The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia is the representative in Australia of the Australian monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The governor-general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia. The governor-general has formal presidency over the Federal Executive Council and is Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, as well as viceregal representative in the Australian Capital Territory.
In general, the governor-general observes the conventions of the Westminster system and responsible government, maintaining a political neutrality, and has almost always acted only on the advice of the prime minister or other ministers or, in certain cases, the Parliament.
The governor-general also has a ceremonial role: hosting events at either of the two viceregal residences—Government House in the capital, Canberra, and Admiralty House in Sydney—and travelling throughout Australia to open conferences, attend services and commemorations, and generally provide encouragement to individuals and groups who are contributing to their communities. When travelling abroad, the governor-general is seen as the representative of Australia, and of the Queen of Australia, so is treated as a head of state.
The governor-general is supported by a staff headed by the Official Secretary to the Governor-General.
From Federation in 1901 until 1965, 11 out of the 15 governors-general were British aristocrats; they included four barons, three viscounts, three earls, and one prince. Since then, all but one of the governors-general have been Australian-born. Only one governor-general, Dame Quentin Bryce, was a woman.
Since 28 March 2014, the governor-general has been General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
Method of appointmentThe selection of a governor-general is a responsibility for the Prime Minister of Australia, who may consult privately with staff or colleagues, or with the monarch. The candidate is approached privately to confirm whether they are willing to accept the appointment.
The prime minister then advises the monarch to appoint his nominee. This has been the procedure since November 1930, when James Scullin's proposed appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs was fiercely opposed by the British government.
This right to not only advise the monarch directly, but also to expect that advice to be accepted, was soon taken up by all the other Dominion prime ministers. This, among other things, led to the Statute of Westminster 1931 and to the formal separation of the Crowns of the Dominions. Now, the Queen of Australia is generally bound by constitutional convention to accept the advice of the Australian prime minister and state premiers about Australian and state constitutional matters, respectively.
Having agreed to the appointment, the monarch then permits it to be publicly announced in advance, usually several months before the end of the current governor-general's term. During these months, the person is referred to as the Governor-General-designate. The actual appointment is made by the monarch. After receiving his or her commission, the governor-general takes an Oath of Allegiance to the Australian monarch, an Oath of Office, undertaking to serve Australia's monarch "according to law, in the office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia", and issues a proclamation assuming office. The oaths are usually taken in a ceremony on the floor of the Senate and are administered by the Chief Justice of Australia in the presence of the Prime Minister of Australia, the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, and the President of the Australian Senate.
Styles and titles of governors-generalGovernors-general have during their tenure the style His/Her Excellency the Honourable and their spouses have the style His/Her Excellency. Since May 2013, the style used by a former governor-general is the Honourable. It was retrospectively granted for life to all previous holders of the office.
From the creation of the Order of Australia in 1975, the governor-general was, ex officio, Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order, and therefore became entitled to the post-nominal AC. In 1976, the Letters Patent for the Order were amended to introduce the rank of Knight and Dame to the Order, and from that time the governor-general became, ex officio, the Chancellor and Principal Knight of the Order. In 1986 the Letters Patent were amended again, and governors-general appointed from that time were again, ex officio, entitled to the post-nominal AC (although if they already held a knighthood in the Order that superior rank was retained). Until 1989, all governors-general were members of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom and thus held the additional style the Right Honourable for life.
The same individuals were also usually either peers, knights, or both (the only Australian peer to be appointed as governor-general was the Lord Casey; and Sir William McKell was knighted only in 1951, some years into his term, but he was entitled to the style "The Honourable" during his tenure as Premier of New South Wales, an office he held until almost immediately before his appointment).
In 1989, Bill Hayden, a republican, declined appointment to the British Privy Council and any imperial honours. From that time until 2014, governors-general did not receive automatic titles or honours, other than the post-nominal AC by virtue of being Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Australia.
Dame Quentin Bryce was the first governor-general to have had no prior title or pre-nominal style. She was in office when, on 19 March 2014, the Queen, acting on the advice of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, amended the Letters Patent of the Order of Australia to provide, inter alia, that the governor-general would be, ex officio, Principal Knight or Principal Dame of the Order.
Until 2015, the honour continued after the retirement from office of the governor-general. Formerly, the governor-general automatically became a knight or dame (if he or she was not already one previously) upon being sworn in.
