August 31

Dismissal and double dissolution

In times of great political division within the country, or within a state they are often calls on the viceroy – the Governor-General or the Governor – to dismiss the government. Neither the Governor-General nor the Governor has a general discretion to do this.

That is because we are a constitutional monarchy;  governors-general and governors exercise the powers of the Crown in accordance with established constitutional conventions. These powers are not to be used for political reasons- for example, because the government appears to be unpopular in opinion polling or has enacted controversial legislation which is unpopular.

Precedents indicate that a government may be dismissed under the viceregal reserve powers in one of two cases. In either case any such action taken by a viceroy will necessarily be controversial.

…the Lang government..


The first case is where the viceroy finds that the government has engaged in continuing and serious breaches of the law. 

The most prominent example was in 1932 when the Federal government paid interest due to overseas bondholders which the NSW Premier Lang had suspended. The Federal government legislated to extract this from NSW.

When Jack Lang lost a challenge in the High Court, he directed all government accounts be paid in cash, and withdrew the balance of all government accounts.  The Governor, Sir Philip Game, warned him that in his opinion, this was illegal. Lang persisted and the Governor dismissed him, appointing a caretaker Premier and ordering an election which Jack Lang lost.

…the Whitlam government…

The second case where a government may be dismissed is where it is unable to obtain supply that is the parliamentary authorisation to spend money raised by taxes.  In Australia, the Senate remains the only upper house which can refuse or delay the granting of supply. In 1975, Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government as supply began to run out. 

There have been calls in recent times that the Governor-General, Ms. Quentin Bryce, dismiss the Gillard government and order a double dissolution of the Parliament.

But there are no grounds on which the Governor-General could properly act if she were so minded to do.  First, there is no suggestion that the government has been engaged in continuing and serious breaches of the law, or that supply is being denied.

…a double dissolution… 


( Continued below ) 
Further, the constitutional trigger which would allow a double dissolution is not present.Under section 57 of the Constitution, the Senate must twice reject a bill passed by the House of Representatives with a delay of three months between the two rejections.

The failure to pass, or passing the bill with amendments to which the House will not agree, has the same effect.

If this constitutional trigger is in place, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. (Such dissolution shall not take place within six months before the date of the expiry of the House of Representatives.)

Whenever the constitutional trigger has been in place, and the Prime Minister has requested a double dissolution, the Governor-General has granted this

.But at the present time no such trigger exists because there is no bill which has been so rejected.  Nor, as we have explained, are there any constitutional grounds on which the Gov general could exercise her reserve powers and dismissed the government.

In the present circumstances, the government could only fall if it lost the confidence of the House of Representatives.



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