Governors of the Australian states

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The Governors of the Australian states are the representatives of the Queen of Australia in each of that country's six states. The Governors are the nominal chief executives of the states, performing the same constitutional and ceremonial functions at the state level as does the Governor-General of Australia at the national or federal level. The State Governors are not subject to the constitutional authority of the Governor-General, but are directly responsible to the Queen. In practice, with few exceptions the Governors are required by convention to act on the advice of the state Premiers or the other members of a state's Cabinet.

Origins[edit]

The office of Governor ("Governor in Chief" was an early title) is the oldest constitutional office in Australia. Each of the six states was founded as a British colony, and a Governor was appointed by the British government to exercise executive authority over the colony. Captain Arthur Phillip assumed office as Governor of New South Wales on 7 February 1788, the day on which he founded what is now the city of Sydney, the first British settlement in Australia.

The first Governors of the other five states, and their dates of appointment, were as follows:

Only in New South Wales and South Australia was the date of the appointment of the first Governor the actual date of the colony's foundation. The settlement which became Queensland was founded in 1824, but was not separated from New South Wales until 1859. In Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia executive authority was exercised by a Lieutenant-Governor for some years before the first Governor was appointed; Tasmania was founded in 1804, Western Australia in 1828 and Victoria in 1835.

New South Wales and Tasmania (which was known as Van Diemen's Land until 1855) were founded as penal colonies, and their Governors (Lieutenant-Governors in Tasmania) exercised more or less absolute authority. Tasmania in particular was run as a virtual prison camp in its early years. The Governors were also commanders-in-chief, and the troops under their command were the real basis of their authority.

From the 1820s, however, the increasing number of free settlers in the colonies led to a process of constitutional reform which gradually reduced the powers of the Governors. New South Wales was given its first legislative body, the New South Wales Legislative Council, in 1825. Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, which were not founded as penal settlements, moved rapidly towards constitutional government after their establishment.

Responsible government[edit]

The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 led to a rapid influx of free settlers, mainly from Britain, and to increasing demands for self-government and "British liberties". As a result, Victoria was granted full responsible parliamentary government in 1855, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania in 1856 and Queensland in 1859. Western Australia, owing to its small population, did not attain responsible government until 1890.

Responsible government reduced the role of the state Governors to a largely ceremonial one, although they remained the head of the constitutional system, appointing heads of government (see Premiers of the Australian states) and granting or declining requests for dissolutions of the legislatures. Since all colonial Governors were British and were appointed by the British government, they also exercised a supervisory role over the colonial governments on behalf of Britain.

Federation[edit]

When the six colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, there were some suggestions that the position of state Governor should be abolished or that its appointment be made by the Governor-General as was (and still is) done in Canada. However, the states insisted on retaining their separate links to the Crown, a concept that can be compared to the American system of separate sovereignty for state and federal governments. The states were concerned that Commonwealth-appointed Governors might be used to do the federal government's bidding, up to and including use of a Governor's reserve powers to dismiss a recalcitrant state government. To ensure that state governments would be free from such extra-constitutional intervention or coercion, state Governors continued to be appointed by the King on the advice of the Colonial Secretary in London, usually after an informal consultation with the state government.

The post of Governor was again called into question during the Depression of the 1930s, when the cost of maintaining six vice-regal establishments (as well as a Governor-General in Canberra) drew criticism from the labour movement and others. During this period some states (notably Western Australia) left the position unfilled as an economy measure for some years, and the vice-regal functions were filled by the state Chief Justices with the title of Administrator. But no state attempted to abolish the post of Governor, and this could not have been done at this time without the consent of the Crown (acting on the advice of the British government).

The political role of the Governor became a matter of controversy in 1932 when the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game, used his reserve power to dismiss the Premier, Jack Lang, on the grounds that Lang was acting illegally. All Governors at this time were British, and most were from the upper classes and political conservatives, and Labor governments always suspected that they had an enemy in Government House. Most Governors, however, tried to act impartially, and some were genuinely popular.

From the 1940s the states, particularly those with Labor governments, began to appoint Australians to the post of Governor. The first Australian governors of each of the states, and their dates of appointment, were:

Most of the early colonial governors were military officers, and once the governor's role moved from the executive to the ceremonial, most governors were drawn from the ranks of retired officers. Although a few members of the peerage served as governors (the most prominent being Earl Beauchamp in New South Wales), the Australian colonial capitals were generally considered not grand enough to attract senior members of the aristocracy. Even when Australians replaced Britons as governors, most continued to be retired Army, Navy or Air Force officers until the 1970s. The last British governor of an Australian state was Rear Admiral Sir Richard Trowbridge, who was Governor of Western Australia from 1980 to 1983.

From the 1960s onward the Governors were appointed by the Queen of the United Kingdom, technically acting on the advice of the British Foreign Secretary, but effectively acting on the advice of the state Premiers. It was not until 1986, with the passage of the Australia Acts through the State, Australian and British parliaments, that governors became appointed by the Queen of Australia on the direct advice of the relevant Premier.

