Colony and Empire

Section Three

Rulers: Regal and Vice-Regal


Following the Federation of Australia in 1901, the role of each Governor-General was as "the principal representative of the British Government in Australia and, as such, was a protector of British and imperial interests". The position of Governor-General was viewed as a "quasi-diplomatic agent of the British Government".(58)

So, therefore, the role of the Governors-General to Australia - at least in the early years of the Australian Commonwealth - was to look after British interests (not Australian interests). On several occasions, these Governor-Generals acted against Australia's national interest, and sought to pursue the interests of Britain instead. This was shown by the actions of several Governor-Generals: putting pressure on Australian Governments to change immigration laws (1901), withholding documents from Australian Governments (1903), lobbying for Australia to donate a dreadnought (battleship) to Britain (1909), pressuring the Australian Government to "automatically" put the Australian Navy under British control in time of war (1909), encouraging the British Government to extract more debt repayments than the Australian Government was offering (1918), and encouraging the British Government to deploy British Secret Service agents into Australia (1919).(59)

It was not until 1926 that an Imperial Conference resolved that the role of Governor-General was simply to be a "representative of the Crown", and to no longer be "the representative or agent of His Majesty's Government in Great Britain".(60)

In 1930 the Australian Government decided to appoint an Australian-born judge, Sir Isaac Isaacs, to the position; but, as the Governor-General was now viewed as the "representative of the monarch in his personal capacity", King George V insisted that he should be able to make the choice of Governor-General himself - "subject of course to the concurrence of the British Prime Minister".(61)

The King wanted to appoint Lord Birdwood to the position, but the Australian Prime Minister, James Scullin, fought against George V's view that "it was not desirable to appoint a local (Australian) man". After much battling, delays, and stonewalling by the King and the British Government, Scullin won - and Isaac Isaacs was appointed as the first Australian-born Governor-General, taking office in 1931.(62)

There was a similar occurrence in 1945-46 when the Labor Premier of New South Wales, William McKell, became determined to appoint an Australian-born person to the position of Governor of N.S.W., while the British government was determined not to appoint an Australian. McKell submitted to the Dominion Office in London that Captain J.M. Armstrong, of the cruiser HMAS Australia, be appointed. The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs countered this with a suggested list of fifteen British generals, admirals, and air vice-marshals. Correspondence went back and forth between the two opposing camps, for several months. McKell finally submitted the name of Australia's General John Northcott, who had just been appointed as Commander of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. In January 1946, the British countered McKell by informing him that "with the King's approval... His Majesty would be prepared to make available for this appointment the Queen's brother, the Honourable Michael Bowes Lyon". McKell replied that this suggestion was "unacceptable". McKell then asked the then Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Chifley, to intervene directly with the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and at the same time to release Northcott from his duties in Japan in order to avoid British obstruction. Following this, Northcott's appointment as Governor of New South Wales was announced on the 1st of April 1946.(63)

Prior to 1926, all of Australia's Governor-Generals were nominated by the British Government, and therefore all of them were British - in fact, almost every one was a British Baron or Earl (except one - who later became a Viscount). Following the end of Isaacs' term in 1936, up until the appointment of Lord Casey in 1965, every Governor-General was British (with the one exception of an Australian ex-politician), every one of which was a British Baron, Viscount, or General (and including one British Prince). However, even the Australian-born Lord Casey was not considered as "truly Australian" by some, as he had "served the British Government in a number of important positions and held an English peerage".(64)

It is apparent that, at least up until 1965, the general intention (of the British government, then of the Australian government) was to ensure that the position of Governor-General was being used to represent the "Britishness" of the State; to reflect the "British mind-set".(65)

Also, it should be noted that the influence of Britain still remained; for instance, in regards to the appointment of the Duke of Gloucester (Prince Henry) to the position of Governor-General (1945-1947), "the Labor Government of the day did not want to appoint him, but did so under pressure from the British Government".(66)

From 1965 (or from 1969 if we exclude Lord Casey) all of Australia's Governor-Generals were - finally - not part of the "British" representation of the State (but even then, that is only if we don't exclude those post-1965 Governor-Generals who carried British Knighthoods - which was most of them).

