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Governors of the Australian states
The Governors of the Australian states are the representatives in the six states of Australia of Australia's head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. The Governors perform the same constitutional and ceremonial functions at the state level as does the Governor-General of Australia at the national level. The State Governors are not subject to the constititutional authority of the Governor-General, but are directly responsible to the Queen of Australia.
The office of Governor is the oldest constitutional office in Australia. Each of the six states was originally 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 26 January 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:
- Western Australia: Captain James Stirling (6 February 1832)
- South Australia: Captain John Hindmarsh (28 December 1836)
- Tasmania: Sir Henry Young (8 January 1855)
- Victoria: Sir Charles Hotham (22 May 1855)
- Queensland: Sir George Bowen (10 December 1859)
(It should be noted that 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.
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.
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, but the states insisted on retaining their independent links to the Crown. 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 (that is, 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, dismissed 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:
- New South Wales: Sir John Northcott (1 August 1946)
- Queensland: Sir John Laverack (1 October 1946)
- Western Australia: Sir James Mitchell (5 October 1948)
- South Australia: Sir James Harrison (4 December 1968)
- Tasmania: Sir Stanley Burbury (5 December 1973)
- Victoria: Sir Henry Winneke (3 June 1974)
The disappearance of British Governors also led to the end of the role of British ministers in the appointment of Governors. From the 1960s onward the Governors were appointed by the Crown on the advice of the state Premiers.
Most of the early colonial Governors were military or naval 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.
From the 1970s the role of state Governor became increasingly symbolic. In 1976 South Australia appointed Sir Douglas Nicholls as the first Aboriginal Governor. South Australia was also the first state to appoint a woman as Governor, when Dame Roma Mitchell took office in 1991. Governors of non-Anglo-Australian background such as Sir James Gobbo of Victoria and Professor Marie Bashir of New South Wales have also been appointed in recent years. Two current governors, John Landy of Victoria and Marjorie Jackson-Nelson of South Australia, are former Australian Olympic medallists.
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, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to dismiss his entire ministry, who were about to depose him. Campbell believed correctly 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.
The State Governors occasionally have a role to play in the national scene. When Peter Hollingworth resigned in May, 2003, there was no deputy to take his place. The convention has been that the longest-serving State Governor should become Administrator until a new appointment could be made. Therefore Sir Guy Green, Governor of Tasmania, took on that role, and became the Administrator of the Government, or in effect acting Governor-General, of Australia, serving until Michael Jeffery took office in August 2003.
The role of the state Governors became a matter of controversy during the debate about Australia becoming a republic, culminating in the 1999 referendum on the republic issue. Some monarchists argued that even if the Australian people decided at a referendum to make Australia a republic (and thus replace the Governor-General with an elected or appointed President), the states would retain their independent links with the Crown and could thus go on appointing state Governors.
Most constitutional experts, however, argued that the Australian people are sovereign within Australia and that such a referendum decision would sever all links between Australia and the Crown. At a more practical level it was argued that if the Australian people decided to abolish the monarchy the Queen would accept this verdict and would voluntarily end her remaining links with the Australian states.
It remains unclear, however, what would be the fate of the office of state Governor if Australia were to become a republic. There would certainly be some sentiment against abolishing the oldest public offices in a country with such a relatively short history. One possibility would be for joint sittings of the state legislatures to appoint Governors.
Lists of Governors of the Australian states
(Includes Lieutenant-Governors in the early colonial period)
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