The Australia Acts 1986[edit]

Although the Commonwealth of Australia legally became an independent nation when it adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1942, the states had been established separately from (and prior to) the Commonwealth and retained their separate subordination to the British Government. The British Government retained the authority to intervene in the governments of the individual states under the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865. As a result, the state Governors continued to be formally appointed by the Queen on the advice of the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, as had been the case prior to 1942. In practice, however, the Premier of each state recommended a prospective Governor to the Foreign Secretary, who almost always acted in accordance with that recommendation. However, in 1976 the Foreign Secretary refused to transmit to the Queen the advice of the Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to extend the term of Sir Colin Hannah as Governor, on the grounds of the Governor's partisanship against the previous Commonwealth Government.

In 1978, the Parliament of New South Wales passed the Constitutional Powers (New South Wales) Act, requesting that the Commonwealth Parliament legislate to address the constitutional anomaly of the United Kingdom Government's role in the constitutional affairs of the state. Eventually, identical Australia Acts were passed by the Commonwealth Parliament and the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1986, thus removing what remaining authority London had over affairs in Canberra. Under section 7 of these Acts, the Queen now receives advice on the appointment and termination of appointments of state Governors from the relevant state Premier.

Role of the Governors[edit]

The role of state Governor in modern times is largely symbolic. Nevertheless, the state Governors, like the Governor-General, retain the full panoply of the reserve powers of the Crown. This has been shown on two recent occasions.

In 1987 the Governor of Queensland, Sir Walter Campbell, refused to accept the advice of the National Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to dismiss his entire ministry, who were about to depose him. Campbell believed that Bjelke-Petersen had lost the confidence of his own party and was behaving irrationally. Bjelke-Petersen subsequently resigned.

In 1989 the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Phillip Bennett, refused to grant a fresh dissolution to the Liberal Premier, Robin Gray, who had just lost his majority at a state election. Although no one party had a majority in the new House of Assembly, Bennett took the view that Gray no longer had the confidence of the Parliament and could not advise him to call a second election. Gray then resigned and Bennett commissioned a minority Labor government.

In the event of a Governor-General's death, incapacity, removal, resignation or absence overseas, each of the State Governors has a dormant commission to become the Administrator of the Commonwealth, that is, to take on the Governor-General's duties until he returns from overseas or a new appointment is made. The convention has been that the longest-serving State Governor is appointed Administrator. When Peter Hollingworth resigned in May 2003, Sir Guy Green, Governor of Tasmania, took on that role, serving until Major-General Michael Jeffery took office in August 2003.

Backgrounds of governors[edit]

In 1976 South Australia appointed Sir Douglas Nicholls as the first (and, to date, the only) Aboriginal governor of an Australian state.

South Australia was also the first state to appoint a woman as governor, when Dame Roma Mitchell took office in 1991. However, with the appointment of Penelope Wensley in July 2008, Queensland has had three female governors, more than any other state. Queensland is also the only state to have had two female governors in succession (Wensley succeeded Quentin Bryce). South Australia has had two female governors, and New South Wales one. Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania are yet to have their first female governor. The Northern Territory, the only mainland territory to have an Administrator, has had one female administrator (Sally Thomas).

Governors of non-Anglo-Australian background have been appointed in recent years. These include Doctor Ken Michael (Greek; Western Australia), Sir James Gobbo (Italian; Victoria), Professor David de Kretser (Sri Lankan; Victoria), Professor Marie Bashir (Lebanese; New South Wales) and Alex Chernov (Russian: Victoria).

John Landy, a former governor of Victoria, and Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, a former governor of South Australia, are former Australian Olympic medallists.

Contemporary changes and prospects[edit]

The Northern Territory received self-government in 1979 under its own Administrator appointed by the Governor-General. The Commonwealth Prime Minister, not the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, advises the governor-general on the appointment of the Administrator.

Recent proposals for an Australian Republic have indirectly involved the office of state governor. In the lead up to the 1999 republican referendum, state governments were required to consider state links to the Crown and thus the validity of appointing the Governor through the Queen. At a constitutional convention in Gladstone, Queensland, the states indicated that, if the referendum was successful, governors should be appointed by the parliament, although agreement on the exact method of appointment was not reached. As the referendum failed, no state altered the appointment method.

Current state Governors[edit]

Name Image State Term Title
Dame Marie Bashir Marie-bashir-in-wahroonga-2008 Crop.jpg New South Wales 28 March 2001
13 years, 143 days
Governor of New South Wales
Penelope Wensley Penny Wensley (1).jpg Queensland 29 July 2008
5 years, 358 days
Governor of Queensland
Kevin Scarce Kevin Scarce in 2008.jpg South Australia 8 August 2007
6 years, 348 days
Governor of South Australia
Alex Chernov Badge of the Governor of Victoria.svg Victoria 8 April 2011
3 years, 105 days
Governor of Victoria
vacant Western Australia Governor of Western Australia
vacant Tasmania Governor of Tasmania

The position of Governor of Western Australia is vacant following the expiration of Malcolm McCusker's term on 30 June 2014. Wayne Martin, the Chief Justice of Western Australia, is currently acting as Administrator of the State. The position of Governor of Tasmania is vacant following the death of Peter Underwood on 7 July 2014.

Current Administrator of the self-governing territories[edit]

Name Image State Term Title
Sally Thomas Northern Territory 31 October 2011
2 years, 264 days
Administrator of the Northern Territory
Hon Gary Hardgrave Norfolk Island 1 July 2014
0 years, 21 days
Administrator of Norfolk Island
Jon Stanhope JonStanhope2006.jpg Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands 5 October 2012
1 year, 290 days
Administrator of Australian Indian Ocean Territories

See also[edit]