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A Response to Paul Kelly on our Head of State

By David Smith - posted Thursday, 18 August 2011

In his article “Porch light on for Queen Elizabeth and Barrack Obama” (The Australian, 29 June 2011) Paul Kelly wrote “For the record, and for republicans and monarchists alike, the Queen, not the Governor-General, is our head of state, a somewhat elementary point we need to get right.”

This ex cathedra statement is neither elementary nor right, and the article is totally devoid of evidence to support it.  This lack of evidence is not surprising, for there is none.  What is surprising, however, is that Paul Kelly’s current view as Editor-at-Large of The Australian contradicts the view heheld in 1995 as the paper’s Editor-in-Chief.

In The Weekend Australian of 24-25 June 1995, in an editorial headed “Mr Hayden was right to speak out”, Paul Kelly described the then Governor-General as head of state.  “There will be many different views in the community about the issues raised this week by the Governor-General, Mr. Bill Hayden.  Whether Australians agree with him or not, it is perfectly appropriate at this stage of our constitutional development that the head of state address important issues of social policy.”  That opening paragraph was followed by two more references in the editorial to the Governor-General as head of state.


Paul Kelly was right in 1995 and he is quite wrong now.  Just what has prompted this change of mind on the part of one of Australia’s most distinguished journalists is not in evidence, but let me follow his recent ex cathedra statement with one of my own.

The Queen is our Sovereign and the Governor-General is our head of state, and for this ex cathedra statement I provide the following evidence.  I begin with some examples of anecdotal evidence: the constitutional, judicial and legal evidence will follow.

As long ago as 8 December 1977 The Canberra Times referred to the Governor-General as the head of state.

From 1992 to 1996, fifteen editions of the Commonwealth Government Directory described the Governor-General as head of state.

On 31 May 1995, in a Williamson Community Leadership lecture in Melbourne, former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen referred to the Governor-General as the head of state.

Scholars such as Brian Galligan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, in his A Federal Republic: Australia’s Constitutional System of Government, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), and Stuart Macintyre, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, in his Australian Senate Lecture “A Federal Commonwealth, An Australian Citizenship”, 14 February 1997, described the Governor-General as the head of state.


On 7 June 1995, in a ministerial statement to the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Paul Keating referred to the Governor-General as the head of state.

On 6 September 1996 The Australian referred to the Governor-General as the head of state.

On 6 March 2009, in a press release announcing the Governor-General’s visit to Africa, Prime Minster Kevin Rudd referred to her as the head of state.

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About the Author

Sir David Smith was Official Secretary to five Governors-General from 1973 to 1990. He is a former visiting scholar in the Faculty of Law at the Australian National University. His book Head of State: the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal was launched in November 2005 by former Governor-General Bill Hayden.

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