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Governors-General

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

His Excellency, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), sworn in as Governor-General on 28 March, 2014. Image courtesy of the Governor-General's Office.

The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia represents the monarch of Australia – currently Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia.

The Governor-General has a wide range of powers, exercised under the authority of the Australian Constitution. 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 also Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force.

In practice, the Governor-General follows the conventions of the Westminster system of parliament and acts only on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia. There have been only four exceptions when the Governor-General has exercised the reserve powers of the office, including the sacking of the Prime Minister in 1975.

The incumbent Governor-General of Australia is His Excellency, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd). Prior to his retirement from active service, he was the Chief of the Defence Force from 3 July 2002 to 3 July 2005. Since then has performed and/or served in a number of significant roles and positions. including his appointment by the Queensland Government to lead the taskforce rebuilding communities in the Innisfail region following the devastation caused by Cyclone Larry in 2006.

Establishment of the office of Governor-General in Australia

The Rt Hon Sir Isaac Isaacs inspecting mounted troops-c1935. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: vn4227828.

The office of Governor-General for the Commonwealth of Australia was conceived during the debates and conventions leading up to Federation in 1901. The first Governor-General, John Hope, the Earl of Hopetoun was appointed in July 1900 on the advice of the British Parliament, returning to Australia to appoint the inaugural Prime Minister, Edmund Barton.

In 1930, Australian Prime Minister James Scullin broke with this practice and advised on the appointment of the Governor-General himself, to the King's displeasure. In November 1930, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first native-born Australian was sworn in.

This remains the current practice: the Australian Prime Minister recommends someone to be appointed as Governor-General. The appointee must be an Australian citizen. In practice, however, Governors-General usually hold office for five years.

Duties of the Governor-General

The Governor-General (Lord Gowrie) reading the proclamation announcing that Australia is at war with Japan in 1941. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: 010689.

In Australia, the Governor-General's powers and duties seem quite far-reaching. But the practice of government in Australia, which relies on many rules or 'conventions' not written down in the Australian constitution, narrows the scope of the role.

For example, the Australian Constitution does not explicitly state that there must be a Prime Minister, yet this convention is the way government has been organised since Federation. Another convention is that the Governor-General only undertakes duties on advice from parliamentary ministers.

The Governor-General's duties include:

  • issuing writs for new elections
  • commissioning the Prime Minister and appointing other ministers
  • appointing federal judges, Ambassadors and High Commissioners to overseas countries
  • establishing royal commissions of inquiry
  • giving assent to laws that have passed through both houses of parliament.

His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery and Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, inspect Australia's Federation Guard, August 2008. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

The Governor-General is also the official Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force. In this role, the Governor-General appoints the chiefs of the armed services and commissions officers in the navy, army and air force. The Governor-General only undertakes these duties on the advice of the Minister for Defence.

The Governor-General also performs ceremonial duties. These include: receiving visiting heads of state, opening sessions of parliament, awarding honours for community service and bravery and attending community services and functions.

Reserve powers

As well as the above duties and powers, the Governor-General has some powers that may be exercised in certain situations without ministerial advice, or even in contradiction to ministerial advice. These powers are called 'the reserve powers'. Because of the reliance of the Australian Constitution on convention, not all of the reserve powers are explicitly stated in the Constitution. This means that the exact nature and scope of the reserve powers is open to interpretation, and there is some dispute about their use.

David Smith, Official Secretary to the Governor-General reads the proclamation dissolving both Houses of Parliament on the steps of Parliament House Canberra, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam behind him, 11 November 1975. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia. an24354947

The reserve powers of the Governor-General have been used on four occasions in the history of Australia.

  1. In 1904, Governor-General Lord Northcote refused to dissolve the House of Representatives to allow for a federal election.
  2. In 1905, Governor-General Lord Northcote allowed Alfred Deakin to replace George Reid as Prime Minister without facing an election.
  3. In 1909, Governor-General William Humble Ward allowed an unelected coalition of parties to form government.
  4. In 1975, Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and forced a federal election. Whitlam's party, the Australian Labor Party, subsequently lost.

This last exercise of the reserve powers is the most famous and controversial in Australia's history. The legalities of the Kerr dismissal have been the subject of debate ever since its occurrence.

Future Presidents. Children in Future Australia President T-Shirts. Image courtesy of Australian Republican Movement.

