April 6

Governor-General or politician: the choice is clear

Every so often a clergyman, more often than not from the Church of England, has “doubts” about his faith. But rather than resigning, he decides that he should share his inner struggle with the public.

There was a wonderful satire about this in “Yes Prime Minister “, where the preferred candidate for consecration as a bishop has more than doubts- he is known to be an atheist.  But what makes his candidature successful is his wife’s social position, which is deemed to be just right.

…governors behaving badly….

ACM has of course no position on such matters, but there is an analogy with an increasing phenomenon among vice regal ranks in Australia. This is to deny what is the essence of their position.

Once a vigilant Colonial Office would have ensured that they behaved as one of our greatest constitutional lawyers, Professor PH Lane, put it. This was to be  a “local constitutional monarch.”  This required that the viceroys steer clear of playing politics, including making public statements on political matters, which of course include controversial proposals to change the constitution. 

On the last occasion this was exercised from London , it was to refuse the reappointment of a Governor of Queensland who had publicly attacked the Whitlam Federal Labor Government. This was seen as a political act incompatible with the vice regal office. 

…the Richard Butler affair ….  

An early example of the failure  to correct such unacceptable behaviour was that concerning Mr. Richard Butler, who was Governor of Tasmania.  On the announcement of his appointment he was asked why, as a republican, he could in conscience agree to become The Queen’s representative as Governor. In reply he unwisely tried to verbal Her Majesty, telling the ABC TV 730 Report on 18 August, 2003: “The Queen herself made clear she expected Australia to become a republic and was rather non-plussed when we didn’t.”  

Then on ABC radio, he went one step further -he actually claimed The Queen had supported Australia becoming a republic in 1999.

In immediately condemning this, ACM said that the Governor should not attribute to his Sovereign words for which there is not a tittle of evidence that she had ever uttered.

…unsuited for the role?

Now, whenever the announcement that someone has been appointed a governor is made, it is standard practice for the media ask the governor-elect his or her views on a republic. 

That a governor – elect actually gives an interview, at least without careful preparation, indicates a certain lack of prudence.

But offering his or her views on this or any other fundamentally political question demonstrates how unprepared or even how unsuited the governor-elect is for the role. This indicates not only has he or she done no preparation; it also demonstrates that the governor-elect is foolish enough not to seek proper advice before rushing into the media.  

Sometimes the governor-elect will even talk about his or her “agenda”; the only agenda of a viceroy is obvious. It is just to do his or her duty. And  the central part of this is to be a constitutional guardian.

As we have so often said here, if a governor or governor-general is in any doubt, the golden rule is to ask himself or herself what The Queen would do in similar circumstances.

…former politicians behaving properly…

Of course viceroys will have political views; but surely they know and have the good sense to understand that their political views are now strictly private?  We have overcome the problem which concerned King George V, that by making local appointments, the viceroy comes with baggage.

 Politicians who have become governors-general have in the past demonstrated they could both refrain from making political comment while in office, and above all, that they could behave in a non-partisan way.  Sir William McKell, Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and the Hon. Bill Hayden were all very successful in doing this.

The only Governor-General who by his public acts and comments strayed into the political arena was the former judge, Sir William Deane.  His initiative in arranging an audience with The Queen for certain prominent Aboriginal political leaders, without going through the government, merited a special condemnation in an editorial in the national newspaper, The Australian.

Not long after retiring, Sir William then made the mistake of issuing a scathing attack on the Howard government, which only served to confirm the opinion of those who said that  in office he was actively pursuing an independent political agenda, albeit in one area, indigenous affairs.

...G-G marches into the political arena….

But it was almost beyond belief that on flying back to Australia at the end of a three-week tour of Africa, the Governor-General Ms Quentin Bryce, with flags flying and drums beating, marched into the political arena as no other Governor-General in the history of our Commonwealth ever  has. (Let no one say Sir John Kerr did; pressured by the actions of two obstinate politicians, Sir John did no more than his duty, upholding the constitution.)

Asked about a republic – that is a politicians’ republic –  she told the ABC :"I think that that will happen in the future, yes." 

Even more surprisingly, she went further and gave her approval to this course:

"I think that it is part of the development of our democracy in future decades."

Some will say the Governor-General is only stating the obvious, and that a politicians' republic is inevitable.  Of course it is not, and even Malcolm Turnbull came to accept that. 

The post war cognoscenti firmly believed that the death of capitalism and the advent of a socialist world was inevitable. No Governor-General was ever unwise enough to endorse this publicly.

On current polling, Labor would win the next Federal election. So should the Governor-General state this, even privately? Of course not; it is not her role. Her role is to provide leadership beyond politics.

In predicting and endorsing a politicians’ republic, Her Excellency has invited the unwelcome soubriquet “the republican Governor-General”.   

Her statement was predictably greeted with jubilation by the minuscule republican movement.  In an editorial on 5 April The Age ominously suggested this was the way a president would behave in a republic.  We at ACM would we thank the editor profusely for this telling admission. It will be magnificent ammunition for us in any future campaign; the last thing Australians want is more politicians.

Surely our Governor-General did not think she could play such a political role when she was swore allegiance and took the oath of office. (There is a video of this on the ACM site.)


The Governor-General has not only predicted change but she has endorsed it. Apparently she is not interested in specific change or even much worried about it; all she wants is to see our Australian crowned republic gutted. But that was what has been agreed to be and confirmed as the basic framework of our country – an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown. 

Her Excellency should be reminded that she represents and has sworn allegiance to that Australian Crown. If she is unhappy with that she has only one honourable course of action.

The Governor-General risks losing the support of what is her core constitutency, the rank and file Australians who believe, correctly, the office of Governor- General should be above politics.

This unfortunately is not the first time she has ventured into the political sphere. Soon after her appointment, she told the ABC that she wholeheartedlly supported the codification of the reserve powers, a political question if there ever were one. Fortunately her lapse was not noticed by the media.  
More recently she has been accused increasingly in the media and by those in politics, including it is said from within the ministry, of being partisan on matters outside of the Constitution.

…who is advising the G-G ?

Had she not dismissed Malcolm Hazell from the position of Official Secretary, she would have had the benefit of his sound advice about where no Governor-General should ever tread.  And that is part of the problem.

A Governor-General has two regular sources of advice.

One is a prime minister. Unfortuantely the  judgement of the incumbent on matters concerning diplomatic protocol has more than once been shown to be deficient. He has managed to act with considerable discourtesy to a President of the United States, and twice to The Queen.

The other source of advice is her Official Secretary, now the former diplomat Mr. Stephen Brady. 

A crucial question is whether  Mr. Brady has done his duty and warned the Governor-General against political comment.  If he has, has the Governor-General ignored his advice?

If he has not, why not?


[This was amended on 2 September 2009 to remove a phrase which was not directly relevant to the comment.]




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