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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.

Executive function

“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.

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:

Relationship to Government:

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…


all-embracing perspective.


Armed Forces: The Governor-General is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces

As such the role is a safeguard against abuse of armed power, against military dictatorship or a too-powerful Prime Minister. See DSC paper “The Crown and the Military”


Community duties

The role is a unifying force, a symbol of unity for the diversity of citizens of different race, religion or political persuasion.

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)

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)

Ceremonial duties

The role “maintains tradition without ostentation”.

Reading list for roles of Crown/Governor-General/state Governor

For the Sovereignty of the PeopleA Defence of the Crown in the Westminster System by Dr Nigel Greenwood Pub: Australian Academic Press 1999 ISBN 1-875378-28-6


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: 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:

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

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