Throughout most of history, governments – usually monarchies headed by kings, emperors, pharaohs and other major or minor tyrants – actually owned everything under their rule, including, believe it or not, the people. In those regimes the population was considered to be subjects, not citizens. That means that the people were treated as the underlings, subjected to the will of the ruler.
– Tibor Machan, The Orange Grove, The Orange County Register, Apr 15, 1999.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the head of State is a monarch, or sovereign, who is governed and bound by the Constitution.
In centuries past, the monarch exercised direct political power and governed as a political and administrative figure. Absolute monarchs governed with few restraints on their power. Some monarchs claimed the divine right of kings, asserting that they were chosen by God to rule.
By contrast, the modern British monarchy is above politics. The monarch is a figurehead who performs ceremonial functions, but does not exercise political power. This power resides in the Parliament.
Australia’s Head of State is Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. She is represented in Australia by the Governor-General.
Whilst the Constitution gives the monarch and the Governor-General extensive powers, our political system has evolved into a liberal democracy in which Parliament and the Executive share power and the monarch acts on the advice of the government of the day.
This is regarded as appropriate because both the monarch and the Governor-General are unelected. The monarch inherits the position through birth and the Governor-General is appointed by the government of the day.
The appointment of the Governor-General is a good example of how a constitutional monarchy works. Section 2 of the Constitution stipulates that the Governor-General is appointed by the Queen, but for the last half century and more the appointment has been made by the Prime Minister of the day.
The current Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, was chosen by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His predecessor, Quentin Bryce, was chosen by the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in 2008. Michael Jeffery, was chosen by Prime Minister John Howard in 2003. His predecessor, Peter Hollingworth, was also chosen by Howard in 2001. Previously, Sir William Deane was chosen by the Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1996. In 1989, the former ALP leader, Bill Hayden, was chosen to be Governor-General by the man who replaced him, Bob Hawke. In all these instances, the Queen accepted the advice of the Prime Minister in making the appointment.
Similar examples of constitutional monarchy in action is the automatic granting of Royal Assent to legislation passed by Parliament, even though Section 58, Section 59 and Section 60 of the Constitution permit the monarch and the Governor-General to refuse assent.
There is considerable debate about the extent to which the Governor-General can exercise his own initiative. The precise nature of the reserve powers is unclear, although it has been shown that the Governor-General has influence in decisions concerning:
- the appointment of a prime minister in extraordinary circumstances, such as the appointment of John McEwen following the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967.
- the early dissolution of Parliament, such as occurred in 1951 and 1983. In 1951, the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, accepted the advice of the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, for a double dissolution of the Parliament, even though there was some dispute about whether the requirements of Section 57 had been satisfied. In 1983, Sir Ninian Stephen demanded additional information from Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser before he would agree to grant a double dissolution.
The most notable example of the Governor-General not acting on the advice of the Prime Minister was on November 11, 1975, when Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam as prime minister.
At the time, a letter from the Queen’s Private Secretary made it clear that the monarch would play no part in domestic political or constitutional issues.
The debate about Australia becoming a republic partly centres on an argument about whether the system of constitutional monarchy is working adequately, whether its operations need clarification, and whether the monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, is any longer relevant in a modern democracy.