Backgrounds of governors-generalAll the governors-general until 1965 were British born, except for Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs (1931–36) and Sir William McKell (1947–53). There have been only Australian occupants since then, although Sir Ninian Stephen (1982–89) had been born in Britain. Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was a senior member of the Royal family. Dame Quentin Bryce, governor-general 2008-2014, was the first woman to be appointed to the office. Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen were Jewish; Bill Hayden is an avowed atheist and he made an affirmation rather than swear an oath at the beginning of his commission; the remaining governors-general have been at least nominally Christian.
Various governors-general had previously served as governors of an Australian state or colony: Lord Hopetoun (Victoria 1889–95); Lord Tennyson (South Australia 1899–1902); Lord Gowrie (South Australia 1928–34; and New South Wales 1935–36); Major General Michael Jeffery (Western Australia 1993–2000); Dame Quentin Bryce (Queensland 2003–08). Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson had been offered the governorship of South Australia in 1895 and of Victoria in 1910, but refused both appointments. Lord Northcote was Governor of Bombay. Lord Casey was Governor of Bengal in between his periods of service to the Australian Parliament.
Former leading politicians and members of the judiciary have figured prominently. Lord Dudley was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1902–05. Lord Stonehaven (as John Baird) was Minister for Transport in the Cabinets of Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin; and after his return to Britain he became Chairman of the UK Conservative Party. Sir Isaac Isaacs was successively Commonwealth Attorney-General, a High Court judge, and Chief Justice. Sir William McKell was Premier of New South Wales. Lord Dunrossil (as William Morrison) was Speaker of the UK House of Commons. Lord De L'Isle was Secretary of State for Air in Winston Churchill's Cabinet 1951–55. More recent governors-general in this category include Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir John Kerr, Sir Ninian Stephen, Bill Hayden and Sir William Deane.
Of the ten Australians appointed governor-general since 1965, Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and Bill Hayden were former federal parliamentarians; Sir John Kerr was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales; Sir Ninian Stephen and Sir William Deane were appointed from the bench of the High Court; Sir Zelman Cowen was a vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland and constitutional lawyer; Peter Hollingworth was the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane; and Major-General Michael Jeffery was a retired military officer and former Governor of Western Australia. Quentin Bryce's appointment was announced during her term as Governor of Queensland; she had previously been the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.
Significant post-retirement activities of earlier governors-general have included: Lord Tennyson was appointed Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight; Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (by now Lord Novar) became Secretary of State for Scotland; and Lord Gowrie became Chairman of the Marylebone Cricket Club (Lord Forster had also held this post, before his appointment as Governor-General).
TenureThe constitution does not set a term of office, so a governor-general may continue to hold office for any agreed length of time; however, a typical term of office is five years. At the end of this period, a commission is occasionally extended for a short time.
The salary of the governor-general is regulated by the constitution, which fixed an annual amount of 10,000 pounds, unless the Parliament decides otherwise. The salary of the governor-general cannot be alteredduring his or her term of office.
Under the Governor-General Act 1974 (Cth), each new commission has resulted in a pay increase. Today, the law ensures the salary is higher than that for the Chief Justice of the High Court, over a five-year period. The annual salary during Michael Jeffery's term was $365,000. Quentin Bryce's salary was $394,000. The current salary is $425,000 and there is a generous pension. Until 2001, governors-general did not pay income tax on their salary; this was changed after the Queen agreed to pay tax.
In 1961, Lord Dunrossil became the first and, to date, only governor-general to die while holding office.
Three governors-general have resigned their commission. The first governor-general, Lord Hopetoun, asked to be recalled to Britain in 1903 over a dispute about funding for the post. Sir John Kerr resigned in 1977, with his official reason being his decision to accept the position of Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, a post which ultimately he did not take up. In 2003, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth voluntarily stood aside while controversial allegations against him were managed, and the letters patent of the office were amended to take account of this circumstance. He later "stepped down over the church's handling" of allegations of sexual abuse of boys, for which he apologised before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2016.
A governor-general may be recalled or dismissed by the monarch before their term is complete. By convention, this may only be upon advice from the prime minister, who retains responsibility for selecting an immediate replacement or letting the vacancy provisions take effect. No Australian governor-general has ever been dismissed, and it is unclear how quickly the monarch would act on such advice. The constitutional crisis of 1975 raised the possibility of the prime minister and the governor-general attempting to dismiss each other at the same time.
A vacancy occurs on the resignation, death, or incapacity of the governor-general. A temporary vacancy occurs when the governor-general is overseas on official business representing Australia. A temporary vacancy also occurred in 2003 when Peter Hollingworth stood aside.
Section 4 of the constitution allows the Queen to appoint an administrator to carry out the role of governor-general when there is a vacancy. By convention, the longest-serving state governor holds a dormant commission, allowing an assumption of office to commence whenever a vacancy occurs. In 1975, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam advised the Queen that Sir Colin Hannah, then Governor of Queensland, should have his dormant commission revoked for having made public political statements.