Note: The plural form of Governor-General may be given as Governor-Generals or as Governors-General.(67)

Note: The first Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia was the Earl of Hopetoun (also referred to as Lord Hopetoun). However, Sir Charles FitzRoy (Governor of New South Wales from 1851 to 1855) and Sir William Denison (Governor of New South Wales from 1855 to 1861) "bore for a time the additional title Governor-General because their jurisdiction extended also to other colonies than New South Wales. Subsequently each colony was granted its own Governor and the title Governor-General was not revived until the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901."(68)


Both before, and after, Federation in 1901, the British-appointed Governors and Governor-Generals, and even the British Government itself, were known to interfere in Australian political matters. The King and His Dominion Governors, by H.V. Evatt, gives several instances of this.(69)

One example of British interference, from as late as 1976, was that - in that year - "the Queen acting on the advice of the British Parliament rejected the Sovereign State of Queensland's recommendation for its Governor".(70)

Also, in 1906 the South Australian premier sought to have a South Australian appointed as the next state governor, but the British government refused to co-operate.(71)

However, the most significant of such Vice-Regal actions in Australia were those of Sir Philip Game and Sir John Kerr:

In 1932 the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, sacked Jack Lang's NSW Labor Government, following a serious political crisis between the NSW and Federal governments during which Lang advocated "a moratorium on the payments of overseas interest debts".(72)

W.G. McMinn, in his highly regarded book, A Constitutional History of Australia, summarised the situation: It may also be of interest to note that as early as March 1931 the Governor of South Australia was urging Game to dismiss Lang.(74)

In 1975 the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, sacked Gough Whitlam's federal Labor Government, following a crisis brought about by the refusal of the Liberal Opposition to pass (in the Senate) the Supply Bills that were necessary to finance the operations of all Government services and departments.

Again; W.G. McMinn has succinctly summarised the situation:


Some points of interest may also be noted here:

1) In 1916 the NSW Governor, Sir Gerald Strickland, attempted to dismiss the NSW Premier (that is to say, he tried to sack the NSW Government).(78)

2) In 1914 the Tasmanian Governor, Sir William Macartney, attempted to dissolve the Tasmanian Parliament, against the wishes of the Government and the Assembly. Premier Earle (Labor Party) had been commissioned by the Governor, subject to certain conditions. Earle, upon taking office in April 1914, had breached his undertaking to the Governor by refusing to hold an immediate election as he had promised. Instead, the Labor Party used its Assembly majority to refer the matter to the Colonial Office, which then repudiated the Governor's conduct.(79)

3) Supply Bills have been blocked prior to the 1975 crisis; for example:

The Verran government (Labor Party) in South Australia was forced into an election in 1912 following the rejection of a supply bill (however, it should be noted that the Labor government had attached to the Supply Bill a proposal to establish a state brickworks).(80)

The Labor government of John Cain (senior) in Victoria was forced into an election in November 1947, following the blocking of supply in the Legislative Council (by the Liberal Party and Country Party) in October 1947. The Labor Party lost government, and almost half of their seats, in the ensuing election.(81)

In Tasmania in 1948 the Cosgrove Labor Government was subject to a blocking of supply by the Liberal Party in the Legislative Council. The Labor Party was able to form a new government following the subsequent election, although three independents in the Legislative Assembly held the balance of power.(82)

In Victoria in 1952 a majority in the Legislative Council, comprised of the Labor Party as well as dissident Liberals, blocked supply against the Country Party government of J.G.B. McDonald.(83)

In Queensland in April 1957, the Australian Labor Party's state executive expelled from the party its then leader, Premier Gair. Gair, with 15 backbenchers and all of his ministry (except one) then formed the Queensland Labor Party. When parliament resumed in April 1957, the ALP joined with the Liberal and Country parliamentarians in blocking supply against the Gair government. After the subsequent election, a new coalition government was formed by the Liberal and Country parties.(84)

It is ironic to note, regarding the federal events of 1975, that the latter two instances were brought about by the Labor Party.

4) In what "may be described as one of the most flagrantly unconstitutional acts in Australian constitutional history" occurred in 1924 "when the Governor of Tasmania with the general approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies assented to a money bill which had not been passed by the Legislative Council which had requested amendments to it."(85)

5) The use of the Governor-General's powers had been alluded to prior to the 1975 crisis. For instance, "In 1972... Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck gave a clear warning that those powers can and will be used. Hasluck threatened to dissolve Parliament if the Labor Government attempted to introduce policies for which it has no mandate, in particular the abolition of preferential voting and its replacement by first-past-the-post".(86)


Australia does not have a truly Australian Head of State. Our Head of State is an English Queen, who "is not an Australian, does not live in Australia and, worst of all in terms of our national dignity, has her principal loyalty and commitment to another country (her country, the United Kingdom)".(87)

Also, the position of the British Monarch (and therefore that of Australia's Head of State) is founded upon five principles which are repugnant to Australian society, and which would never be accepted as the basis for any reorganisation of the position of our national Head of State (nor for any other public position).

The five principles are:

Colony and Empire

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