Co-author of Australian Politics for Dummies, and Associate Lecturer in politics at Deakin University, Zareh Ghazarian, explains what the role the Governor-General has in a hung parliament.


What’s the regular role of the Governor-General?

The Governor-General is the Queen’s representative in Australia. According to the Constitution, the Governor General has some important powers such as hiring and firing ministers. In fact, the role of prime minister isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution. However, since Australia bases its political system on the British model, the convention is that the Governor-General only acts on the advice of the prime minister.

What role does he or she play in deciding a hung parliament?

By convention, the Governor General does not really play a role in deciding which party will form the next government. This is a decision that will be made by the 150 members of the lower house. The first party to secure 76 members will form a majority, but will also have to demonstrate that it can pass budget bills.

Usually after a general election the prime minister advises the Governor General that they can form government in the case of winning a majority of seats. If the serving prime minister led a party that had lost its majority after an election, then they would resign and advise the Governor General to appoint the opposition leader (assuming the opposition had won a majority of seats).

In hung parliaments, however, the current prime minister serves in a caretaker capacity until negotiations have been finalised with those holding the balance of power. Once the decision of the crossbenchers becomes clear, then the prime minister can advise the Governor General that they have the support of these independents and can form a government, or they do not have the support of the independents and the opposition may, in fact, form a majority.

In essence, the Governor General only confirms what the lower house decides and they can not simply install a prime minister. Hung parliaments are political problems that are to be solved by political actors on the floor of the lower house. If it becomes apparent that neither the incumbent government or opposition can form a majority, then fresh elections may be called. However, calling fresh elections is seen to be a last resort.

Quentin Bryce has been criticised for her connection to Labor. Is there a conflict of interest there?

The current Governor General has sought to highlight her familial links with Labor MP Bill Shorten. This is an interesting move that appears to give transparency to her assosications. I’m not sure whether there is a conflict of interest as the formation of government will ultimately be up to the parliamentarians in the lower house, not the Governor General.

Realistically, don’t most GG’s have some sort of political connection?

Governor Generals are supposed to be apolitical actors. However, they are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, so they can be seen to be political appointments in some regards. It is important to remember that in the Australian system of government the Governor General acts only on the advice of the prime minister.

What bearing did the 1975 Constitutional Crisis have on the role of the GG?

In 1975 the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, acted unilaterally and decided to dismiss the elected Whitlam led Labor Government. However, the central issue during 1975 was the issue of passing the budget. The Governor General was concerned that if he did not act, the country would not be able to function as its budget had yet to pass the Senate. As a result, he dismissed Whitlam and installed Malcolm Fraser (leader of the Coalition opposition) as caretaker prime minister in order to pass the budget. The events of 1975 demonstrated that the Governor General could exert immense power of the Australian political process. It must be remembered, however, that Sir John Kerr was criticised for disgarding convention and acting unilaterally in removing the democratically elected government.

In our current situation, there is no urgency regarding the budget. The current situation is a political problem that will no doubt be dealt by the politicians on the floor of the lower house. Based on Westminster conventions, the Governor General should not get involved in this process and should await the advice of the prime minister.