Constitutional role and functionsThe Constitution of Australia, section 2, provides:
"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."
Such further powers are currently set out in letters patent of 2008 from Queen Elizabeth II; these contain no substantive powers, but provide for the case of a governor-general's absence or incapacity. The constitution also provides that the governor-general is the monarch's "representative" in exercising the executive power of the Commonwealth (section 61) and as commander-in-chief of the armed forces (section 68).
Australian Solicitor-General Maurice Byers stated in 1974: "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 1988 Constitutional Commission report explained: "the Governor-General is in no sense a delegate of the Queen. The independence of the office is highlighted by changes which have been made in recent years to the Royal Instruments relating to it." The changes occurred in 1984 when Queen Victoria's letters patent and instructions were revoked and replaced with new letters patent, on Prime Minister Bob Hawke's advice, who stated that this would clarify the governor-general's position under the constitution.
This remains the case even when the sovereign is in the country: Solicitor-General Kenneth Bailey, prior to the first tour of Australia by its reigning monarch in 1954, explained the position by saying:
"the Constitution expressly vests in the Governor-General the power or duty to perform a number of the Crown's functions in the Legislature and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth... The executive power of the Commonwealth, by section 61 of the Constitution, is declared to be vested in the Queen. It is also, in the same section, declared to be "exercisable" by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative. In the face of this provision, I feel it is difficult to contend that the Queen, even though present in Australia, may exercise in person functions of executive government which are specifically assigned by the constitution to the Governor-General."
As early as 1901, Sir Robert Garran had noted that the governor-general was distinguished from other Empire governors-general by the fact that "the principal and most important of his powers and functions, legislative as well as executive, are expressly conferred on him by the terms of the Constitution itself... not by Royal authority, but by statutory authority", a view held also by Senior Judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania Andrew Inglis Clark, who, with W. Harrison Moore (a contributor to the first draft of the constitution put before the 1897 Adelaide Convention and professor of law at the University of Melbourne), postulated that the letters patent and the royal instructions issued by Queen Victoria were unnecessary "or even of doubtful legality".
The monarch chose not to intervene during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, in which Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government of Gough Whitlam, on the basis that such a decision is a matter "clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General". Through her Private Secretary, she wrote that she "has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution".
In an address to the Sydney Institute, January 2007, in connection with that event, Sir David Smith, a retired Official Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia, described the constitution as conferring the powers and functions of Australia's head of state on the governor-general in "his own right". He stated that the governor-general was more than a representative of the sovereign, explaining: "under section 2 of the Constitution the Governor-General is the Queen's representative and exercises certain royal prerogative powers and functions; under section 61 of the Constitution the Governor-General is the holder of a quite separate and independent office created, not by the Crown, but by the Constitution, and empowered to exercise, in his own right as Governor-General... all the powers and functions of Australia's head of state."
Role in Australia's parliamentThe constitution describes the parliament of the commonwealth as consisting of the Queen, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Section 5 states that "the Governor-General may appoint such times for holding the sessions of the Parliament ... prorogue the Parliament [and] dissolve the House of Representatives." These provisions make it clear that the Queen's role in the parliament is in name only and the actual responsibility belongs to the governor-general. Such decisions are usually taken on the advice of the prime minister, although that is not stated in the constitution.
The governor-general has a ceremonial role in swearing in and accepting the resignations of Members of Parliament. They appoint a deputy, to whom members make an oath of allegiance before they take their seats. On the day parliament opens, the governor-general makes a speech, entirely written by the government, explaining the government's proposed legislative program.
The most important power is found in section 58: "When a proposed law passed by both Houses of Parliament is presented to the Governor-General for the Queen's assent, he shall declare ... that he assents in the Queen's name." The Royal Assent brings such laws into effect, as legislation, from the date of signing.
Sections 58 to 60 allow the governor-general to withhold assent, suggest changes, refer to the Queen or proclaim that the Queen has annulled the legislation. A number of governors-general have reserved Royal Assent for particular legislation for the Queen. Such assent has usually been given during a scheduled visit to Australia by the Queen. On other occasions Royal Assent has been given elsewhere. Examples of this have been the Flags Act (1953), the Royal Styles and Titles Acts (1953 and 1973), and the Australia Act (1986).
Reserve powersIn the United Kingdom, the reserve powers of the monarch (which are typically referred to as the "royal prerogative") are not explicitly stated in constitutional enactments, and are the province of convention and common law. In Australia, however, the powers are explicitly given to the governor-general in the constitution; it is their use that is the subject of convention.
