The Governor of New South Wales is the oldest office in Australia. The Governor administered the colony under the law and in accordance with detailed instructions from London.
As the colonies received self government mainly in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Governor’s functions receded to those of a local constitutional monarch, with the additional function of representing the Imperial British government. The latter ended in 1926, but at the specific request of Australia, the Statute of Westminster, 1931 did not apply to the states.
This meant that in State matters, for example the appointment of the Governor, the Sovereign would act on the formal advice of the British ministers, who almost always acted according to the wishes of the State government.
The only recorded case of disagreement between a Premier and the British ministers was the refusal of renew the appointment of Sir Colin Hannah as Governor of Queensland. He had criticised the Whitlam government in public, and had thus entered the political debate. Governors should of course be above politics. The British view was that as long as the States wanted the British ministers to advise The Queen, they would do so in accordance with constitutional convention. The arrangement whereby the Sovereign was formally advised on State matters lasted until 1986, not because of any wish by the British to remain involved in internal Australian affairs.
It continued because State governments of all parties trusted the British ministers more than they did the Federal government. As this was voluntarily assumed by Australia, it cannot be said that Australia was not independent. In a similar vein, the Canadian constitution could only be amended by the British Parliament until 1982. This was because the Canadians could not agree on an amending formula.
Finding a solution to the position of the Australian States, which was satisfactory to the Commonwealth, all of the States, the British government and The Queen, was not easy. Fortunately The Queen played a significant role in finding such a solution, one which had eluded generations of Australian politicians.
Her Majesty agreed to a solution which is unique in the Commonwelaht and applies to no other Realm , including Canada. This provides that on State matters , The Queen is to be advised by the relevant Premier. This arrangement ended in 1986 with the passing of the Australia Acts by the British and Australian Palriaments. This story is related in an excellent book by Dr. Anne Twomey, The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2006, which has been reviewed by Sir David Smith.
An example of the role and functions of a Governor of an Australian State: the Governor of Tasmania.
This eight part video series on The Governor of New South Wales shows the activities, role and function of our Governors :
Sir David Martin took office as Governor of New South Wales on 20th January 1989. Wishing to explain the office of Governor to the Australian people and to make it accessible, he appeared in this educational video which Thomas Flynn has divided into eight parts.