The role of the Governor-General
“A Résumé “The highest office in the land. The apex of Australian society”
“In Australia, all the powers and functions associated with a “Head of State” lie with the Governor-General. He performs all the duties which the constitution assigns to him in that role and does so in his own right, not as a delegate of the Queen.”
Sir David Smith, Former Official Secretary to five Governors-General (1)
The Governor-General can be drawn from any stratum of Australian society; usually a figure distinguished for public service.
The functions of the role can be divided generally into Executive, Community and Ceremonial functions.
The following is not an exhaustive list. It serves as an introduction only. It has been collated from material in the reading list below. The community is urged to consult those resources and to research and explore the role further.
With minor variations the description of the role is applicable to that of Governor in the states.
“The Governor-General is not a pointless old fogey in uniform” (quote from Dr Nigel Greenwood). The role is in fact the “pivot point” around which government operates; the “keystone to the constitutional arch”. Professor L.F. Crisp, a former Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University quoted by Sir David Smith). (1)
The Governor-General is the guardian of the constitution with respect to government ministers, on behalf of the people. This is the most important function of the role.
- It ensures the stability of government, irrespective of which political party is in power.
- It ensures the legality of government.
- It guards against illegality on the part of politicians including the Prime Minister
- It can dismiss the Prime Minister
- It holds “Reserve Powers” to be exercised in a time of crisis
- It protects the constitutional rights of the people and the overall interests of the nation.
A unifying force: The office is a focal point of government with links to all levels: Crown, Prime Minister as Head of Government, Parliament (via Prime Minister and Ministers) and people. Communication flows through this office in all these directions, back and between. It is thus a crucial pivot point.
Prime Minister: The Governor-General appoints the Prime Minister. This will be the person whom he considers has the confidence of Parliament to enable him to govern effectively.
All executive functions of the office of Governor-General are carried out on the advice of the Prime Minister - except in the case of illegality by the Prime Minister. In this case the Governor-General as guardian of the Constitution, can use his Reserve Powers to caution or even dismiss the Prime Minister.
Relationship to Parliament:
- He summons, opens, prorogues (dismisses at the end of a session) or dissolves Parliament.
- He can force the “dissolution” of parliament
- He may refuse a request from the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament
Relationship to Government:
- Appoints an Executive Council to advise him in the everyday government of the nation
- Appoints departments of state
- Appoints all Ministers of State to administer those departments
- All politicians must take into consideration the advice of this office.
- Appoints and removes government officials on the advice of the Executive Council
- Resolves conflicts of interest between ministers
Acts of Parliament:
The Governor-General gives Royal Assent to (signs) Bills which have been debated in and passed by both Houses of Parliament. An Act of Parliament does not become law until it has been assented to (signed) by the Governor-General.
Before signing a Bill into law, through his right “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn” - a right embedded in the role and in the constitution, the Governor-General can ask questions of the minister involved, advise that a course may not be wise, encourage a different course, make known community concerns… thus strengthening their representation. By using his influence in this way he may restrain and balance the power of politicians.
This process of advice and caution on the part of the Governor-General may delay assent to the Bill. Delay
may allow the parties concerned more time to discuss the issues; may give the community the opportunity to lobby further or if warranted, bring an injunction against the minister concerned if, for example, the Act is in breach of the Constitution. This may strengthen community participation and serve as a check on the power of politicians.
Orders in Council:
These are documents of decisions taken in Cabinet by the Federal Executive Council. They are not normally debated in Parliament. These too, must be signed by the Governor-General to become law.
Since the Ministers must first advise and seek to persuade the Governor-General, this denies them “absolute” power.
“To be consulted” is the right to know, not only before it is done but while there is yet time to consider it; while it is still possible that it may not be done” Dr Nigel Greenwood
As well this role may…
- Contribute long-term vision to balance the short-term view of politicians
- Provide continuity while ministers and administrations come and go
- The longer the term the broader and deeper the experience which few ministers can match
- The Governor-General may represent community concerns through his right “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”.
- Ministers are obliged to give consideration to his views. He therefore offers a voice for the community with status and authority which cannot be easily ignored.
- The Governor-General is directly representative of community interests without the filters of party policy, career agenda or vote-catching considerations.
- The role is outside the machinations of party politics; is neutral and independent
- Because he is “selected” not “elected” he is representative of all citizens, not just a faction and has an
- Receives submissions, petitions, delegations from the community
- He uses this information to represent community concerns to the Prime Minister and government ministers
- Government House has a library which provides the Governor-General with independent resource material. By sending information on issues here, for access by the Governor-General, the community ensures that s/he is fully informed on matters as they arise in Executive Council meetings and before Bills are signed into law. Focus groups may provide material which might not otherwise be available to the office through conventional channels. The role may be marginalised by politicians since its capacity to help the community can be seen as an inconvenience to party strategies.
- The Governor-General issues Writs i.e. a directive to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to hold general elections of members of the House of Representatives and of Senators in the Territories (ACT and NT). The writ establishes the cut-off date for electoral rolls and for the nomination of candidates for the election; the date for polling day and for the return of the writ to the Governor-General at the close of the election endorsing the winning candidates. Writs for Senate elections are issued by State Governors.
- The Governor-General can advise the Prime Minister against a too-early election. In this instance he can refuse to dissolve Parliament and to issue a Writ to the AEC for a general election.