The 1999 referendum for a republic

In 1999, Australians were asked to vote in a constitutional referendum to determine whether Australia would become a republic. If Australia did become a republic, it was proposed that the office of Governor-General be altered to become the office of President. In a republic model, many of the roles of the Governor-General would be transferred to the new Presidential office.

The referendum was defeated, and the office of Governor-General was retained.

Former Governors-General

His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) is the 26th Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. The origins and contributions of past Governors-General have varied.

Sir William (Bill) Joseph Slim 1953–1960

Sir William (Bill) Joseph Slim (1891–1970) trained as a professional soldier in England before being seriously wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, and rejoining his old battalion in Mesopotamia where he was awarded the Military Cross. He transferred to the Indian Army in 1919. In 1938, after a period in England, he was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel, given command of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles. To supplement his income, he contributed stories and articles under the pen-name 'Anthony Mills' to English newspapers.

Governor-General Sir William Slim taking salute from guard of honour, outside Legislative Council building, Mitchell St, Darwin, 1955. Image courtesy of N Gleeson Collection and Northern Territory Library PH0120/0104 .

Wounded after an air-attack in 1940, he sent a stoical telegram to his mother: 'Bullet Bottom Better Bill'. Recalled to India in March 1942, Slim was given command of I Burma Corps, then in retreat from Rangoon before the advancing Japanese. His pre-eminent contribution, as in subsequent campaigns, was in maintaining morale. Lord Louis (Earl) Mountbatten considered him 'the finest general World War II produced'. Promoted general on 1 July 1945, Slim took over as commander-in-chief, Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, just as the war ended on 15 August.

Partly because of the royal visit of 1954 - the first by a reigning monarch to Australia - but also owing to his own combination of authority and humanity, Slim's governor-generalship was judged to be notably successful, even by those who believed that the office should be held by an Australian. (Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Richard Casey [Baron Casey] 1965–1969

Pakistan High Commissioner to Australia, Ambassador-of Pakistan and Richard Casey (Governor-General), 1967. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia A1501, A7583/2

Born in Brisbane of a father who was a one-time jackeroo and property manager, and a mother whose uncle was a Premier of Queensland, Richard Casey (1890–1976) grew up in Melbourne in relative affluence. Casey graduated as a mechanical engineer before serving at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. In 1924 Casey was appointed by Prime Minister Bruce as the Australian agent in London. After a brief stint as a member of Parliament, Casey was appointed Australian minister to the United States of America, where he showed great flair for diplomacy.

In March 1942, (Sir) Winston Churchill offered him the position of United Kingdom minister of state in the Middle East, based in Cairo – which raised hackles in both Australia and the UK. A year later, Churchill appointed him governor of Bengal, India. In 1949, he won a seat in the Australian Parliament and was granted the external affairs portfolio – 'constantly preaching the importance of Asia to an Australia which had taken little interest in it'. Casey was also interested in the Antarctic and, in 1959, played a leading part in negotiating a treaty covering co-operation in exploration and scientific research.

Casey was described as 'the last of the Edwardian gentlemen', the first Australian to be appointed as Governor–General by a non-Labor government.

Sir William Deane 1996–2001

Sir William Deane (1931–) was a Justice of the High Court of Australia when he was appointed Governor-General in 1996.

Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen, accompanied by Hon. Clyde Holding MHR, waves to the crowd at the handover ceremony to Uluru traditional owners, Northern Territory, 1985. Image courtesy of Uluru Media and National Archives of Australia: A8746, KN4/11/85/51.

As Governor-General, Sir William spoke out on his desire to see meaningful reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In the inaugural 1996 Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Some signposts from Daguragu , he said:

As Governor-General, I must be conscious of the need to avoid becoming involved in divisive or party political debate. It is, however, permissible for me to make a plea to the Aboriginal peoples to recognise the progress that has been made in recent years... and to point out to non-Aboriginal people how much remains to be done to overcome or alleviate the terrible problems which are the present consequences of past oppression and injustice.

In 2001, Sir William Deane was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize 'for his consistent support of vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians and his strong commitment to the cause of reconciliation.'

It is doubtful that any national leader has spoken more eloquently about ANZAC and Australia's military history while at the same time linking them to our multicultural diversity and our bonds with Aboriginal people. (Hugh Dillon, review of 'Sir William Deane: The Things That Matter' by Tony Stephens)

Find details of Australia's previous Governors-General on Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia website.

Useful links

Governors-General and Australian democracy

Republican debate

Last updated: 1st April 2014

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