House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

Chapter 1 - The Parliament and the role of the House

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The Governor-General is covered in this chapter as a constituent part of the Parliament. However, it is a feature of the Westminster system of government that the Head of State is part of both the Executive Government and the legislature. The relationship between these two bodies and the role of Governor-General as the Head of the Executive Government are discussed in the Chapter on ‘House, Government and Opposition’. There have been 25 Governors-General of Australia[9] since the establishment of the Commonwealth, 11 of whom have been Australian born. The Governor-General’s official title is Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.[10]


The Governor-General is appointed by the Crown, in practice on the advice of Australian Ministers of the Crown.[11] The Governor-General holds office during the Crown’s pleasure, appointments normally being for five years, but some Governors-General have had extended terms of office, and others have resigned or have been recalled.

The Governor-General is appointed pursuant to Letters Patent issued by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as Queen of Australia, which deal with the appointment of a person to the office of Governor-General, the appointment of a person as Administrator of the Commonwealth, and the appointment of a person as a Deputy of the Governor-General.[12]

The Letters Patent provide that the appointment of a person as Governor-General shall be by Commission which must be published in the official gazette of the Commonwealth.[13] They also provide that a person appointed to be Governor-General shall take the oath or affirmation of allegiance and the oath or affirmation of office. These acts are to be performed by the Chief Justice or another justice of the High Court. The ceremonial swearing-in of a new Governor-General has traditionally taken place in the Senate Chamber.


The method of appointment of the Governor-General was changed as a result of the 1926 and 1930 Imperial Conferences.[14] Appointments prior to 1924 were made by the Crown on the advice of the Crown’s Ministers in the United Kingdom (the Governor-General then being also the representative or agent of the British Government[15]) in consultation with Australian Ministers. The Balfour Report stated that the Governor-General should be the representative of the Crown only, holding the same position in the administration of public affairs in Australia as the Crown did in the United Kingdom. The 1930 report laid down certain criteria for the future appointments of Governors-General. Since then Governors-General have been appointed by the Crown after informal consultation with and on the formal advice of Australian Ministers.

Administrator and Deputies

The Letters Patent relating to the office and the Constitution[16] make provision for the appointment of an Administrator to administer the Government of the Commonwealth ‘in the event of the absence out of Australia, or the death, incapacity or removal of the Governor-General for the time being, or in the event of the Governor-General having absented himself or herself temporarily from office for any reason’. An Administrator is in effect an Acting Governor-General. As with the Governor-General, the Administrator is required to take the oath or affirmation of allegiance and the oath or affirmation of office before the commission takes effect. The Crown’s commission is known as a dormant commission, being invoked only when necessary, and more than one commission may exist at any one time.[17] Pursuant to the Letters Patent an Administrator’s commission is activated, depending on the circumstances, by the request of the Governor-General, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister or most senior available Minister.[18]

An Administrator is not entitled to receive any salary from the Commonwealth in respect of any other office during the period of administration.[19] The Administrator may perform all the duties of the Governor-General under the Letters Patent and the Constitution during the Governor-General’s absence.[20] A reference to the Governor-General in the standing orders includes an Administrator of the Commonwealth.[21] There is a precedent for an Administrator calling Parliament together for a new session: Administrator Brooks did so in respect of the Third Session of the 23rd Parliament on 7 March 1961.[22]

The Constitution empowers the Crown to authorise the Governor-General to appoint Deputies to exercise, during the Governor-General’s pleasure, such powers and functions as the Governor-General thinks fit.[23] The Letters Patent give this authority and specify the manner of appointment and powers of Deputies. State Governors considered to be more readily available in cases of urgency have been appointed as Deputies of the Governor-General with authority to exercise a wide range of powers and functions, including the making of recommendations with respect to the appropriation of revenues or moneys, the giving of assent to proposed laws and the making, signing or issuing of proclamations, orders, etc. on the advice of the Federal Executive Council.[24] These arrangements ensure that urgent matters can be attended to in situations where, even though the Governor-General is in Australia, he or she is unavailable. The Governor-General also normally appoints the Vice-President of the Executive Council to be the Governor-General’s Deputy to summon meetings of the Executive Council and, in the Governor-General’s absence, to preside over meetings.[25]

The Governor-General traditionally appoints a Deputy (usually the Chief Justice) to declare open a new Parliament. The same judge is also authorised to administer the oath or affirmation of allegiance to Members.[26] Sometimes, when there are Senators to be sworn in as well, two judges may be commissioned with the authority to administer the oath or affirmation to Members and Senators.[27] The Governor-General issues to a Speaker, once elected, a commission to administer the oath of allegiance to Members during the course of a Parliament.[28]

Official Secretary

In 1984 the Governor-General Act was amended to provide for the establishment of the statutory office of Official Secretary to the Governor-General.[29] The Official Secretary and his or her staff provide administrative support to the Governor-General and administer the Australian honours and awards system. Annual reports of the Official Secretary have been presented to both Houses since 1985.[30]

9. See Appendix 1.
10. Constitution, s. 68. Originally the additional title of Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Force was also used. This was not included in the 1984 Letters Patent, as it was considered that the command in chief of the naval and military forces vested in the Governor-General by the Constitution was not a separate office but a function held ex officio, see S. Deb. (8.3.1989) 655, 697.
11. See also H.R. Deb. (28.11.1946) 742–3; H.R. Deb. (19.2.1947) 19–20; H.R. Deb. (7.5.1947) 2051.
12. Letters Patent relating to the Office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, 21 August 2008, in Gazette S179 (9.9.2008). These revoked and replaced, with minor amendment and in gender-neutral language, the Letters Patent of 21 August 1984, in Gazette S334 (24.8.1984). For the original Letters Patent see Constitution of Office of Governor-General, Letters Patent, 29 October 1900, in Commonwealth Statutory Rules 1901–1956, V, p. 5301.
13. See Gazette S181 (10.9.2008). The Gazette also included copies of the oath of allegiance and oath of office and the new Governor-General’s proclamation that she had assumed the office.
14. ‘Imperial Conference 1926’, Summary of proceedings, PP 99(1926–28) (see Balfour Report, pp. 10–12); ‘Imperial Conference 1930’, Summary of proceedings, PP 293(1929–31) 17.
15. L. F. Crisp, Australian national government, 5th edn, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1983, p. 398.
16. Constitution, s. 4.
17. In practice State Governors are commissioned—for example, see Gazette S205 (17.6.2003) for commissions appointing five Governors dated 20 May, the other Governor having been commissioned on 11 May, Gazette S152 (15.5.2003).
18. The Administrator issues a proclamation citing the dormant commission and announcing that he or she has assumed the administration of the Government, e.g. Gazette S44 (18.3.2009); Gazette S137 (19.7.2010).
19. Constitution, s. 4.
20. E.g. see VP 1974–75/510 (presentation of new Speaker), 532 (recommending amendment to bill); Gazette S139 (20.7.2010) (issue of election writs).
21. S.O. 2.
22. VP 1961/1–2.
23. Constitution, s. 126.
24. E.g. see instruments appointing the Governors of New South Wales and Victoria as Deputies, Gazette S180 (10.9.2008).
25. Or in the Vice-President’s absence, the Deputy Vice-President or most senior Minister present, e.g. Gazette S195 (2.10.2008).
26. E.g. VP 2008–9/1–2.
27. E.g. VP 1987–89/3.
28. E.g. VP 2010–12/7.
29. Public Service Reform Act 1984, s. 141.
30. E.g. VP 2010–12/143.