The Governor-General’s role is both complex and demanding. The following summary outlines some of the key features.
The office of Governor-General was established by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
The Governor-General is appointed by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister (see the Commission of 21 August 2008). After receiving the commission, the Governor-General takes an Oath of Allegiance and an Oath of Office to The Queen and issues a Proclamation assuming office.
The Governor-General’s appointment is at The Queen’s pleasure, that is, without a term being specified. In practice, however, there is an expectation that appointments will be for around five years, subject on occasion, to some extension.
The Governor-General’s salary is set by an Act of Parliament at the beginning of each term of office, and cannot be changed during the appointment. (See Constitution, s 3 and the Governor-General Act 1974).
The Governor-General’s powers and role derive from the Constitution. Letters Patent from The Queen, dated 21 August 2008, also set out certain provisions relating to the Governor-General.
In several sections of the Constitution the Governor-General’s powers and role are expressed. Section 2 provides that
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.
Additionally and importantly, Section 61 of the Constitution provides that
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.
In addition to being The Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General also has specific constitutional and statutory powers. In fact, since the passage of the Australia Act in 1986, the only action performed by The Queen under the Constitution is the appointment of the Governor-General, on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister.
In 1975 the then Commonwealth Solicitor-General, Mr Maurice Byers (later Sir Maurice Byers QC) gave the following legal opinion in relation to the powers of the Governor-General:
The Constitution binds the Crown. The Constitutional prescription is that executive power is exercisable by the Governor-General although vested in The Queen. What is exercisable is original executive power: that is, the very thing vested in The Queen by Section 61. And it is exercisable by The Queen’s representative, not her delegate or agent. The language of Sections 2 and 61 had in this respect no contemporary parallel...*
In other words, the Constitution does not describe the Governor-General’s power, it prescribes it.
When exercising the executive power of the Commonwealth, in accordance with long established constitutional practice, the Governor-General acts on the advice of Ministers who are responsible to the Parliament. That advice is conveyed largely through the Federal Executive Council. The Governor-General presides at meetings of the Executive Council which are attended by at least two members of the Council.
However, there are some powers which the Governor-General may, in certain circumstances, exercise without – or contrary to – ministerial advice. These are known as the reserve powers. While the reserve powers are not codified as such, they are generally agreed to at least include:
- The power to appoint a Prime Minister if an election has resulted in a ‘hung parliament’;
- The power to dismiss a Prime Minister where he or she has lost the confidence of the Parliament;
- The power to dismiss a Prime Minister or Minister when he or she is acting unlawfully; and
- The power to refuse to dissolve the House of Representatives despite a request from the Prime Minister.
In addition, the Governor-General has a supervisory role to see that the processes of the Federal Executive Council are conducted lawfully and regularly.
In essence then, the Governor-General’s role is to protect the Constitution and to facilitate the work of the Commonwealth Parliament and Government. For example, before giving assent to legislation, the Governor-General must be satisfied that the proposed law has passed both Houses of Parliament and that the necessary certification from the Attorney General has been obtained.
In summary, the Governor-General has many important constitutional, ceremonial and community duties to perform. For example, the Governor-General:
- dissolves the Parliament and issues writs for new elections;
- commissions the Prime Minister and appoints other Ministers after elections;
- gives assent to laws when they have been passed by the two Houses of Parliament – the Senate and the House of Representatives**;
- acts on the advice of Ministers through the Executive Council to issue regulations and proclamations under existing laws; to appoint Federal Judges; to appoint Ambassadors and High Commissioners to overseas countries, to appoint other senior Government officials; to issue Royal Commissions of Inquiry; and other matters, as required by particular legislation;
- authorises many other executive decisions by Ministers such as approving treaties with foreign governments.
Under Section 68 of the Constitution, the Governor-General is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, although in practice he or she acts only on the advice of Ministers of the Government. The Minister for Defence is responsible for Australia’s defence policy.