- He submits proposals for referenda passed by both houses of parliament to the AEC.
Armed Forces: The Governor-General is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces
- Issues commissions to officers of the Defence Forces and …
- Can suspend them from office
- Is the ultimate authority to whom they are accountable.
- Makes senior appointments in Executive Council
- Appoints Justices of the High Court and of other courts created by Parliament
- Makes and terminates appointments to public office
- Removes or suspends from office any person appointed under the authority of the Crown: Armed Forces, Police, Prison officials.
- Grants pardons in the name of the Queen to an offender
- Appoints Ambassadors and High Commissioners
- Approves treaties with foreign governments
- In a diplomatic capacity, represents the nation abroad
The role is a unifying force, a symbol of unity for the diversity of citizens of different race, religion or political persuasion.
- A human face in times of national triumph or disaster.
- Represents the nation at home and abroad
- A ceremonial figure at functions, a focal point for celebrations, makes speeches.
- Uses speeches as a vehicle to convey concern with the affairs and problems of all Australians
Australians both expect and appreciate statements by a Governor-General on matters of current concern at a level different from that of party-political controversy. Sir Paul Hasluck (2)
- A cultural and intellectual representative
- Speaks at and opens national and international conferences
- Presents awards at major public gatherings ranging from exhibitions and sports meetings to university graduations or at meetings of learned societies and professional institutes
- Attends functions held by all kinds of community organisations… particularly those of which he is patron or principal office bearer.
- Supports community groups through patronage.
- Makes official visits to the States and Territories, regions and localities
- Receives “courtesy calls” from office-bearers and other representatives of national, regional and international organisations
- Gives dinners, lunches and receptions to which guests from all sections of the Australian community are invited. This can bring together in neutral territory representatives of factions who would not normally dialogue.
- Travels about meeting people for reasons of national identification; to encourage mutual respect and confidence in the community. He can thus hear their concerns at first hand.
- Uses his status and prestige to acknowledge the vast number of organisations, institutions and individuals who contribute to the well-being of our society.
- Fosters the work of charities
“In carrying out his public duties, the Governor-General uses the status and prestige which the community attaches to his position to acknowledge the vast number of organisations, institutions and individuals who contribute to the well-being of our society. By his presence and by his interest in their work, the Governor-General plays a vital role in saying “Thank you” for past services and in encouraging the continuation of activities which make a constructive contribution to the life of the community.”
Sir David Smith (2)
“The Governor-General offers encouragement and recognition to many of those Australians [volunteers] who may not be very powerful or visible in the course of everyday life and to the efforts of those individuals and groups who work constructively to improve life in the nation and the community.”
Sir Zelman Cowen (2)
The role “maintains tradition without ostentation”.
- Opens Parliament
- Presides at the swearing-in of Prime Ministers and Ministers
- Receives foreign Heads of State and Heads of Government and the credentials of their diplomats.
- Entertains foreign Heads of State, Heads of Government and their diplomats.
- Hosts visiting parliamentary and trade delegations and government leaders
- Presides over activities at major occasions such as Australia Day and Anzac Day when the community commemorates national events of significance.
- Holds Investitures, presents civic awards and honours e.g. The Order of Australia Awards
- Reviews military parades
- Represents Australia on State and official visits to foreign countries
Reading list for roles of Crown/Governor-General/state Governor
For the Sovereignty of the People… A Defence of the Crown in the Westminster System by Dr Nigel Greenwood Pub: Australian Academic Press 1999 ISBN 1-875378-28-6 www.sovereignpeople.com
Inquiries: “For the Sovereignty of the People” P.O. Box 1004, Indooroopilly Q 4068. Fax: 07 3378 2205
The Role of the Governor-General by Sir David Smith, Pub: Australians for Constitutional Monarchy
GPO Box 9841 Sydney 2001
The Role of the Governor-General A paper by Sir David Smith to The Samuel Griffith Society Conference at the Australian National University, Canberra 8 March 1997 (1)
The Role of the Governor-General An Essay by Sir David Smith in Sir Zelman Cowen: A Life in the Law, Published by Prospect Press, 1997 (2)
Our Australian Head of State A speech given by Sir David Smith at a Luncheon for Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Parliament House, Sydney, 19 March 2001.
Sir David Smith is a former Official Secretary to five consecutive Governors-General. These papers are available from Sir David Smith KCVO, AO, 1/36 Shackleton Circuit, Mawson, A.C.T. 2607.
A paper on the role of a State governor with particular reference to Queensland* by His Excellency the Hon. Sir Walter Campbell AC, QC former Governor of Queensland. Available from the Official Secretary Government House, GPO Box 434, Brisbane 4001. Tel: 07 3848 5700 Fax: 07 3858 5701
Website: www.govhouse.qld.gov.au The Governor”s office provides guest speaker on request.
*With minor variations this is applicable to the roles of Governor-General and other state Governors. Check with the office of Governor in your state.
Democratic Supporters of the Crown continues to research and explore this role. List of papers by community members from the community perspective is available from DSC, PO Box 74, New Farm 4005.
S.s-a.e. is welcome or by email from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Collated by Jennie Di Blasi for Democratic Supporters of the Crown July 2001
© Democratic Supporters of the Crown 2000
Due acknowledgement should be given when quoting from material on this Site