The reserve powers are:
The power to dissolve (or refuse to dissolve) the House of Representatives. (Section 5 of the constitution)The power to dissolve Parliament on the occasion of a deadlock. (Section 57)The power to withhold assent to Bills. (Section 58)The power to appoint (or dismiss) Ministers. (Section 64)
Those powers are generally and routinely exercised on ministerial advice, but the governor-general retains the ability to act independently in certain circumstances, as governed by convention.
It is generally held that the governor-general may use powers without ministerial advice in the following situations:
if an election results in a parliament in which no party has a majority, the governor-general may select the prime ministerif a prime minister loses the support of the House of Representatives, the governor-general may appoint a new prime ministerif a prime minister advises a dissolution of the House of Representatives, the governor-general may refuse that request, or request further reasons why it should be granted.
It is worth noting that convention does not give the governor-general the ability to dissolve either the House of Representatives or the Senate without advice.The use of the reserve powers may arise in the following circumstances:
if a prime minister advises a dissolution of Parliament on the occasion of a deadlock between the Houses, the governor-general may refuse that request
if the governor-general is not satisfied with a legislative Bill as presented, they may refuse Royal Assent
if a prime minister resigns after losing a vote of confidence, the governor-general may select a new replacement contrary to the advice of the outgoing prime ministerif a prime minister is unable to obtain Supply and refuses to resign or advise a dissolution, the governor-general may dismiss him or her and appoint a new prime minister.
The above is not an exhaustive list, and new situations may arise. The most notable use of the reserve powers occurred in November 1975, in the course of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. On this occasion the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam when the Senate withheld Supply to the government, even though Whitlam retained the confidence of the House of Representatives. Kerr determined that he had both the right and the duty to dismiss the government and commission a new government that would recommend a dissolution of the Parliament. Events surrounding the dismissal remain extremely controversial.
Ceremonial roleIn addition to the formal constitutional role, the governor-general has a representative and ceremonial role, though the extent and nature of that role has depended on the expectations of the time, the individual in office at the time, the wishes of the incumbent government, and the individual's 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 including ambassadors to and from other countries, and travel widely throughout Australia.
That role can become controversial, however, if the governor-general becomes unpopular with sections of the community. The public role adopted by Sir John Kerr was curtailed considerably after the constitutional crisis of 1975; Sir William Deane's public statements on political issues produced some hostility towards him; and some charities disassociated themselves from Peter Hollingworth after the issue of his management of sex abuse cases during his time as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane became a matter of controversy.
At one time, governors-general wore the traditional court uniform, consisting of a dark navy wool double-breasted coatee with silver oak leaf and fern embroidery on the collar and cuffs trimmed with silver buttons embossed with the Royal Arms and with bullion edged epaulettes on the shoulders, dark navy trousers with a wide band of silver oak-leaf braid down the outside seam, silver sword belt with ceremonial sword, bicorne cocked hat with plume of ostrich feathers, black patent leather Wellington boots with spurs, etc., that is worn on ceremonial occasions. There is also a tropical version made of white tropical wool cut in a typical military fashion worn with a plumed helmet. However, that custom fell into disuse during the tenure of Sir Paul Hasluck. The governor-general now wears an ordinary lounge suit if a man or day dress if a woman.
HistoryThe office of governor-general was previously used during the mid-19th century in Australia. Sir Charles FitzRoy (Governor of New South Wales from 1846–1855) and Sir William Denison (Governor of New South Wales from 1855–1861) also carried the additional title of governor-general because their jurisdiction extended to other colonies in Australia.
Thus, John Hope, 7th Earl of Hopetoun's initial task on arriving in Australia on 15 December 1900 was to appoint a Prime Minister to lead the interim government. It appears[to whom?] that Hopetoun had little knowledge of the Australian political scene and had no formal instructions from the Colonial Office. On 19 December, following the precedent of the Canadian Confederation, Hopetoun commissioned the Premier of the most populous colony to form a government. That state was New South Wales, and its premier was Sir William Lyne.
This was an unfortunate[according to whom?] choice as Lyne had become premier in September 1899 only after the government of the more popular and experienced George Reid had lost its majority in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Lyne supported federation only at the last minute after long being a strong opponent and, as a result, he was unpopular with other leading colonial, pro-federation politicians including Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin.
Despite significant efforts, Lyne was unable to persuade other colonial politicians to join his government and he was forced to return his commission to thhe Governor-General. Hopetoun's error in calling on Lyne to form a government became known as the "Hopetoun Blunder", and it marked the beginning of what many historians[who?] consider to be his unsuccessful[according to whom?] term as Governor-General.
