Yesterday’s long-awaited release of the Palace Letters could breathe some life into Australia’s dormant republican movement. More evidence of then-governor-general Sir John Kerr’s mendacity in the Whitlam government dismissal puts the role of the Queen’s representative back in the spotlight.
But what exactly do governors-general do — and how much does the nation spend on them?
Governors-general by the numbers
The governor-general’s work — managing official duties, maintaining “the official household and properties” and administering the honours system — is facilitated by the office of his or her official secretary.
With a staff of 76 largely Canberra-based employees, the office has about $24 million to play with in 2019-20, according to budget estimates.
It manages property assets of $154 million — largely accounted for by Government House and Admiralty House, but also made up of infrastructure, plants and equipment, and $1.85 million worth of medals.
The governor-general made four official overseas visits in the 2018-19 financial year, attending 51 official functions. All that travelling, both domestic and international, adds up. While the office’s annual reports don’t itemise how much is spent on travel, documents tabled in parliament paint a picture of how much is being spent — and it’s about $1 million a year on flights alone.
During the second half of 2019, Governor-General David Hurley took 87 flights costing more than $620,000.
In 2012 governor-general Quentin Bryce took $712,983 worth of flights in six months — most of which had no other passengers. In the first half of 2017 governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove and his entourage spent nearly $600,000 on travel despite not taking an overseas trip further than the South Pacific.
How do you become a governor-general?
For most of the half-century after federation, governors-general were largely British aristocrats. Kerr was one of a string of former judges — most recently represented by former High Court justice William Deane. The current trend seems to be towards old army men: three of our past four have come from the military top brass.
And while both New Zealand and Canada have been picking more diverse governors-general for decades, Australia’s have all been white men aside from Quentin Bryce.
What do they do — and what can they do?
Sydney University constitutional reform unit director Professor Anne Twomey told Crikey there were three main roles the governor-general performed:
- A symbolic or ceremonial role, which involves visiting the heads of states, hosting events and attending funerals
- A community role, which involves opening halls, handing out awards and visiting bushfire-affected communities etc
- A constitutional role.
The constitutional role consists of attending executive council meetings, signing legislation and making proclamations.
“In nearly all circumstances the governor-general is advised to act on responsible ministers — which is usually the prime minister or executive council,” she says.
But in rare circumstances the governor-general can go rogue and exercise reserved powers, which includes dismissing governments, refusing dissolutions or appointing a government if there’s a hung parliament.
While rare, dismissing governments probably happens more often than we think. Twomey says: “There have been a number of effective dismissals covered with the description of resignation.”
Who do they report to?
Well — no one. While there is a formal relationship between leaders and ministers, there’s no boss-subordinate relationship. The prime minister doesn’t report to the governor-general and vice versa.
But what about the Queen?
A spokesperson for the official secretary to the governor-general said there was no requirement for the governor-general to report to the Queen.
But that isn’t entirely true, Twomey said.
“There is definitely an obligation to write to the Queen [during crises] and let her know, keep her informed … If exercising reserved power, the governor-general is obliged to report to justify why,” she says.
“They’re not exercising the Queen’s powers, but she’s always kept informed.”
In terms of the frequency of communications, that depends entirely on the governor-general’s personality.
“It doesn’t happen so frequently,” Twomey says. “There used to be a regular report every quarter and addition when anything of major political or constitutional significance happened. It depends these days on the personality of the governor-general. Some are quite chatty and like to write letters.”