It would have been par for the course had it come from a politician. But a Governor? In a surprising story in the Melbourne Herald Sun of 10 June, 2006, “Queen will go, says governor”, Danny Buttler reports on an interview with the new Victorian Governor. My first reaction was that no Governor would be so ill advised, so unmindful of the divisive nature of his comments, as to give an interview which would justify such a headline. To do this on the Queen’s Birthday weekend was extraordinary.
But in the interview the Governor, Professor David de Kretser, is reported as saying he believes it is inevitable that Australia will become a republic, and that it was only a question of when Australians would decide to “ditch” their ties to the monarchy.At least the Governor declined to say whether he personally favoured a republic. But then he said that most Australians would favour a republic and it was inevitable. "I would think probably it is in the longer term….When that would be is a very hard question to answer…I think if you asked a lot of people whether Australians wanted a republic you would probably get an answer yes,” he said.
Had the Governor sought advice before he so unwisely spoke, he would have found out that the latest polls just do not support the proposition that most Australians favour a republic. This is particularly so in relation to the nation’s youth, a matter which republicans have been slow to understand.
He also had no hesitation in joining in the criticism of the question in the 1999 referendum: "At the last referendum some of the questions weren’t asked as clearly as one could have." ( The implication in this curious statement is that people were misled by the questions, and if the questions had been clear more would have voted for a republic. There are two problems with this. First, it leaves the Governor open to the criticism that he is entering into a partisan political debate, and secondly it is factually wrong. There was only one question, which was quite clear. We publish this below.)
The appointment of a State Governor by The Queen on the advice of the Premier is a constitutional process unique to Australia. After a long struggle between the politicians, and then only with the direct intervention of The Queen herself, this process was established to protect the autonomy of the states. The appointment of the Sri Lankan born Professor de Kretser, a respected authority on reproductive biology and male infertility, met with widespread approval. His intervention in a contentious political matter is at the very least, disappointing. That the issue on which he spoke relates precisely to the Crown which he represents and that it was published on the very eve of the celebrations in honour of the Sovereign make this intervention extraordinary.
In a paper on the role of the Sovereign to the recent Samuel Griffith Society conference, I stated the obvious, that “…speaking in favour of a republic seems inappropriate for one who has represented the Crown, but to do so in office is at the very least, a most inappropriate entry into politics, apart from being an act of gross disloyalty to the Sovereign to whom the viceroy has sworn allegiance.” Referring to some Canadian proposals to allow a Governor-General to participate in the political debate, I argued that apart from a Governor-General (or Governor) being free to speak on matters clearly not on the political agenda, all of these proposals are “inconsistent with the concept of constitutional monarchy.” I said they may well flow from the mistake of seeing, consciously or subconsciously, the office as separate and autonomous from the Crown. This is not so-the office can have no existence apart from and independent of the Crown.
Recalling that the republican campaign in Australia has but one objective- to get rid of The Queen, I said that the argument that we could retain all the benefits of the Crown while dispensing with the Sovereign is completely fallacious.
Apart from the serious constitutional consequences , I pointed out that that the Governors-General and Governors would also lose the guidance and example The Queen gives them – those “impeccable standards” which she has set for herself. Her Majesty’s dedication, her personal standards and her sense of judgement are celebrated, and rightly so. Indeed, a Governor-General or Governor in a quandary as to what behaviour would be appropriate could do no better than ask himself or herself: “What would The Queen do in a case like this?”
One thing The Queen never does is to intervene in the political debate. She is and is seen to be above politics. The actions of a former Governor of Tasmania have shown the dangers of not following this sensible prescription. It is an unfortunate fact that when new Governors are appointed they sometimes inform the media of some or other agenda which they wish to achieve in their term. They should not do. Their only agenda should be this: to serve their Sovereign and the people as a representative of the Crown, our oldest institution at the heart of our constitutional system, an institution which is above politics.
On this, I stated no more than the prevailing convention: “A viceroy is the representative of the Crown, nothing less – and nothing more. As Walter Bagehot observed: ‘We must not bring The Queen into the combat of politics or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.’ Obviously, this advice applies equally to a viceroy.”
The Victorian Governor is new to his position, and his reference to the referendum indicates some confusion in his mind as to the facts. He is entitled to his views, but as Governor he is not free to enter this debate. That is what a constitutional monarchy requires, whatever happens under a republic. The Governor would be wise to recognize his indiscretion, and in future to seek appropriate advice if he must speak on such matters. This is especially so in relation to those which so crucially relate to the Australian Crown to whom he owes his allegiance and whom he represents.