A Governor-General is the representative of the reigning British monarch in a country under British rule.
With 54 countries in the British Commonwealth, managing Britain and her friends is not a simple task. They say that the sun never sets on the British Empire; if the Queen directly oversaw the administration of every country under her wing, it would be literally impossible for her to sleep.
When a country is brought under the Queen's sovereignty, it is written into the country's Constitution that a representative of the ruler of Britain will be assigned to the country, to oversee its administration. This person is called a Governor-General.
In these particular countries, the Governor-General is the highest ranking authority in the land, second only to the King or Queen. Formally, they are given executive authority to act on behalf of the monarch, and their loyalty to their boss requires them to be apolitical. In practice, though, the Governors-General stay in close consultation with the country's Government and under the system of responsible government, they usually act on its advice.
In modern times, candidates for the Governor-General's position are nominated by the ruling Prime Minister to the Queen, who then selects from among the group. The Governor-General does not have to be English; they may be a citizen of the relevant country (and these days, they usually are). Their tenure usually lasts for five years, although the Prime Minister may submit a request to the Queen to remove the Governor-General under unpleasant circumstances.
The tasks of a Governor-General vary from country to country. Primarily, their duties revolve around constitutional regency: the opening of Parliament, the formal creation of legislation, the approval of treaties, the dissolution of Parliament and the instigation of elections. Their duties are also ceremonial: they welcome foreign delegates, open the Olympics and speak on behalf of the country in times of national importance.
Notably, in Australia, Canada and New Zealand (and several other countries), the Governor-General acts as the Commander in Chief of the Defence Force. Again, they rarely act without advice from the country's leader and his Ministry.
But most of all, the Governor-General exists to remind the citizens that the monarchy is still there. Just when you thought it might have been lost down the back of the couch, a Governor-General makes an appearance at a sporting event or horse race looking a little tired and emotional, giving rise to the term, "as drunk as a Governor-General on Melbourne Cup Day."
To give you an idea of the gamut of Governors-General, their esteemed colleagues include:
Sir John Kerr:
- Kerr famously dissolved Parliament in a hotly controversial move known as The Dismissal.
Sir William Deane:
- Deane, while revered as a kind and gentle Governor-General and considered the most charming candidate for the Australian Presidency in the event of a succession from the monarchy, is most famous for opening the Olympic Games in Sydney while three sheets to the wind.
Dr Peter Hollingworth:
- As elsewhere observed, Peter Hollingworth recently resigned after intense pressure over his handling of sex abuse claims in the Anglican church while he was the Archbishop of Brisbane, and allegations elvelled against him of rape.
Nations led by a Governor-General