Cabinet records – Fact sheet 34

The role of the Cabinet

Each portfolio of agencies of the Australian Government is presided over by a Minister who is an elected Member of the House of Representatives or of the Senate of the Government of the day. Senior Ministers of the Government form the Federal Cabinet. Meetings of the Cabinet make the major decisions affecting the government of Australia.

Development of the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office

The development of a Cabinet Secretariat to provide all Cabinet and Cabinet Committee secretarial services took almost 50 years after Federation to evolve.

For the first two decades of the Commonwealth there was no regular procedure for recording the decisions of Cabinet. It was usual for ministers to take their own notes, and several prime ministers kept diaries. Records of Cabinet meetings were often pieced together from handwritten notes on the Prime Minister's copy of the Cabinet agenda.

In 1923, under Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, an 'honorary minister' (known as the Cabinet secretary from 1925) was appointed to take minutes. In 1928 this position was joined by the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, and the two secretaries prepared the agenda in consultation. This was dropped by the Scullin Government (1929–31), but from 1932 under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons a secretarial system was re-introduced. With modifications and variations this system was continued until the World War II period where the decisions of Cabinet (along with those of the War Cabinet, Production Executive and other Cabinet bodies) were recorded by permanent officers of the Commonwealth Public Service appointed for that purpose. The Cabinet Secretariat structure now in use was put in place by Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1949 and completed during the first term of the Menzies Government (1949–66).

An article on the development and workings of Cabinet was featured in the Annual Report of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for 1983–84.

Record holdings

Cabinet submissions and decisions

The main Cabinet records after 1919 are submissions (also referred to as agenda) and decisions (minutes). Submissions are proposals prepared by government departments that require a response from Cabinet. The resulting decision is filed with the submission it relates to, as well as being filed in a separate series of decisions. There is usually a separate series for each ministry. These are listed in the table below.

A6006

Because there was no Cabinet secretariat structure before 1919 no separate Cabinet recordkeeping system existed. Submissions considered by Cabinet were generally returned to the department by the responsible minister annotated to show Cabinet’s decision. As these papers have been located in the correspondence files of key government departments and agencies, the National Archives has placed copies into a separate series registered as A6006. This series also contains papers later than 1919 that are not included in the series of submissions.

Cabinet files

From 1958 the Cabinet Office introduced the practice of creating a file as each Cabinet submission was received. These files contain background information on decisions Cabinet took on each submission.

Cabinet records from 1901

MinistrySubmissions and DecisionsFiles
DateSubmissionsDecisionsDateSeries no.
Ministries to 19601901–A6006
Hughes (1915–23)1919–22A2717
Bruce (1923–29)1923–29A2718
Scullin (1929–32)1929–31A3264
Lyons (1932–39)
Page (1939)
1932–39
1932–34
A2694
A3259
Menzies (1939–41)
Fadden (1941)
1939–41A2697

Curtin (1941–45)
Forde (1945)
 
Chifley (1945–49)

1941–49A2700
Menzies (1949–66)1949–51A4639A49311949–66A4940
1951–54A4905A4909
1954–55A4906
1954–58A4910
1956–58A4926
1958–63A4943
1958–61A5818
1961–63A5819
1963–66A5827A5828
Holt (1966–67)
McEwen (1967–68)
1966
1966–68
A5841
A5842
A5839
A5840
1966–68A4940
Gorton (1968–71)1968A5867A58711968–71A5882
1968–69A5868A5872
1969–71A5869A5873
McMahon (1971–72)1971–72A5908A59091971–72A5882
Whitlam (1972–75)1972–75A5915A59251972–75A5931
Fraser (1975–83)1975A12908A130501975–83A10756
1975–83A12909A13075
Hawke (1983–91)1983–84A139771983–91A11116
1983–91A13979
1984–91A14039
Keating (1991 – 96)1991-96A14217
1991-96A14218
 1991-96A11117

Further information

You can search the collection database using the series numbers listed above. Digital copies of all Cabinet records from 1971–80 are available via our collection database, with selected records available from 1981.

See also the following fact sheets:

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017