The Developing Role of the Governor-General: The Goldenness of Silence

Date01 June 2004
Published date01 June 2004
AuthorGreg Craven
Subject MatterComment
Greg Craven*
In arguing for a relatively conservative understanding of the role of the Governor-
General, this piece proceeds upon three background assumptions. The first is that
Australia will remain a monarchy in the near to mid-term, and that the role of the
Governor-General must be considered in this context. The second is that, nevertheless,
Australia is moving leisurely towards becoming a republic, and presumably will
eventually arrive at that point, though within no particular time frame.1 The third
assumption is that even when Australia does become a republic, it will enjoy
substantially similar constitutional arrangements to those subsisting under the existing
monarchy. By this is meant, chiefly, that the executive apparatus of the
Commonwealth will continue to operate within a framework of parliamentary
democracy, embodying a symbolic head of state — however chosen — and a politically
powerful head of government.2
It is, of course, inevitable that there will be development in any constitutional office,
and from this inevitability the office of Governor-General is not immune. Indeed, it is a
commonplace that the office already has evolved, along with that of the State
* Professor of Government and Constitutional Law, Curtin University. A version of this
piece was presented as a paper at the Annual Public Law Weekend, Canberra, 7–9
November 2003.
1 A poll conducted in December 2003 indicated that 57 per cent of those polled wanted a
further referendum on the republican issue: Newspoll, 6 January 2004
( at
27 June 2004).
2 For example, five of the six options in the current options paper of the Australian
Republican Movement answer this description: Australian Republican Movement, '6
Models for an Australian Republic' (Discussion paper, 2001).

Federal Law Review Volume
Governors, away from any role as a representative of the British Government within
the local administration, to comprising a true representative of the monarch within the
Commonwealth.3 Beyond this, the recent republican debate has itself provoked intense
discussion of the role of the Governor-General as a surrogate Australian head of state.4
This notion of the Governor-General as a 'head of state' manqué inevitably involves in
a nebulous but real way recognizing the office as reflective of the Australian polity —
whatever this might be thought to involve — as opposed to viewing its occupant
merely as the 'representative' of the Queen.5 Of course, so long as Australia remains a
monarchy, the Governor-General can never be more than a surrogate, but even a
surrogate head of state is more than a mere monarchical proxy.
Indeed, in the context of the republican debate, the office of Governor-General has
somewhat paradoxically assumed a whole new significance. Far from being dismissed
as a soon to be discarded colonial relic, the Governor-General now demands
considerable respect as the President-in-waiting. Under the 1999 referendum proposal,
the incumbent would have been transmogrified into a republican President,6 and
under almost any plausible model, the office of Governor-General will be the
immediate ancestor of that of President. There thus can be no real surprise that the
office is the subject of renewed interest.
Within this proto-republican climate of interest and discussion, it is highly likely
that the office will continue to expand, if only psychologically. The tendency of some
more recent incumbents to enter important and controversial public debates will
operate to the same effect. All this being said, much of the debate concerning the role
of the Governor-General has been relatively shallow. Thus, as it touches upon the issue
of an expanded role for the Governor-General, this debate tends to turn upon the
approval of the particular commentator for the persona of the particular incumbent, or
the support of the commentator for the views expressed by that incumbent. We often
seem to support an enhanced role for Governors-General whose views we like, but are
deeply suspicious of such a role being conferred on Governors-General we mistrust.7
Clearly, this is wrong, and indeed unprincipled. In discussing the future directions
of the office of Governor-General, it is crucially necessary to consider the development
of that office in light of its own fundamental functions, not the character of its
incumbent, and to ask whether or not any envisaged role is consistent with those
functions. With this stricture in mind, the general approach adopted here will be to
argue that the office of Governor-General, and particularly the public role attached to
that office, should be kept within relatively modest bounds, although it will be
suggested that some of the former public profile of the Governor-General in respect of
state and national occasions, increasingly usurped by political figures, should be
See Richard McGarvie, Democracy: Choosing Australia's Republic (1999) 18–19.
4 A sustained, but unconvincing argument that the Governor-General is Australia's true
head of state is made in David Flint, The Cane Toad Republic (1999) ch 3.
Constitution s 2.
Constitution Alteration (Establishment of Republic) Bill 1999 (Cth) sch 3, cl 1.
7 For example, some of those happiest to see Sir William Deane interpret his office
expansively would have been appalled by any corresponding action on the part of Dr Peter

The Goldenness of Silence 283
Often, the office of Governor-General under the Australian Constitution is considered in
a somewhat narrow and unilluminating way.8 Two common approaches are
particularly unhelpful: the 'catalogue' approach, and the 'compendium' approach.
Under the first, the office of Governor-General is understood essentially as the
repository of a list of constitutional powers and functions (to be exercised in
accordance with accompanying constitutional conventions), and all that is required to
understand that office is to exhaustively note and elucidate the exercise and operation
of each of these powers: assenting to laws,9 setting the times for sessions of
Parliament,10 acting as commander in chief11 and so forth. This approach provides a
necessary technical itemisation of the office, but hardly promotes an insightful
appreciation of any wider significance that it may have. Under the 'compendium'
approach, the tendency is to state sonorously that the Governor-General is the
'representative of the Queen', but the broader implications of this statement in 21st
century Australia — those that go beyond the obvious fact of constitutional
appointment, and the ability to exercise the relevant list of constitutional powers —
remain unexplored.
Yet as Australia moves inevitably towards another round of republican debate, we
do need to consider whether there is anything more to the office of Governor-General
than being a basket of specific constitutional powers (constitutional and conventional)

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