The day-to-day administration and operation of the services are under the command of the Chief of the Defence Force and his officers. Through the Executive Council, the Governor-General:
- appoints the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chiefs of the three Armed Services; and
- commissions officers in the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force.
As Commander-in-Chief, the Governor-General has an important ceremonial role to play. He or she attends military parades and special occasions such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, and presents Colours and other insignia to units of the Australian Defence Force.***
There are many other duties performed by the Governor-General. For example, he or she:
- receives and entertains visiting Heads of State, Heads of Government and other prominent visitors to Australia;
- opens new sessions of the Commonwealth Parliament;
- receives the credentials of Ambassadors and some High Commissioners appointed to represent their countries in Australia;
- conducts Investitures at which people receive Awards under the Australian Honours system for notable service to the community, or for acts of bravery; and
- meets many Australian citizens and representatives or organisations acting in the life of the community.
The Governor-General is Patron of a great many organisations and takes a keen interest in their activities. A list of the Vice-Regal Patronages can be found here.
Possibly the most visible role of the Governor-General, as the office has evolved over the years, is to encourage, articulate and represent those things that unite Australians as a nation. In this capacity, the Governor-General and his or her spouse:
- travel widely throughout Australia visiting the capital cities, regional centres, rural districts, indigenous communities and disadvantaged groups;
- accept patronage of many national, charitable, cultural, educational, sporting and professional organisations;
- open and participate in conferences where topics of national importance are discussed – such as educational, health, cultural, welfare, defence, economic and rural issues;
- attend services, functions, commemorations and exhibitions of local significance, lending their encouragement to individuals and groups who are making a substantial contribution to their communities and to the nation; and
- issue congratulatory messages to Australians who achieve significant milestones in their lives such as 100th birthdays and 50th wedding anniversaries.
- The role of Governor-General differs from that of a State Governor in three ways. The Governor-General alone:
- receives the credentials of foreign Ambassadors and High Commissioners to accredit them to represent their countries in Australia;
- is Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force; and
- is Chancellor of the Order of Australia, Australia’s unique system of honours and awards.
Aitken, G & Orr, R 2001, Sawer’s The Australian Constitution, 3rd ed, Australian Government Solicitor, Canberra.
Downing, S 1997, The Reserve Powers of the Governor-General, Research Note 25, 1997-98 Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Library.
Evans, H (ed.) 2001, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 11th ed, Department of the Senate, Canberra.
Green, G S M 2006, Governors, democracy and the rule of law, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, Vol 9 No 1 May 2006.
Harris, I C (ed.) 2005, House of Representatives Practice, 5th ed, Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra.
Hasluck, P M C 1979, The Office of Governor-General, 1st ed, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Hazell, M 2008, The Role of the Governor-General: An Address by Mr Malcolm Hazell CVO, Official Secretary to the Governor-General, 14 June, Wagga Wagga; also published in Public Administration Today, Issue 15 April-June 2008 pp 63-70.
Moens, G A & Trone, J 2001, Lumb and Moens’ The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia Annotated, 6th ed, Butterworths, Australia.
Smith, D I 2005, Head of State – the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal, 1st ed, Macleay Press, Sydney.
Stephen N M 1983, The Governor-General as Commander-in-Chief, Address to the Joint Services Staff College, Canberra, 21 June.
Twomey, A 2006, The Chameleon Crown – The Queen and her Australian Governors, 1st ed, The Federation Press, Sydney.
* “Governor-General’s Instructions”, Opinion of the Solicitor-General of Australia (Mr Maurice Byers), 5 September 1975 quoted in Smith, D I 2005, Head of State – the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal, 1st ed, Macleay Press, Sydney (p.99).
*** Interestingly, while the Australian Constitution provides that the Command-in-Chief of our Defence Forces be vested in the Governor-General, the corresponding Canadian provision vests the Command-in-Chief of the Canadian naval and military forces in The Queen.