March 9

“More difficult to imagine republican change” – warning on African visit

The visit by the Governor-General to several African states to promote the government’s campaign for a seat on the Security Council risks politicising and misusing the office, argues Greg Sheridan in “Africa trip damages Bryce's standing” in The Australian on 9 March, 2009.

And in case they have not realised it, he warns republican politicians that this affair illustrates the  dangers to them of republican change.

“This all makes it much more difficult to imagine Australia as a republic,” he says. “The popularly elected presidency is plainly the public's preference. But if it's impossible to control the activist instincts of someone whose appointment is wholly in the prime minister's gift, imagine trying to control someone with a democratic mandate from the whole of the electorate.”

It may well be, as Greg Sheridan says, that the  Government's “feigned interest in Africa will be seen cynically by the Africans.”  But that is a political issue.

He says that Governors-General should travel overseas “only rarely and for ceremonial purposes” and “they have no right to engage in foreign policy debate, at home or abroad.”

The latter is certainly true. The Governor-General must act on advice, except in relation to her most important role, that of constitutional guardian. She may advise against a state visit, but if the ministers insist, she must go.  In that event, she must not of course act as an advocate, although she may inform the foreign government of the Australian government’s policy.  

So the Governor-General may be expected to draw the line between informing the African governments of government policy, and actually campaigning for the Security Council election. 

In the same way in Australia no Governor-General should be seen to be campaigning for or against, say, a bill of rights,  any controversial changes to the law, an emissions trading scheme,  the intervention in the Northern Territory, or for the codification the reserve powers.  These are all political issues.  If it is the wish of the government on an appropriate occasion, such as the opening of Parliament, for her to state what the government policy is on any and all of these, this is in order.    But she should be careful to describe this as the policy of the government.

Otherwise she would lose the ability to fulfil her core function, providing leadership above politics. If she loses that, she will be seen as a politician. She will not then be able to offer leadership above and beyond politics. Worse, she will be unable to exercise the considerable reserve powers of the Australian Crown with what is necessary, the confidence of the people. 

And who knows what crisis may occur when she may be called on to exercise her vice regal discretion?       


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