The Governor-General's duties are many and varied, but fall roughly into three categories: constitutional and statutory duties, formal ceremonial duties, and non-ceremonial social duties.
Constitutional and statutory duties
These derive firstly from the Constitution, and in particular, its first two sections. Section 1 provides that "The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of The Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives,...", and Section 2 provides that "A Governor-General appointed by The Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth, and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during The Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of The Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him."
The Constitution also makes other provisions about the office of Governor-General. It provides that the Executive power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in The Queen and exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative. It provides for the Governor-General to appoint a Federal Executive Council to advise him/her in the government of the Commonwealth, to establish departments of State and to appoint Ministers of State to administer them, to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, to give Royal assent in the Queen's name to a Bill which has been passed by both Houses of the Parliament, to exercise the command-in-chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth, to name but a few matters.
The Constitution sets out many other powers for the Governor-General to exercise as part of our machinery of government, but by far the majority of his powers and duties are imposed upon him by statute, that is, by Acts of the Australian Parliament. Virtually every Act empowers the Governor-General to perform some executive function - to issue proclamations, to make and terminate appointments to public office, to issue regulations - but always acting on the advice of his Ministers in the Executive Council.
It is in the nature of the Governor-General's office that he acts on the advice of his Ministers but, as Sir Paul Hasluck (G-G 30/4/69-10/7/74) put it in his 1972 William Queale Memorial lecture,
"... he is under no compulsion to accept it unquestioningly. He has a responsibility for seeing that the system works as required by the law and conventions of the Constitution but he does not try to do the work of Ministers. For him to take part in political argument would be both overlapping the boundaries of his office and lessening his own influence. He can himself question a conclusion, seek to know the reasons for it, draw attention to relevant considerations to ensure they are taken into account, and satisfy himself that the proposal does express the single mind of his advisers, but he himself, while influencing the outcome of discussion in this way, needs to be careful not to be an advocate of any partisan cause. In doing this he has two dominant interests - ... the stability of government (no matter from which political party it is drawn) and regard for the total and non-partisan overall interests of the people and the nation."
There is also a constitutional provision which places the command-in-chief of the armed forces with the Governor-General. These days the exercise of that power is qualified by a number of statutes of the Commonwealth Parliament and by regulations made under them. In their day-to-day administration and operation the services are under the command of the Chief of the Defence Force and his subordinate officers. The placing of the command-in-chief with the Governor-General ensures that, in the final analysis, ultimate control of the armed forces remains with and will be exercised by the civil power, the Government of the day and the Governor-General acting with the advice of his Ministers.
It would be very easy to conclude that a Governor-General who is required to act on the advice of his Ministers has no power at all, or that Ministers whose advice has to be taken have no restraints placed on their use of executive power, but to do so would be to miss the whole point. For their part, Ministers are not able to carry into effect on their own all of the executive powers conferred by the Acts of Parliament which they administer, but rather they must seek the approval of their fellow Executive Councillors and the Governor-General. So far as the Governor-General is concerned, the question is not at all how much power does he himself have or exercise, but rather how much absolute power does his presence in the machinery of government deny to others who must first seek to advise and persuade him.
For the vast majority of his fellow Australians, their contact with the Governor-General is through his public duties - both ceremonial and non-ceremonial.
Formal ceremonial duties
The Governor-General's ceremonial duties themselves derive from his relationship to the Parliament and the Government. To mark the opening of a new Parliament the Governor-General delivers the speech from the throne, in which the Government sets out its legislative programme. He administers oaths of office to Prime Ministers and Ministers, to Administrators of Territories of the Commonwealth, to judges of Federal Courts, and to the Auditor-General. He receives the credentials of foreign Ambassadors and the High Commissioners of Republics within the Commonwealth. He holds investitures at Government House and elsewhere, and invests recipients of honours and awards with their insignia. He attends Anzac Day and Remembrance Day commemorative services and leads the nation in its tributes to its war dead. He is the reviewing officer at many military parades, at which he presents commissions and prizes to graduating officers, or new colours and banners to regiments and other units of the armed services. He receives and entertains visiting heads of state in accordance with the accepted standards of international diplomacy and protocol.
In carrying out all of these acts of state ceremonial, whether at Government House or in public the Governor-General is fulfilling his duties as Australia's constitutional Head of State, in the absence of The Queen who is the Head of State.
Non-ceremonial social duties
The most time and energy-consuming aspects of the Governor-General's responsibilities are his non-ceremonial public duties. These, too, may be discharged at Government House or anywhere else within the Commonwealth, for the Governor-General's jurisdiction extends over the whole of Australia and its Territories. These duties include opening conferences on behalf of national and international organisations; attending meetings of national and international societies and institutions; attending major public gatherings such as exhibitions, agricultural shows and sports meetings; attending academic occasions, meetings of learned societies and professional institutes, and presentations of major awards; attending functions as patron or principal office-bearer of the organisation concerned; official visits to a region, an area, a locality, or to see a particular industry at work.
Despite the range and variety of the organisations and their functions, the intention of the Governor-General in accepting many invitations is generally the same - to acknowledge the standing and the worth of the host organisation or institution in the community and the value of its contribution to the well-being of our society, to encourage by his presence and by his interest the continuation of those activities, and to meet his fellow Australians wherever they may live or work.
Finally, by receiving the many hundreds of callers at his two official residences and, by extending hospitality as hosts to the many thousands of guests at functions held at Government House and Admiralty House, the Governor-General acknowledges and encourages the contribution made by individual Australians to our national life.
For more information see: www.gg.gov.au