The High Court’s decisions in the Williams v The Commonwealth cases wrought a radical change to the settled understanding of the constitutional allocation of financial power between the parliament and executive government — even where appropriation legislation exists, the Commonwealth cannot spend most public money without additional and specific authorising legislation.
That momentous step was justified by a newly minted constitutional principle of “parliamentary control” of public money, and a blend of federal considerations. The orthodox understanding of responsible parliamentary government was challenged and the Australian constitutional law and practice concerning public finance were diverted into uncertain territory.
This presentation analyses the principle of parliamentary control. It situates the Williams cases within a stream of authority concerning the constitutional allocation of financial power and offers an explanation for the High Court’s unpredicted and unusual conclusion. Moving away from doctrine, it then explores the extent to which parliaments both can and should control public money in a Westminster-parliamentary government, including by reference to the historical and contemporary constitutional practices concerning taxation, expenditure and public borrowing.