July 27

Paul Kelly : If the GG was Head of State in 1995, why not now?


About a month ago Paul Kelly wrote an op-ed for The Australian discussing the upcoming visits by The Queen and the President of the United States.

In the course of this article, he delivered himself of the following dictum:

For the record, and for republicans and monarchists alike, the Queen, not the Governor-General, is our head of state, a somewhat elementary point we need to get right.

[ Mr. Paul Kelly ]

So never mind what Sir David Smith, the former Official Secretary to five Governors-General, had to say. Never mind the High Court of Australia. Paul Kelly has spoken on this "elementary point" and that settles the matter.

David Flint wrote a letter to The Australian on this point, which was not published.

Back at the time of the referendum republicans insisted that the President would perform all the functions of the Governor-General. They also said that the President would be Head of State. Which presumably meant that the Governor-General was already Head of State. The only problem was that they needed to assert that The Queen is Head of State. This contradiction was never really resolved. It is glaring in a speech by then Prime Minister Paul Keating to the House of Representatives made on 7th June 1995.

In fact an editorial in The Weekend Australian of 24th-25th June 1995, praising an intervention by then Governor-General Bill Hayden, described him as "head of State" three times. And who was editor of the Australian when this editorial was published?

That would be Paul Kelly.

(Read the complete editorial after the break.)

The Weekend Australian
June 24-25, 1995

"Mr Hayden was right to speak out"

There will be many different views in the community about the issues raised this week by the Governor-General, Mr Bill Hayden.  Whether Australians agree with him or not, It is perfectly appropriate at this stage of our constitutional development that the head of State address important issues of social policy.  There is nothing very exceptional about Mr Hayden making such a speech.  As noted by the former official secretary to governors-general, Sir David Smith, Mr Hayden’s remarks are best seen within an ongoing tradition of the office addressing subjects of social importance – in this case bio-ethics and homosexual relationships.  He was also confronting the nation with the realities of his evolving office.

According to Newspoll, support for the transition to a republic is continuing to build and, with about half the population in favour of making that change, has reached a new high.  But about a third of the people also want the change to empower a president in the style of the United States.  Four-fifths want a popularly elected president.  Only one in 10 Australians favours the minimalist model of the Prime Minister, Mr Keating.  These results are evidence of a fascinating – but not properly understood – process that is going on in the community about the office of head of State.  Some people oppose change; others support change; and a sizable number want a radical change.  It is not clear whether these poll results reflect community ignorance of the office or a disenchantment with the current arrangements.

Mr Hayden is not the first governor-general to make controversial comments – or to take controversial action.  It should be noted that his speech was not party political.  That is, Mr Hayden did not support the policies of one party against the other.  That would have been quite wrong.  However, the office has evolved to the stage where the governor-general is expected to do more than utter pious platitudes or sit in his house counting kangaroos.  Two of the major contemporary functions of the office are to serve as a unifying force and to represent the nation to itself.  These may not always be in exact harmony.  However, Australia is a sufficiently mature country to welcome a head of State who is prepared to put important social issues on the table.  This is not going to prejudice the office.  On the contrary, a by-product of Mr Hayden’s speech is that it will challenge Australians to confront the evolving nature of the office as the post of governor-general begins to merge into the future post of President.

When Australia becomes a republic the president will be an Australian who is voted into office by either the federal Parliament or directly by the people.  It is only realistic to acknowledge that such a president will wish to make a meaningful contribution to the national debate.  Indeed, over the last 20 years, during which time the tradition of Australian governors-general has been entrenched, the office holders have exercised considerable influence either by act or by word.  The new office of president will grow from the trunk of the existing office of governor-general.  There will be much continuity in the transition and, in the wider sense, that transition is already underway.

This newspaper disagrees with a number of Mr Hayden’s comments particularly his support for euthanasia.  But these issues must be confronted and there is no obstacle to the head of State playing a role in this process.  Mr Hayden has served nearly seven years as governor-general and his credentials in the office as an impartial figure across parties is clearly established. It might be that Mr Hayden has decided that in the final months of his term he wishes to put before the people, not just some contemporary issues but, by implication, the nature of his own office.  In so doing he is only rendering the nation a service.


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