The Position of The King and The Governor-General
When the British arrived in 1788 and settled in Australia, the land was claimed in the name of the then King, George III. When Captain Cook had arrived in 1770, 18 years earlier, he had likewise claimed the land in the name of the same King.
As the settlement flourished and expanded throughout the continent and colonies were formally established, each with their own parliaments and governments, they were all subject to the British Crown and administered by the British government.
From the 1850s onwards a number of prominent Australians started talking about being independent from British rule. The British government supported this and sought to do what it could to facilitate a centralised government which would be able to administer and defend Australia.
At the end of the 19th century, with the encouragement of the British government, the Australian people voted to become an independent nation under its own constitution and in 1901 the six colonies became states within a federation called the Commonwealth of Australia. The constitution was drawn up by Australians to suit Australian conditions. (see The Beginnings & The Australian Constitution)
It is one of the only constitutions in the world which requires a vote of the people and not just of the parliament to change the constitution. This is why, in 1999, the Australian people were asked to vote on whether Australia should become a republic or remain a constitutional monarchy. As we all know the Australian people overwhelmingly voted to remain a monarchy.
The Australian constitution specifies that the federation will be united under the Crown of the United Kingdom. This means that whoever is monarch in Great Britain is monarch in Australia. The current monarch is King Charles III who has been King of Australia since 2022. His powers and the role he plays in Australia are vastly different from those of his ancestor George III, his great, great, great, great grandfather.
It seems strange to a number of people that the King is King of 15 separate nations, including the United Kingdom. In Australia, he is at all times subject to the Australian constitution and must accept the advice (or instructions) tended to him by the Australian prime minister on any matter affecting Australia. As King of Canada he must accept only the advice of her Canadian ministers, and likewise with all the other countries of which he is King.
As a constitutional monarch, that is a monarch subject to a constitution, it has become a matter of convention that the King has only the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. Of course, this is put in very simple terms but it does tend to explain the limited power a monarch currently has.
Since the King does not live in Australia, and, of course, the fact that the monarch resided in England was well known and accepted when the people originally voted on the Australian constitution, as they did in 1999, he is represented by a Governor-General.
When the people originally voted on the Australian constitution it was well known and accepted that the monarch resided in the UK and thus was represented in Australia by a Governor-General. You may ask why did the people accept a monarch not resident in the country? This is because the system of our constitutional monarchy is far more important than having a resident monarch and, of course, you cannot have a constitutional monarchy without having a monarch!
It has become a custom that the prime minister selects a person whom he thinks would be suitable and puts forward his name to the King for appointment as his representative and Governor-General. Generally, terms of office are around five years.
Once appointed the Governor-General assumes the role of the monarch in the country. He or she also has powers that devolve on him or her by the constitution. Thereafter the King plays no further part in the governance of the nation, although many things are done in his name such as the giving of royal assent to bills of the parliament (signed on his behalf by the Governor-General). People generally don’t know that the King is head of the parliament. This is why the Governor-General opens the parliament in the name of the King. The courts of law operate in his name and certain cases are brought in his name. Whilst the Governor-General and not the King is commander-in-chief of the Australian Defence Force, he or she is so as the King's representative. Clause 68 the constitution specifies: “the command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen's representative.” (In 1901 there was no Air Force.) Pictured alongside is His Excellency The Honourable General David Hurley AC DSC, Governor-General of Australia.
As a constitutional monarchy there are a number of checks and balances important to restrain those in authority from exceeding their powers. For instance, under our constitutional system of governance, the people have the power to remove the King using clause 128 of the Australian constitution, the referendum process. The people also have the power to remove a government at election and if a government refuses to go to an election at the appointed time, the Governor-General has the power to dismiss that government and appoint a caretaker prime minister who will agree to an immediate election. If a Governor-General acts in an unbecoming manner, the prime minister can petition the King to dismiss him.
The High Court can rule on any matter relating to the constitution to ensure that politicians abide by it. And, of course, if a politician tries to bypass the constitutional requirements or is corrupt, the media can expose this to the people.
Australia has, what is called, responsible government. This means that all members of the ministry must be members of the parliament whether from the lower house or the upper house. As such every minister, and indeed any member or senator in any position of responsibility, can be questioned in the parliament and they must answer.
Some other countries, such as the United States of America, do not have responsible government. In America, the President personally administers the government and selects his cabinet from outside the United States parliament. Whilst ministers, called secretaries, can be summoned to appear before the parliament, they are not of the parliament and it is a long and time-consuming process, often with legal counsel involved.
In Australia the prime minister is more restrained by our system and must answer to both the parliament and the Governor-General and above all to the Australian people.
Therefore, whilst the day-to-day role of the King in Australia is minimal, his representative, the Governor-General, continually oversees the governance of the nation to ensure compliance with the Australian constitution.
The Governor-General also has a ceremonial role exampled by the welcoming of visiting heads of state, diplomats and others as well as attending many formal and informal activities around the country.
So, despite the fact that the King does not live in Australia, Australia is well and securely governed in his name. That is the system we call constitutional monarchy.
- George III was the king when Australia was first settled but much has happened to further democratise the monarchy since then. What are the monarch’s rights these days and how do you think she might use these in relation to Australia? Our Governors and Governor-General have broadly similar powers to those of the King but with notable additions. What are some of the responsibilities of Governors and what process can be put into action to ensure that whatever they do is entirely within law and due process?
- Australia is a Commonwealth Realm meaning that it is in the Commonwealth of Nations but also within an inner group referred to as the Commonwealth Realms. The King appoints a Governor-General on the advice of his respective Prime Minister in each Realm (save the UK) and in all cases the Governors-General represent him in their respective countries but act completely independently without referring to him but he remains as the ultimate guarantor of continuity and probity. Suggest reasons for the importance of having apolitical Australian Governors and a Governor-General in ultimate control of federal government procedure.
- Some people think that the system of choosing a Governor-General could be improved by including the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition in the choice of candidate before submission to the monarch for approval and appointment. There are pros and cons in this argument. Can you think of some of each?
- The Australian Constitution was formed after much consideration of other constitutions and it is probably to the Swiss that the Australian people owe the rare privilege of having ultimate control of it. No major change can be taken without a referendum. The monarch defends the rights of all Australians in this regard by her presence (as will be the case with her successor) and no group can remove her except the people themselves. How does the Australian system differ from that of the United States?
- What was Britain’s reaction in the mid nineteenth century when Australians showed signs of wanting independence from British control?