Head of State

Constitutional Monarchy

Australia, like the United Kingdom, is a Constitutional Monarchy. This means the reigning British monarch is our head of state. This system of government is common to 43 countries. As Head of State, the Monarch’s role is limited to constitutional and representational duties. The ability for Australia to make and pass legislation resides solely with our democratically elected Parliament.

While we might know this in theory, what does this mean for how our Commonwealth, and State governments and function?

As our head of state, the monarch must act in accordance with the Australian Constitution. At a practical level, the monarch delegates their powers to their appointed local representatives:  the Governor-General (federal) and the Governors (state). It is customary for the monarch’s delegate/s to provide ‘royal assent’ to any new bills before they become law. Successive changes to Australian law saw a complete untangling of British and Australian legal systems by the mid-1980s. 

Laying down the law

The Letters Patent are the legal instrument used to establish the British colonial Province of South Australia and precisely define its boundaries via the provisions of the South Australia Act 1834.[1]  In this newly proclaimed 1836 British Colony it was the Governor, appointed by the British monarch, who held the decision-making power. Twenty years later, the extensive role of the Governor (and therefore the monarch) was diminished with the passing of the Constitution Act 1856 (SA) and the introduction of responsible government.[2] With the granting of universal manhood suffrage for the House of Assembly, the Act essentially shifted the balance of power from the Governor to the people of South Australia. While this is lauded as one of the most radical and democratic constitutions in the world at that time, women were excluded and didn’t achieve enfranchisement for another 40 years when Queen Victoria, through her delegate, assigned assent to the South Australian Adult Suffrage Bill on 2 February 1895.[3] Today, while South Australia’s Governors still ceremonially represent the monarch, they are in fact appointed on the recommendation of the Premier of South Australia.

Gradual, purposeful change or ‘untying the apron strings’

Since 1856 we have seen incremental changes that transferred the power of the monarch to democratically elected parliamentarians. The most recent legislative change regarding the role of the monarch and British parliament in Australia was made in 1986 when Australian law became formally independent of British parliaments and courts. While our legal system is styled in the Westminster tradition, the Australia Act 1986 brought about the necessary changes for Australia to perform as a sovereign, independent and federal nation.[4] This legislation terminated the power of the Parliament of United Kingdom to legislate for Australia thereby removing one of the last remaining constitutional links between Australia and the UK.

The role of the Monarch and South Australia’s Governor today

The role of the monarch is now largely ceremonial in Australia. All constitutional responsibilities have been delegated by the Head of State to the monarch’s representatives in Australia (Governor General and Governors).  

At a federal and state level both the Governor General and Governors perform a range of constitutional duties including judicial appointments, royal commissions, granting of pardons, assenting of Bills passed by parliament to enact laws, and ensuring smooth transitions between successive governments.

The Governor also has the option under limited circumstances to exercise ‘reserve powers’. These relate to appointing or dismissing ministers, premiers and dissolving parliament.  While reserve powers are rarely used, and we are familiar with the Whitlam dismissal at the Federal level, it is worth noting that South Australia’s first two Governors, Hindmarsh and Gawler, were recalled by the Monarch during the State’s early colonial period.

In South Australia the Governor is recommended by the Premier, appointed by the monarch and responsible to the people of South Australia. Our first Australian-born governor was Major-General Sir James Harrison, appointed in 1968. Our first South Australian born Governor was Sir Mark Oliphant, appointed in 1971. Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls was the first (and only) First Nations person to be appointed Governor of South Australia in 1976.[5] Dame Roma Mitchell was the first female appointed Governor in 1991 (she was also the nation’s first female Judge and Queen’s Counsel)

King Charles III’s current representative in South Australia is Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC.


[1] The Letters Patent included a significant guarantee of First Nations’ right to occupy and enjoy their land; however in practice colonisation proceeded with little regard for the words of the Letters Patent relating to Aboriginal rights to land. https://www.centreofdemocracy.sa.gov.au/collection/?details=1&irn=58&appid=1553577637

[2] You can read more on our blog here about Responsible Government in South Australia. https://www.centreofdemocracy.sa.gov.au/2017/05/responsible-government-for-south-australia/

Responsible Government: Parliament is elected by the people and subject to periodic re-election; the government holds office by maintaining the confidence of the legislature and is liable to forfeit that confidence through mismanagement or adopting disagreeable policies. Thus, the government is accountable to Parliament for its actions and Parliament is accountable to the people who elect it. 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0067205X19890445

[3] While Aboriginal men were given the vote at this time. They weren’t encouraged, but they technically had the right to vote. https://www.centreofdemocracy.sa.gov.au/2020/01/against-her-better-judgement/

[4] This was a coordinated nation-wide undertaking which involved eight Acts (one for each of the six Australian states, one for Australia and one in Britain) which culminated with the passing of the federal Australia Act 1986. The agreement to introduce legislation for a uniform change was made at conferences held in 1982 and 1984 with the Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser and the Premiers of the six states. In South Australia, the Letters Patent was also revoked then reissued by HRH Queen Elizabeth II on 14 February 1986. All eight Acts came into effect with the Proclamation signed by the Queen on 2 March 1986 during her visit to Australia.

[5] He was also the only First Nations person to be knighted.

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