Official Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia
The Official Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia and his staff provide governors-general with the necessary support to enable them to carry out their constitutional, statutory, ceremonial and public duties. The position of Official Secretary was established in 1901, although only statutorily established in its modern form in 1984. It was abolished in 1927 after the Parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra, but was recreated in 1931.
The support provided by the Office of the Official Secretary includes the organisation of, and advice relating to, their duties, hospitality for official functions, and administration of the Australian honours and Awards system. The Official Secretary is ex officio Secretary of the Order of Australia.
The Office also manages and maintains the official properties and associated heritage buildings and grounds, and opens the properties to members of the public for events sponsored by charitable institutions. The Official Secretary is supported in his role by program managers responsible for Executive Support, Household and Property, Organisation Services, and by the Director of the Honours Secretariat.
The best known Official Secretary is Sir David Smith, who served five governors-general between 1973 and 1990. He was Official Secretary to Sir John Kerr at the time of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. Following the dismissal of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the swearing-in of the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, Smith read out the proclamation of the dissolution of Parliament, on the steps of the then Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) in Canberra, with Whitlam and a large crowd attending. The Official Secretary's office was referred to in Whitlam's famous address to the crowd:
Well may we say "God save the Queen" because nothing will save the Governor-General. The proclamation you have just heard read by the Governor-General's Official Secretary was countersigned "Malcolm Fraser", who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's Cur.
At that time, the Official Secretary was an officer of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, on secondment to Government House. The department held and processed all Government House's personnel and financial records. This lack of formal independence led some of Smith's critics to bad-mouth him in 1976 for having failed to keep Whitlam and his departmental head informed of Kerr’s thinking in the period leading up to Whitlam's dismissal. To put an end to these slurs, Smith resolved to secure some formal independence for himself, his office and staff. Sir John Kerr, Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen all agreed with him but urged a cautious delay. The right time finally arrived in 1984 under the Hawke government.
The 1984 amendment to the Governor-General Act 1974 provided for the establishment of a statutory office of Official Secretary, to be appointed by the Governor-General-in-Council, to employ the necessary staff, and to hold office at the Governor-General’s pleasure. All personnel and financial records were transferred to Government House. Since 1985, an annual report of the Official Secretary is presented to both houses of parliament.
Some earlier Official Secretaries played significant political roles in their own right. Lord Hopetoun had brought his own private secretary, Captain Edward Wallington, who handled all his communications with London. The Australians resented an Englishman being in charge of official business. At that time, the payment of the Governor-General’s staff and the maintenance of the two official establishments in Sydney and Melbourne was at the governor-general’s personal expense. His successor Lord Tennyson was frugal by nature, and wanted some relief from this financial burden. The Prime Minister Alfred Deakin suspected that Tennyson was reporting on him to London and trying to interfere on matters of policy, such as the naval agreement between Britain and Australia. The Official Secretary would have been involved in these intrigues. He therefore proposed that the Governor-General's Official Secretary be paid for by the Australian government, as long as it was also able to appoint him. The British government objected (privately) because this would mean that the governor-general could not carry out what was seen in London as his broader role in supervising the Australian government. While Tennyson shared this understanding of his role, he nevertheless agreed to Deakin's proposal, and Parliament approved the arrangement in August 1902. However, the relations between the two men, which had been frosty, were not improved by this episode, and Deakin did not encourage Tennyson to seek an extension of his one-year term.
In 1916, George Steward, Official Secretary to Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, founded and headed the Counter-Espionage Bureau, Australia's first secret service, whose agents pursued Industrial Workers of the World and Sinn Féin activists. Munro Ferguson was as unenthusiastic about these duties of his Official Secretary (whom he dubbed 'Pickle the Spy') and the unsavoury characters who consequently lurked about Government House as he was with the secret political work which Steward sometimes performed for Prime Minister Billy Hughes.
The longest serving Official Secretary was Sir Murray Tyrrell, who served six governors-general over 26 years, 1947–1973.
The current Official Secretary is Mark Fraser, who began duty on 26 June 2014.
List of Official Secretaries
- Australian Dictionary of Biography: John Henry Starling CMG OBE
- Peter Coleman: The Official Secretary’s Story
- Odgers: House of Representatives Practice
- Brian Carroll: Australia's Governors General
- ADB: Sir George Steward
- Geoffrey Bolton: Edmund Barton
- NLA: Papers of Lord Tennyson
- It's an Honour: Sir George Steward KBE
- It's an Honour: George Steward: CMG
- Australian Dictonary of Biography: Sir George Steward
- Christopher Cunneen: William John McKell
- It's an Honour: Douglas Sturkey CVO
- Resignation of Douglas Sturkey and appointment of Martin Bonsey
- It's an Honour: Martin Bonsey LVO
- It's an Honour: Martin Bonsey CVO
- It's an Honour: Martin Bonsey AO
- It's an Honour: Malcolm Hazell CVO
- Official Secretary to the Governor-General of New Zealand
- Secretary to the Governor General of Canada