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The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia is the representative in Australia of the monarch of Australia (currently Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia). He or she exercises the supreme executive power of the Commonwealth. The functions and roles of the Governor-General include appointing ambassadors, ministers and judges, giving Royal Assent to legislation, issuing writs for elections and bestowing honours. The Governor-General is President of the Federal Executive Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force. All these things are done and all these posts are held under the authority of the Australian Constitution. Further, the Governor-General acts as vice-regal representative to the Australian Capital Territorymarker.

The Constitution provides that a "Governor-General appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth . . ." The Constitution grants the Governor-General a wide range of powers, but in practice he or she follows the conventions of the Westminster system and (with rare exceptions) acts only on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia or other ministers. Even in the appointment of the prime minister, the Governor-General rarely exercises any discretion, usually appointing the leader of the largest party or coalition of parties in the House of Representatives.

Beyond constitutional functions, the Governor-General has an important ceremonial role. He or she travels widely 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, and is treated as a head of state.

The main official residence of the Governor-General is Government House, Canberramarker. There is a second official residence, Admiralty Housemarker in Sydney. When visiting the other states, the Governor-General is usually a guest at the Government Houses in the state capitals.

The current Governor-General and the first female to hold the role is Quentin Bryce.

The Governor-General is supported by a staff headed by the Official Secretary to the Governor-General; the current Official Secretary is Stephen Brady.

When a Governor-General is overseas on official duties or unable to perform their functions, or the office is vacant, the senior state governor is appointed as Administrator of the Commonwealth, and is effectively acting Governor-General.

Method of appointment

In practice, the selection of a governor-general is a matter for the Prime Minister of Australia, who may consult privately with staff or colleagues, or with the monarch. The person would also be approached privately to see if he or she is willing to accept the appointment.

The Prime Minister then provides the nomination to the monarch. The monarch may, in theory, decline the Prime Minister's advice and ask for another nomination or even appoint a person of their own choice, but no such cases have been recorded since November 1930, when James Scullin's proposed appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs was fiercely opposed by the British government. 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, the real reason being that an Australian, no matter how highly regarded personally, was not considered appropriate to be 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). Scullin cited the precedents of the Prime Minister of South Africa, J. B. M. Hertzog, who had recently insisted on his choice of Lord Clarendon as Governor-General of that country, and the selection of an Irishman as Governor-General of the Irish Free State - both of these appointments were agreed to despite royal disfavour. Despite these precedents, George V was still very reluctant to accept Scullin's recommendation of Sir Isaac 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. 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, however the practice of Premiers advising the monarch has only become the convention since the passage of the Australia Acts .

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 makes an Oath of Allegiance and an Oath of Office to the monarch, and issues a proclamation assuming office. The oaths are usually made in a ceremony on the floor of the Senate, and are administered by the Chief Justice of Australia.

Titles and backgrounds of governors-general

All the Governors-General until 1965 were British, except Sir Isaac Isaacs (1931-36) and Sir William McKell (1947-53). There have been only Australian occupants since then. All until 1989 were either peers or knights (although McKell was knighted during his term of office), the only Australian peer being Lord Casey (1965-69). All until 1989 were members of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom and thus had the additional style "The Right Honourable". Bill Hayden (1989-96) was the first Governor-General to have no title, although as a former Federal minister, he has the style "The Honourable".

Governors-General (and their spouses) have the style "His/Her Excellency" during their tenure, but no style applies to former Governors-General purely by virtue of their former office.

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); 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.

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).

Of the ten Australians appointed 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 Walesmarker; Sir Ninian Stephen and Sir William Deane were appointed from the bench of the High Courtmarker; Sir Zelman Cowen was a vice-chancellor of the University of Queenslandmarker and constitutional lawyer; Peter Hollingworth was the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbanemarker; 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.

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 (unlike several recent Governors-General of Canada and New Zealand). None have had an indigenous or non-European background.

The current Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, who was sworn in on 5 September 2008, is the first woman appointed to the post.


The 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 by a short period.

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 Constitution states that the salary of the Governor-General may not be increased during his or her term of office. Under the Governor-General Act of 1974 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 is $394,000. Until 2001, Governors-General did not pay income tax on their salary; this was changed after the Queen agreed to pay tax.

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 after accepting the position of Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, a post which ultimately he did not take up. In 2003, Dr. Peter Hollingworth stood aside temporarily while certain allegations against him were resolved, and the letters patent of the office were amended to take account of this circumstance. He later resigned to "protect the vice-regal office from persistent controversy".

In 1961, Lord Dunrossil became the first and, to date, only Governor-General to die in office.

A Governor-General may be recalled or dismissed by the Queen before their term is complete. By convention, this may only be advised by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has the option of naming an immediate replacement or letting the vacancy provisions take effect.

As no Australian Governor-General has ever been dismissed, it is unclear how quickly the Queen would act on such advice. The constitutional crisis of 1975 prominently 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 recommended to the Queen that Sir Colin Hannah, then Governor of Queensland, have his dormant commission revoked for having made public political statements.

Constitutional role and functions


Sections 61 and 68 of the Constitution provide that the Governor-General exercises certain powers as the Queen's representative. The limited form of this representation was explained in a 1988 Constitutional Commission report which concluded "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".

