Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

The Governor-General and the Senate

The Governor-General as the representative of the monarch is a part of the legislature, but does not normally attend or participate in the proceedings of either House, with two exceptions. The Governor-General at the opening of each session of Parliament delivers an opening speech in the Senate chamber. The Governor-General also usually attends personally to swear in new senators, when there is no President in office. This is usually after the terms of senators have begun, but may occur on other occasions. For example, when Senator Douglas McClelland resigned as President and as a senator during the summer adjournment in February 1987, the Governor-General attended the Senate on the first sitting day to report the resignation and the appointment by the Parliament of New South Wales of a person to fill the vacancy, and to hear the affirmation of the new senator (17/2/1987, J.1591). Apart from these occasions communications between the Governor-General and the Houses consist of formal addresses and messages, and announcements by ministers. (There is also a custom of swearing in a new Governor-General in the Senate chamber, but this is not part of proceedings of the Senate.)

The principal constitutional powers and functions of the Governor-General as they directly affect the Senate include the appointment of times for the holding of sessions of Parliament and the proroguing of Parliament (s. 5), and the dissolution of both Houses simultaneously and the convening of a joint sitting (s. 57). The Governor-General may administer the oath or affirmation to senators or may commission deputies to do so (s. 42; on the election of a President the Governor-General issues a commission authorising the President to swear in new senators). The President’s resignation is tendered to the Governor-General (s. 17), as are those of senators if there is no President or the President is absent from the Commonwealth (s. 19). In the event of a vacancy in the Senate when there is no President or the President is absent from the Commonwealth the Governor-General notifies the Governor of the relevant State (s. 21). When legislation has been passed by both Houses it is presented to the Governor-General for assent, and the Governor-General may also recommend amendments (s. 58; see Chapter 12, Legislation). Section 128 of the Constitution provides that where the Houses cannot agree on a proposed law to alter the Constitution the Governor-General may submit the proposal to the electors.

The Letters Patent Relating to the Office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia state that “a person appointed to be Governor-General shall take the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance and the Oath or Affirmation of Office in the Presence of the Chief Justice or another Justice of the High Court of Australia” (II(b)). The oath or affirmation of allegiance is as set out in the schedule to the Constitution and the form of the oath or affirmation of office is specified in paragraph V of the Letters Patent. The venue for the swearing-in of a new Governor-General is determined by the Government. Traditionally it takes place in the Senate chamber.

The Senate may formally communicate with the monarch or the Governor-General by way of an address, in accordance with provisions in standing orders 171 and 172. A motion for an address requires notice.

Addresses to the monarch were formerly used for various occasions; they are now very rare. Apart from the presentation of an address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech at the opening of each new session of Parliament (see Chapter 7), there have been no addresses presented to the Governor-General since 1931.

Should the Senate request access to documents in the control of the Governor-General, such as correspondence between the Governor-General and the Prime Minister on a request for a dissolution, an address to the Governor-General may be employed (SO 165; see Chapter 18, Documents, under Addresses for documents).

Messages from the Governor-General are reported to the Senate as soon as practicable after receipt. A message may be presented by a minister at any time, but not during a debate, or so as to interrupt a senator speaking. The message may be at once taken into consideration, or ordered to be printed, or a future day may be fixed on motion for taking it into consideration (SO 173).

Messages from the Governor-General are received by the Senate on the following subjects:

  • Address-in-reply, and other addresses from the Senate — the Governor-General’s replies.

  • With respect to bills:

    Returning any bill presented for assent, and enclosing any amendment which the Governor-General may recommend.

    Notifying assent to bills and the proclamation of commencement of Acts. (See Chapters 12 and 13 on Legislation).

The monarch, Governor-General and governors of the states are protected by the procedures of the Senate against offence in debate. Standing order 193(2) provides that a senator shall not refer to them “disrespectfully in debate, or for the purpose of influencing the Senate in its deliberations”. It has been ruled that this order does not protect former Governors-General (SD, 19/12/1988, p. 4484) but may protect Governors-General designate (SD, 19/12/1988, p. 4496; see Chapter 10, Debate). (For a resolution calling on the Governor-General to resign, or, if he does not, for the Prime Minister to advise the withdrawal of his commission, see 15/5/2003, J.1818-20.)

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