Governor-General of Australia

The Governor-General of Australia is the highest constitutional officer in the Commonwealth of Australia. The Governor-General is the representative in Australia of the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, who resides in the United Kingdom. Although not a head of state, the Governor-General fulfils many of the functions of a ceremonial head of state. (For the history of the office of Governor-General in countries other than Australia, see Governor-General).

The main official residence of the Governor-General is Government House in Canberra, commonly known as Yarralumla. There is a a second official residence, Admiralty House in Sydney. When the Governor-General visits the other states, he is usually a guest at the Government Houses in the state capitals.


The Governor-General's flag

Table of contents
1 Creation of the office
2 Selection, appointment and role
3 Constitutional powers, functions and duties
4 The reserve powers
5 Governors-General of Australia
6 Related articles
7 Further reading
8 External link

Creation of the office

The office of Governor-General was created when the Australian Constitution entered into force on January 1, 1901. The Governor-General was originally intended to be the personal representative of the Sovereign, and was envisaged as one of the great offices of the British Empire, on par with the Viceroy of India. But the office never attracted candidates of the seniority originally envisaged, and Australian public opinion never accepted the idea of the Governor-General as an imperial pro-consul. Governors-General who were seen as "too grand" soon became unpopular.

The first Governor-General, the Earl of Hopetoun, was British, as were all his successors until 1931. An Australian did not become Governor-General until the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs. The appointment of a non-Briton was denounced by the major conservative party of the time, the Nationalist Party of Australia as being "practically republican". Between 1931 and 1965 the issue of Australians as Governor-General was a party political one: Labor governments appointed Australians (although the Curtin government appointed the Duke of Gloucester in 1945), conservative governments appointed British Governors-General.

Since 1965, when the Menzies government appointed Lord Casey, the office has been only held by Australians. Since 1965 nine Australian Governors-General have been appointed. Of these three have been former politicians (Casey, Hasluck and Hayden), three have been judges (Kerr, Stephen and Deane), one has been an academic (Cowen), one a clergyman (Hollingworth) and one a professional soldier (Jeffery). In contrast to Canada and New Zealand, there has never been a female Governor-General, nor an Aboriginal, nor a citizen of any ethnic minority (there have however been two Jewish Governors-General).

Most of the British Governors-General were peers: of the two who were not, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson was a knight and Field Marshal Sir William Slim, was both a knight and a serving Field-Marshal. Of the Australian Governors-General, Casey was a peer and all the others were knights until the appointment of Hayden in 1988. All Governors-General down to Stephen were members of the British Privy Council and thus had the additional title "Right Honourable." This title was abolished in Australia in 1983. Hayden is thus the only Governor-General to have had no title at all. A strong feeling persists that the Governor-General ought to have a title of some sort: this was one reason why Hollingworth obtained a doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury shortly before assuming office, and why Jeffery is officially referred to as "Major-General Jeffery" even though he has retired from the Army and ought to be called "Mr Jeffery."

Selection, appointment and role

Today the Governor-General is appointed by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of Australia. Until 1930, however, the Governor-General was appointed by the Sovereign on the advice of the British Prime Minister, and the Australian government was merely asked, as a matter of courtesy, whether they approved of the choice or not. In 1930 Prime Minister James Scullin established the right of the Australian Prime Minister to advise the Sovereign directly, and also the right to appoint an Australian as Governor-General, although this did not become the established practice until 1965.

Until the 1920s the Governor-General represented both the Crown and the British Government, and was expected to exercise a supervisory role over the Australian Government in the manner of a colonial Governor. The Governor-General had the right to "reserve" legislation passed by the Parliament of Australia: in other words, to ask the Colonial Office in London for an opinion before giving the Royal Assent. This power was used several times.

As a result of decisions made at the Imperial Conference of 1926, the Governor-General ceased to be the diplomatic representative of the British Government (this role being taken over by a High Commissioner), and the British right of supervision over Australian affairs was abolished. This left the representation of the Crown as the sole official role of the Governor-General. Since the 1950s, however, and particularly since the office has come to filled solely by Australians, the role of the Governor-General has again expanded. The Governor-General has come to be seen as, and to behave as, a de facto ceremonial head of state. Governors-General, for example, now represent Australia abroad, something that would been unthinkable at the time the office was created.

On the resignation, death or incapacity of the Governor-General, or his absence from Australian territory, an Administrator of the Commonwealth assumes his powers: this is by convention the longest-serving state governor, who holds a dormant commission for this purpose. Only one Governor-General has died in office: Lord Dunrossil in 1961. In May 2003 a new situation arose when the Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, stood aside temporarily while allegations against him were resolved, and the letters patent of the office were amended to take account of this. The senior state governor, Sir Guy Green of Tasmania, assumed office of Administrator when Hollingworth stood aside, and continued in this office when Hollingworth formally resigned.