Although the Governor-General and the Queen occasionally observe certain formalities, in practice the Governor-General carries out her constitutional responsibilities without reference to the Queen. In 1975, the Queen, through her Private Secretary, wrote that she "has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution". The Queen chose not to intervene during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, on the basis that it was a matter "clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General". In 2004, Governor-General Michael Jeffery said "Her Majesty is Australia's head of state but I am her representative and to all intents and purposes I carry out the full role." However, in 2005, he declined to name the Queen as head of state, instead saying in response to a direct question, "The Queen is the Monarch and I represent her, and I carry out all the functions of head of state." The Governor-General represents Australia internationally, making and receiving State visits.

In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the Governor-General as the Australian head of state, announcing an overseas visit by Quentin Bryce by saying, "A visit to Africa of this scale by Australia’s Head of State will express the seriousness of Australia’s commitment".

Role in parliament

The 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 this is not stated in the Constitution.

The Governor-General has a ceremonial role in swearing in and accepting the resignations of Members of Parliament. He or she appoints 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." This makes any proposed law effective.

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).

Role in executive government

At the start of Chapter 2 on executive government, the Constitution says "The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative". The Governor-General presides over a Federal Executive Council. By convention, the Prime Minister is appointed to this Council and advises as to which parliamentarians shall become ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

In the Constitution, the words "Governor-General-in-council" mean the Governor-General acting with the advice of the Council. Powers exercised in council, which are not reserve powers, include:
  • establishing government departments
  • appointing federal judges, and
  • appointing ambassadors and high commissioners.

All such actions are taken on the advice of ministers.

Section 68, says "command-in-chief of naval and military forces ... is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen's representative". In practice, this role is ceremonial, with actual authority in the hands of the Defence Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force ( CDF).

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

Reserve powers

In the United Kingdom, the reserve powers of the Crown are not explicitly stated in constitutional enactments and are the province of convention, but in Australia, the powers are explicitly given to the Governor-General in the Constitution but 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)

These 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 their 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 Minister
  • if a Prime Minister loses the support of the House of Representatives, the Governor-General may appoint a new Prime Minister
  • if 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 presented to him, he or she 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 Minister
  • if 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. Despite the endorsement of his action by the electorate at the 1975 election, the events surrounding the dismissal remain extremely controversial.

Ceremonial role

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, the wishes of the incumbent government, 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 including ambassadors to and from other countries, and travel widely throughout Australia - replicating the actions of the monarch in the United Kingdom, or those of a ceremonial head of state. Sir William Deane described one of his functions as being "Chief Mourner" at prominent funerals.

This 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 Dr 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 Windsor uniform on formal occasions, however this fell into disuse during the tenure of Sir Paul Hasluck.


The office of Governor-General was previously used during colonial times 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. Later each colony was granted its own governor and thus the title of Governor-General lapsed until the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901.

The office of Governor-General for the Commonwealth of Australia was conceived during the debates and conventions leading up to federation. The first Governor-General was a previous Governor of Victoria, John Hope, the Earl of Hopetoun. He was appointed in July 1900, returning to Australia shortly before the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901. His first act was to appoint the inaugural Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, since the first federal elections were not held until March.

Early Governors-General were British and were appointed by the 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. This power was used several times.

The early Governors-General frequently sought advice on the exercise of their powers from two judges of the High Court of Australiamarker, Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Edmund Barton. This practice has continued from time to time since.

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 be the diplomatic representative of the British Government, and the British right of supervision over Australian affairs was abolished. However, it was still unclear just whose prerogative it now was 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. The King approved Scullin's choice, albeit with some displeasure. The usual wording of official announcements of this nature was "The King has been pleased to appoint ...", but on this occasion the announcement said merely "The King has appointed ...", and his Private Secretary Lord Stamfordham asked the Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Garran, to make sure Scullin was aware of the exact wording. The appointment was denounced by the opposition Nationalist Party of Australia as being "practically republican", but the precedent had been set. The convention was gradually established throughout the Commonwealth that the Governor-General is a citizen of the country concerned, and is appointed on the advice of the government of that country.

In 1931, this transformation was concluded with the appointment of the first Australian Governor-General, Isaacs, and the first British Representative in Australia, Ernest Crutchley. In 1935, the first British High Commissioner to Australia, Geoffrey Whiskard, was appointed.

After Scullin's defeat in 1931, non-Labor governments continued to recommend British people for appointment as Governor-General, but it was still a matter solely 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 the position has since been held only by Australians. Suggestions during the early 1980s that the Prince of Wales might become the Governor-General came to nothing due to the constitutional difficulty that would be created if Prince Charles became King. In 2007, it was reported in the media that Prince William might also become Governor-General. This suggestion was repudiated by both the Prime Minister (John Howard) and Clarence House.


The 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 this office on the grounds of his atheism, which was incompatible with the Scout Oath.

Spouse of the Governor-General

The spouse of the Governor-General has no official duties, but is entitled to the style "Her/His Excellency" during the office-holder's term of office. Most spouses of Governors-General have been content to be background figures providing them with support. However, some have been notable in their own right.

Former Australian Governors-General

The living former Governors-General are:

Major General Jeffery's retirement on 5 September 2008 marked the first time in Australia's history that six former Governors-General were still living. There had been five living former Governors-General at a number of previous times, most recently immediately prior to Major General Jeffery's retirement, and going back to the period 8 October 1925 (when Lord Forster retired) to 2 December 1928 (when Lord Tennyson died).

See also


Further reading

  • (pp 515, 519, 548)
  • Sir Zelman Cowen, A Public Life: The Memoirs of Zelman Cowen, Miegunyah Press, 2006.
  • Donald Markwell, The Crown and Australia, University of London 1987 -[1550]
  • Donald Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early Governor-Generals: aspects of Australia's constitutional development", Public Law Review, 1999.

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