Why is the Governor-General Australia’s head of state?

by The FindLaw Team

Most Australians would be aware that our head of state isn’t the Prime Minister, but rather, it is the Governor-General, while the Queen is Australia’s sovereign.  The powers of the Governor-General are prescribed in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (the Constitution) and when taking a closer look at what powers the Governor-General can exercise, makes for some rather interesting reading.

Executive power

Chapter II, s 61 of the Constitution, makes it clear that executive power vests with the Queen and that her powers are exercised by the Governor-General as her delegate:

 “Executive power

                The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.”

Section 2 of the Constitution states that the Governor-General is appointed by the Queen. However by convention, she acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Section 61 consolidates Australia’s status as a constitutional monarchy and as a consequence, the Executive government is vested in the Crown. 

Under the provisions found in Chapter II of the Constitution, there are some powers where only the Governor-General is able to exercise alone, while others such as the ones found in s 63 of the Constitution, says that the Governor-General in Council “shall be construed as referring to the Governor-General acting with the advice of the Federal Executive Council.” While the Federal Executive Council (FEC) as defined under s 62, is anyone “chosen and summoned by the Governor-General and sworn as Executive Councillors, and shall hold office during his pleasure.”

However, s 64 allows the Governor-General to “appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish” and such “officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General. They shall be members of the Federal Executive Council, and shall be the Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth.” Essentially, s 64 grants the Governor-General the power to dismiss Ministers.

Reserve powers

There are certain powers that may be exercised by the Governor-General alone by convention and are referred to as “reserve powers”. The reserve powers are seen as somewhat controversial because they aren’t codified, yet, have enormous reach. The three powers that are generally identified as reserve powers are: appointing the Prime Minister, dismissing the Prime Minister, and refusing to dissolve Parliament. That’s a lot of power!   

In conclusion, who would have thought that the Governor-General can potentially exercise such wide ranging powers? We certainly didn’t!


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