Alfred Deakin, amongst others, then persuaded Hopetoun to appoint Edmund Barton as Prime Minister. Barton was successful in forming a government, which took office on 1 January 1901. He appointed Lyne as his Minister for Home Affairs in what many[who?] saw as a gesture of reconciliation.
Early governors-general were British and were appointed by the Queen or King on the recommendation of the Colonial Office. The Australian Government was merely asked, as a matter of courtesy, whether they approved of the choice or not. Governors-general were expected to exercise a supervisory role over the Australian Government in the manner of a colonial governor. In a very real sense, they represented the British Government. They 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. They exercised this power several times. The Queen (that is, the UK monarch acting upon advice of the British Government) could also disallow any Australian legislation up to a year after the governor-general had given it the assent; although this power has never been used. These powers remain in the constitution, but today are regarded as dead letters.
The early governors-general frequently sought advice on the exercise of their powers from two judges of the High Court of Australia, Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Edmund Barton. That practice has continued from time to time.
During the 1920s, the importance of the position declined. As a result of decisions made at the 1926 Imperial Conference, the governor-general ceased to represent the British Government diplomatically, and the British right of supervision over Australian affairs was abolished.
However, it remained unclear just whose prerogative it now became to decide who new governors-general would be.
In 1930, King George V and the Australian Prime Minister James Scullin discussed the appointment of a new governor-general to replace Lord Stonehaven, whose term was coming to an end. The King maintained that it was now his sole prerogative to choose a governor-general, and he wanted Field-Marshal Sir William Birdwood for the Australian post. Scullin recommended the Australian jurist Sir Isaac Isaacs, and he insisted that George V act on the advice of his Australian prime minister in this matter. Scullin was partially influenced by the precedent set by the Government of the Irish Free State, which always insisted upon having an Irishman as the Governor-General of the Irish Free State.
In 1931, the transformation was concluded with the appointment of the first Australian governor-general, Isaacs, and the first British Representative in Australia, Ernest Crutchley. 1935 saw the appointment of the first British High Commissioner to Australia, Geoffrey Whiskard (in office 1936-1941).
This was not because of any lack of regard for Isaacs personally, but because the British government considered that the choice of governors-general was, since the 1926 Imperial Conference, a matter for the monarch's decision alone. (However, it became very clear in a conversation between Scullin and King George V's Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, on 11 November 1930, that this was merely the official reason for the objection, with the real reason being that an Australian, no matter how highly regarded personally, was not considered appropriate to be a governor-general.) Scullin was equally insistent that the monarch must act on the relevant prime minister's direct advice (the practice until 1926 was that Dominion prime ministers advised the monarch indirectly, through the British government, which effectively had a veto over any proposal it did not agree with).
Despite these precedents, George V remained reluctant to accept Scullin's recommendation of Isaacs and asked him to consider Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood. However, Scullin stood firm, and, on 29 November, the King agreed to Isaacs's appointment, but made it clear that he did so only because he felt he had no option.
After Scullin's defeat in 1931, non-Labor governments continued to recommend British people for appointment as governor-general, but such appointments remained solely a matter between the Australian government and the monarch.
In 1947, Labor appointed a second Australian governor-general, William McKell, who was in office as the Labor Premier of New South Wales. The then Leader of the Opposition, Robert Menzies, called McKell's appointment "shocking and humiliating".
In 1965 the Menzies conservative government appointed an Australian, Lord Casey, and thereafter only Australians have held the position.
Suggestions during the early 1980s that the Prince of Wales might become the governor-general came to nothing due to the prospective constitutional difficulty that might ensue if Prince Charles became King.
In 2007 media outlets reported that Prince William might become Governor-General of Australia. The Prime Minister, John Howard repudiated the suggestion.
PatronageThe governor-general is generally invited to become Patron of various charitable and service organisations. Historically the governor-general has also served as Chief Scout of Australia. The Chief Scout is nominated by the Scouting Association's National Executive Committee and is invited by the President of the Scout Association to accept the appointment. Bill Hayden declined the office on the grounds of his atheism, which was incompatible with the Scout Promise. He did however serve as the Association's Patron during his term of office.
SpouseSpouses of governors-general have no official duties but carry out the role of a Vice-Regal consort. They are entitled to the courtesy style Her Excellency or His Excellency during the office-holder's term of office. Most spouses of governors-general have been content to be quietly supportive. Some, however, have been notable in their own right, such as Dame Alexandra Hasluck, Lady Casey and Michael Bryce.