In virtually all instances the wide powers of the Governor are exercised on the advice of Western Australian Ministers, principally the Premier, who have the support of a majority of Members of Parliament in the Legislative Assembly. While the Governor has many important symbolic and community functions to perform, our system of representative government requires that the Governor generally exercise the constitutional duties of the office in conformity with the wishes of the elected government of the day. By convention, however, the Governor retains the right be consulted, 'to encourage and to warn' the Premier and Ministers of the day.
There may be occasions, however, when the Governor may act independently or without the advice of the Premier, Ministers or Executive Council. In these cases the Governor is said to be exercising the reserve powers.
These powers may be used only on extraordinary occasions and then within limits established by constitutional convention. They relate to the Governor's ultimate authority to terminate the commission of a Premier and the Government in exceptional circumstances or to refuse or to force a dissolution of Parliament. The Governor might consider exercising the reserve powers in the following circumstances:
where the Government refuses to resign or to advise a dissolution of the Legislative Assembly even though it no longer has the support of a majority in the Legislative Assembly, as for example, indicated by a successful no confidence motion in the Legislative Assembly;
where the Government refuses to resign or to advise a dissolution even though it is unable to secure necessary supply;
a situation where the Premier is advising a dissolution but where an alternative government may be formed and the circumstances justify the Governor in following that course; and
in circumstances where the Premier is doing something which is manifestly criminal or illegal in the function of his or her office.
These situations can be complex and many factors would need to be taken into account before the reserve powers were invoked. The reserve powers would only be exercised as a last resort. The Governor may also seek legal advice (usually from the Solicitor General) to assist in deciding whether to exercise reserve powers.
The reserve powers to dismiss a Premier or Prime Minister have only been used twice in Australia: in 1975, when the Governor General dismissed the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the basis that he was unable to secure supply; and in 1932 when Governor Game of New South Wales dismissed Premier Jack Lang on the grounds that he had acted unlawfully.*
* The circumstances surrounding these dismissals have engendered different views about the factual circumstances and the constitutional propriety and legality of the use of the reserve power: for commentary see G. Winterton, Parliament, the Executive and the Governor General: A Constitutional Analysis, 1983, Melbourne University Press; G Sawer, Federation Under Strain: Australia 1972-1975, Melbourne University Press