Governor-General (or Governor General) is a term used both historically and currently to designate the appointed representative of a head of state or their government for a particular territory, historically in a colonial context. The title has been and is still used for representatives of the British Crown in territories of the Commonwealth or in countries which were once British possessions. A primary example is the position as Governor-General of India, which existed from 1773 to 1858, when it was replaced by the term Viceroy and Governor-General, usually abbreviated to Viceroy. The Representative of the Crown is a term used in various constitutions to refer to the Governor-General.
Today the title Governor-General is used in those member countries of the Commonwealth of which Queen Elizabeth II remains the titular head of state or sovereign. In its modern usage, the term Governor-General originated in those self-governing Dominions of the British Empire, such as Canada and Australia, which were federations of British colonies. Since each of these individual colonies already had a Governor, the Queen's representative to the federated Dominion was given the superior title Governor-General.
In these countries, now known as Commonwealth realms, the Governor-General acts as the Queen's representative, performing all the ceremonial and constitutional functions of a head of state. Except in rare cases, the Governor-General only acts in accordance with constitutional convention and upon the advice of the Prime Minister. In principle, the Queen could overrule the Governor-General, but this has not happened in modern times.
The Governor-General retains all the reserve powers that the Queen exercises in the United Kingdom. This was shown most clearly in 1975, when the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, despite the fact that Whitlam retained the confidence of the lower house of the Parliament, and commissioned a new Prime Minister who had given an undertaking that he would seek an immediate dissolution of parliament.
Until the 1920s, the Governor-General also acted as the representative of the British Government in each Dominion. The Governor-General could be instructed by the Colonial Secretary on the exercise of some of his functions and duties, such as the use or withholding of the Royal Assent from legislation. In 1927, implementing a decision of a Commonwealth Conference, this role was abolished, and relations with the United Kingdom were placed in the hands of a high commissioner.
Today the following countries have Governors-General: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Solomon Islands.
In Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, the Governors-General were originally British, and were appointed on the advice of the British Government. They were considered to be not only the personal representative of the monarch, but also representing British interests in general and the interests of the British Government in particular. In 1929, however, the Australian Prime Minister James Scullin established the right of a Dominion Prime Minister to advise the monarch directly on the appointment of a Governor-General, by insisting that his choice (Sir Isaac Isaacs, an Australian) prevail over the recommendation of the British government. The convention was gradually established throughout the Commonwealth that the Governor-General is a citizen of the country concerned, and is appointed on the advice of the government of that country, with no input from the British government. The interests of Britain and her government are now solely represented by the British High Commissioner to the country in question.
The Governor-General is usually a person with a distinguished record of public service, more often than not a former politician. The Governor-General is formally appointed by the Queen, following the specific request of the Prime Minister of the country concerned. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are the only realms that elect their Governors General in some form. The Governor-General of Papua New Guinea is selected by a parliamentary vote, as is the Governor-General of the Solomon Islands.
Different realms have different arrangements governing who acts in place of the Governor-General following his or her death, resignation, or incapacity:
- In Australia, the government of the day appoints a person as 'Administrator of the Commonwealth' to perform the necessary official functions, pending a decision and consultation with the Queen about a permanent replacement as Governor-General. By convention, the Administrator has usually been the senior Governor of the Australian states, but there is nothing to prevent a different person from being appointed.
- In Canada and New Zealand, it is the Chief Justice.
- In Papua New Guinea, it is the Speaker of the House.
- Many Caribbean countries have a specific office of 'Deputy Governor-General.'
Most Commonwealth countries that originally had Governors-General are now republics, with the head of state being a President. Some are parliamentary republics, like India, where the presidency is a ceremonial post, like that of the Queen. In others, like South Africa, the presidency is an executive post, as in the United States. Australia held a referendum on becoming a parliamentary republic in 1999, but this was rejected on various grounds, including that the President would not be directly elected, but instead chosen by Parliament. Barbados and Jamaica have also announced plans to become republics, in each case with a ceremonial President replacing the Queen as head of state, as Trinidad and Tobago did in 1976.
Traditionally, the Governor-General's official attire was the Windsor uniform or other ceremonial military dress, but this practice been abandoned in most jurisdictions in modern times. In South Africa, the Governor-Generals of the Union by the AfrikanerNationalist government chose not to wear the uniform.
In most Commonwealth realms, the flag of the Governor-General has been the standard pattern of a blue flag with the Royal Crest (lion standing on a crown) above a scroll with the name of the jurisdiction. In Canada, however, this was replaced with crest from the country's coat of arms, featuring a lion (with a crown) clasping a maple leaf. In the Solomon Islands, the scroll is replaced with a two-headed frigate bird motif, while in Fiji, the former Governor-General's flag featured a whale's tooth.
- From 1636 to 1815 Sweden appointed Governors-General, typically for the Swedish Dominions on the eastern side of the Baltic and in northern Germany, but occasionally also for Scania.
- From 1691 to 1948 the Dutch appointed a Governor-General to govern the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia.
- From 1887 to 1945 the French appointed a Governor-General to govern French Indo-China (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).