One unresolved issue is the forced removal of a Governor-General before their term is complete - an event that has not yet occurred. It is generally accepted that the Monarch would agree to dismiss the Governor-General on the written advice of the Australian Prime Minister, and replace them with the Prime Minister's nominee. However, it is unclear how quickly the monarch would act on such advice in a constitutional crisis, where a race could theoretically emerge between a Governor-General and the Prime Minister to dismiss the other. This was apparently the reason why Kerr did not warn Whitlam of his intention to dismiss him in 1975.

Constitutional powers, functions and duties

The office of Governor-General is provided for by Sections 2 to 5 of the Constitution. These state:

''2. A Governor-General appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth, and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him.

''3. There shall be payable to the Queen out of the Consolidated Revenue fund of the Commonwealth, for the salary of the Governor-General, an annual sum which, until the Parliament otherwise provides, shall be ten thousand pounds. The salary of the Governor-General shall not be altered during his continuance in office.

''4. The provisions of this Constitution relating to the Governor-General extend and apply to the Governor-General for the time being, or such person as the Queen may appoint to administer the Government of the Commonwealth; but no such person shall be entitled to receive any salary from the Commonwealth in respect of any other office during his administration of the Government of the Commonwealth.

5. The Governor-General may appoint such times for holding the sessions of the Parliament as he thinks fit, and may also from time to time, by Proclamation or otherwise, prorogue the Parliament, and may in like manner dissolve the House of Representatives.

In addition, Section 68 of the Constitution provides that:

The command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen's representative.

In an administrative sense, the office of Governor-General is regulated by the
Governor-General Act 1974.

The Governor-General, following the usages of the Westminster System, grants (or, in theory, may decline to grant) the Royal Assent to all Acts of the Australian Parliament, and many (though not all) Regulations made under those Acts. The Governor-General issues writs for the calling of elections, appoints (and may dismiss) the Prime Minister, and chairs meetings of the Executive Council, a body which gives legal effect to the decisions of the Cabinet. In practice, however, all these functions are carried out on the advice of the Prime Minister or other Cabinet ministers.

As well as the formal constitutional role, the Governor-General has a ceremonial role, though the extent and nature of this role has depended on the expectations of the time, the individual in office at the time and their reputation in the wider community. Governors-General generally become patrons of various charitable institutions, present honours and awards, host functions for various groups of people, and travel widely throughout Australia - replicating the actions of the Sovereign in the United Kingdom, or those of a ceremonial president such as the Republic of Ireland's. Sir William Deane described one of his functions as "Chief Mourner" at prominent funerals.

This role can become controversial, however, if the Governor-General becomes unpopular with sections of the community for whatever reason. The public role of Sir John Kerr was curtailed somewhat after the constitutional crisis of 1975, Sir William Deane's public statements on political issues produced some hostility towards him among conservatives, and some charities disassociated themselves from Dr Hollingworth after the issue of his management of sex abuse cases during his time as Archbishop of Brisbane became a matter of controversy.

The issue of becoming a republic (removing the constitutional ties with the British monarchy) continues to be raised in Australia, although the idea was defeated in a nationwide referendum held in 1999. In most of the proposed republican models, the office and functions of the Governor-General are effectively preserved (in the practical sense described above), although the title is changed to President.

The reserve powers

The Governor-General is not entirely a ceremonial figure. The Governor-General retains all the reserve powers of the British Crown, whose representative in Australia he is. These powers include the power to dismiss a Prime Minister, for any reason or no reason, and appoint another one. The fact that these powers have not been used in Britain since 1834 does not mean they have been abolished. The doctrine that the Crown must always act on the advice of a Prime Minister who has the confidence of Parliament has reduced the circumstances in which the reserve powers might be used, but they are still there.

This was shown very clearly in 1975, when Sir John Kerr dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam, despite the fact that Whitlam retained the confidence of the House of Representatives. When the Senate denied supply to the government, Kerr determined that he had both the right and the duty to intervene, dismiss the government, and commission a new government that would recommend a dissolution of the Parliament. The apparent endorsement of his action by the electorate at the 1975 elections established the continued existence and legitimacy of the reserve powers.

Governors-General of Australia

Related articles

Further reading

  • Christopher Cunneen, Kings' Men: Australia's Governors-General from Hopetoun to Isaacs, Allen and Unwin, 1983

External link


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