arranges the flow of information between Cabinet and government departments. Cabinet Office files contain the originals of the submissions, briefing papers and decisions described above. They also contain departmental advice and exchanges between officials and ministers not included in the formal Cabinet papers. Withdrawn submissions can also be found in the relevant Cabinet Office file.

Cabinet Office files are quite distinct from the Cabinet records. They are a useful addition to the Cabinet records because they provide a good source of background information about the issues considered by Cabinet.

Departmental records

Government departments exist to implement policy decisions made by Cabinet and administer laws originally considered by Cabinet. Detailed background papers and earlier drafts of the Cabinet papers can be found on the files of the department that sponsored each Cabinet submission. These papers reveal the detailed deliberations of the public service on the topic and often include the opinions and guidance of the responsible minister.

You can get more background on the history and records of the Cabinet in:

The Parliamentary Education Office can provide more information about the Cabinet system.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014