Sir William Deane, whose term as Governor-General ended on 30 June 2001 is by any measure a most distinguished Australian. He has been alternately praised and criticised for his passion for Aboriginal reconciliation and for the plight of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the republican movement tried to conscript him to their cause. An extreme version of this involved some journalists effecting a form of post-modernist beatification or canonisation, which no doubt embarrassed him. To his credit, he never once came out to promote the republican cause.
It was with some surprise that the high republican newspaper, The Australian, editorised against him on two recent occasions, saying he had exceeded the constitutional limitations on his office. This is more surprising because as The Australian would know, presidents of parliamentary republics are notoriously free of the conventions which invariably apply to the Governor-General here, or in Canada, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. It makes me think, yet again, that many of our republicans just don’t understand the dangers of the fire they are playing with.
The academic republican columnist (and not that many years ago a constitutional monarchist), Robert Manne has argued for freedom for Governors-General to say what they want to in his recent hagiography of Sir William. (Incidentally, why is it that his column appears both in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald but the independent republican P.P. McGuinness now only appears in Sydney?)
The idea that Governors-General should become a sort of national guru, offering opinions on all sorts of issues, seems to have begun with Sir Zelman Cowan, who coined a truly memorable description of the Governor-General’s role. This was, he said, one of “interpreting the nation to itself”. A good line, but what does it mean? If it is then associated with the novel proposition that a Governor-General or a Governor should have an agenda or even a platform, however worthy, it is wrong in principle. Why? Because a Governor-General or Governor should have no other aim than that of doing his or her duty – which is to act as the constitutional head of the Commonwealth or of a state. That in itself is onerous enough, without having an agenda. This is another reason for appointing a person who is distinguished but whose career has reached its end. The incumbent should not be ambitious for further office, otherwise his or her judgement could be affected by the desire to be appointed to some other office at some time in the future.
In any event, Robert Manne’s piece in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald provoked me to write this letter which to date has not been published.
If Robert Manne is saying (2 July 2001) that a Governor-General should be at liberty to make pronouncements on anything that happens to attract his attention, he demonstrates a failure to understand the centrality of the Australian Crown in our constitutional system. This is that the Crown gives us leadership beyond politics, and that its various offices – Governor-General and Governors – are beyond the capture of politicians and political parties. Does he really want the situation where President and Prime Minister can openly and publicly clash? The recent collapse of the Turkish currency was directly attributable to such a public slanging match. Why tinker with a system which has proved more successful than any other constitutional system?
Professor David Flint