The Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, astounded observers with her recent unprecedented entry into the political arena. When asked about the likelihood of a (politicians’) republic on ABC radio on 2 April, Her Excellency replied: ‘‘I think that that will happen in the future, yes.’’
This was compounded by her clear support for one side of this divisive political issue: “‘I think that it is part of the development of our democracy in future decades.’’
This is not only a political issue, but it is one which has a direct bearing on her role as representative of The Queen of Australia, to whom and to whose heirs and successors she has sworn allegiance.
This extraordinary intervention has now been clarified and explained. It has not, however, been withdrawn.
The clarification is that the matter of a (politicians’) republic is something for the Australian people to consider if and when the opportunity arises. True, but everyone know this, and indeed, knew this on 2 April.
Her Excellency asked that this declaration be conveyed to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee during the budget estimates hearings on 25 May 2009 by her Official Secretary, Stephen Brady.
The explanation offered by Mr. Brady for the Governor-General’s political intervention was that the “interview took place at the very tail-end of her visit to Africa” and “(h)er answer perhaps was not as carefully expressed as it might have been…”
This is an admission that the statement should never have been made. But being made, it should have been withdrawn immediately, with an apology, including a personal and private apology to Her Majesty The Queen.
It would be surprising if the Official Secretary had not advised Her Excellency to withdraw the offending statement on the very day it was made. It is of course constitutionally unacceptable, totally unacceptable, for a viceroy to engage in a political debate.
Mr Brady must accept some responsibility for this. It would not have happened under his predecessor, Mr. Malcolm Hazell, whom the Governor-General summarily and unwisely dismissed even before she was sworn in.
It seems Mr. Brady voluntarily ceded his place in the vice regal party to visit Africa. The Official Secretary’s place was not in Canberra but beside the Governor-General on a State Visit the importance of which he has been at considerable pains to emphasise.
He had seen and negated an email sent to the media from Government House by the media officer saying the purpose of the visit was to drum up support for the government’s bid for a Security Council seat. Of course that was a truthful explanation of government policy; but such openness and honesty emabrassed botht he government and the Governor-General. So he knew how these things could get out of hand.
The Governor-General may well believe a politicians’ republic inevitable and a good thing; how she reconciles that with her position and oath is a matter between her and the Almighty. Her manifest error was to share her political musings with the world. The damage has been done. A large number of Australians now have no confidence in her ability to remain above politics.
The Official Secretary should have reminded her of the reaction when her predecessor as Governor of Queensland, Sir Colin Hannah, entered the political arena.
And what was the Governor- General doing giving a media interview about her State Visit anyway? If viceroys must give media interviews they should be very well briefed beforehand. It is Mr. Brady’s job to see to this.
He should have been there and if necessary, stopped the interview.
Stephen Brady was unsurprisingly well prepared at Senate Estimates for the following question asked by Senator Ronaldson: “ Mr Brady , do you believe it was appropriate for the Governor-General to give an opinion or reflect on whether Australia should become a republic…or appropriate indeed that she predict what would be in the best interests of the country in relation to a republic?”
The relevant extract from the transcript follows:
Mr Brady—I do appreciate this particular question, Senator, because clearly your question is premised on the answer she gave in a radio interview.
I have had the opportunity of speaking with the Governor-General on this, and Her Excellency has asked me to make it very clear to the committee that she stands by her remarks, made very clearly on a number of occasions, that the matter of a republic is something for the Australian people to consider if and when the opportunity arises.
Senator RONALDSON—Sorry, could you repeat that.
Mr Brady—I spoke to the Governor-General prior to coming here in anticipation that this particular question might be raised in the committee, and the Governor-General has asked me to make it abundantly clear that the matter of a republic is something for the Australian people to consider if and when the opportunity arises.
Senator RONALDSON—The comments were a lot stronger than that in that radio interview, weren’t they? I do not know whether these are correct quotes. I am sure you will tell me if they are wrong, but I would be very surprised if they were.
I quote the Canberra Times on 3 April :‘‘I think that that will happen in the future, yes,’’ she told ABC Radio yesterday.
‘‘I think that it is part of the development of our democracy in future decades.’’
…why wasn't the “clarification” issued immediately…
Senator Ronaldson continued:
“I suppose the question I am asking you is: given that you believed it was appropriate to raise this matter with the Governor-General prior to these estimates, why was there no prior attempt to have that clarification you have given today?
“Today is 25 May, and these quotes were apparently given on 2 April. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Minchin, in the Adelaide Advertiser on 6 April expressed his very real concern. Why was there not clarification along the lines of this new position today prior to estimates?
Mr Brady—Perhaps I will put her remarks in the context of the interview she gave to Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report on 23 September last year. I will quote her. The Governor-General said:
“… we are a maturing and evolving society, of course our parliamentary democracy is too. Australian people will engage in debates, discussions about our constitution, as they always have.”
She was asked a question by an ABC radio journalist. The interview took place at the very tail-end of her visit to Africa.
Her answer perhaps was not as carefully expressed as it might have been and it is important that today through your question you have given me the opportunity to state directly from the Governor-General that her position on the republic is that it is something for the Australian people to consider if and when the opportunity arises.
… no earlier clearification?…
Senator RONALDSON—It is a very substantial departure today from that comment on the ABC, isn’t it?You will acknowledge that?
Mr Brady—What I acknowledge is the need for the Governor-General of Australia to at all times be seento be above the political fray. Therefore, Her Excellency wishes to have the record clearly show that her view,consistent with her oath of office, is that she is above the political fray. I cannot say anything more.
Senator RONALDSON—Indeed, that has been the issue that has been raised today in relation to the African trip. Clearly that is a real issue in relation to the question of whether Australia should become a republic. I respectfully suggest to you that the sort of clarification you have given today, which is a very substantial departure, should have been done well before Senate estimates.
CHAIR—Was that a question, Senator Ronaldson?
Senator RONALDSON—I do not know whether Mr Brady wants to respond to that or not. He may not want to.
CHAIR—If you could put questions rather than statements it would be more helpful.
Senator RONALDSON—It was a question, with all due respect, Madam Chair. Can I move on to another matter now.
…Head of State…
The hearing did confirm, as the Prime Minister has, that the Governor-General is Head of State. The argument by republicans that we must become a politicans' republic to have an Australian as Head of State has little support.