…Former politicians as Governors-General…
Major General Jeffery’s most successful term as Governor-General ends in August. It is not surprising then that rumours,or perhaps leaks, about whom the Prime Minister would recommend began to circulate. Intially placed in the Financial Review, they reached a crescendo in the weekend Fairfax press. They all pointed to the Hon Kim Beazley,
The fact that Kim Beazley has long been in parliament was never in itself a barrier to his appointment. Former politicians have performed very well – Sir William McKell, Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck, and the Hon Bill Hayden. The opposition leaders of the day criticised the decision to appoint the former Labor politicians, but properly stopped all criticism immediately the appointment was made.
They changed their minds about the appointment when they saw how the former Labor politicians exercised their high office. All of them accepted that their loyalty in office was to the Sovereign, the Constitution and therefore to the people. They understood that in the exercise of their powers the interests of their former party could not guide them.
Of course some of the British Governors-General had also held political office in the UK, including the last two, Viscount Lord de l’Isle and Viscount Dunrossil. And we should not forget that our first Australian born Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, had been in both federal and state politics before he was appointed to the High Court.
Sir Edmund Hillary always seemed to me the sort of person who would have made an eminent Governor-General. Apparently, a decision was taken by a conservative Prime Minister in New Zealand not to recommend him as he was seen as “too Labour.”
Another suggested barrier is the fact that Mr. Beazley is not only a republican, but that he had personally campaigned for a republic. In this regard, it should be recalled the Governor-General is not the representative of the British Queen, but of The Queen of Australia. Although this mistake is often repeated, the distinction is fundamental. Indeed, one senator lost her seat because she did not appreciate this.
In choosing her representative, The Queen is advised by Her Australian Ministers, although the provision for prior consultation has fallen into disuse notwithstanding Sir Robert Menzies’ wise attempt to revive the practice. This is a pity – the advice of a Sovereign with such wide and long experience would be of considerable benefit to our prime ministers, and could be the most confidential advice a prime minister would ever receive.
…appointing our Constitutional Heads of State…
Since 1986, The Queen is also advised about the appointment and recall of what the High Court unanimously termed are our “Constitutional Heads of State,” – the Governors. This is done by each of our six, and potentially seven, premiers. It is to be hoped that all are aware of the crucial role The Queen played in protecting the interests of the states in the patriation of our constitutional system that year, and how this access raises them in some ways to the status of New Zealand and Canadian prime ministers.
So can the Queen’s representative be a republican? There have been at least four examples of Australian Governors who are, if not republicans, at least “inevitablists.” The pity is most of them unwisely talked about it once their appointment was announced to the press. They should have taken a leaf out of The Queen’s book. Never descend in to the political arena. The Queen herself took no part in the 1999 referendum campaign – this was for the Australian people to debate and decide.
…republicans who swear allegiance…
Apart from the stricture that vice regal officers should not enter the political arena, an appointee’s past republicanism is best seen as a matter for The Queen’s ministers’ good sense, and the conscience of the appointee in swearing an Oath of affirming his or her allegiance.
Politicians who are republicans rationalise making the Oath because it is to The Queen, “Her heirs and successors.” They say the word “successors” includes republican successors if the constitution were to be changed. This sort of casuistry does not sit well with someone who accepts to be the personal representative of their Sovereign, and swears allegiance to Her Majesty . Surely it would be more honourable not to accept the office.
When it was alleged that Mr. Hayden was in this position, he quite correctly challenged his accusers to demonstrate when he had declared his republicanism. They were unable to do so. The fact that he belonged to a party whose platform includes a policy on republicanism was hardly evidence of his personal allegiance. The platform is rather like the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, and open to just as wide an interpretation. Just as an example, if you look at some of the decisions of say the Hawke government on privatisation, they are difficult to reconcile with a formal reading of the platform at the time.
The Queen will certainly not make an appointment as Governor- General which is wrong constitutionally. It has been made clear in other Realms that a serving judge, a committee and a minister would not be approved. That apart, The Queen appears to have no problem with a republican representing her. In the ultimate analysis, Her Majesty can only counsel Her Ministers r against making an appointment which seems unwise. That is how the constitution works, and overall it works superbly.
….prime minister commended….
In any event the debate about Mr. Beazley was, as we know, ended mercifully by the Prime Minister. He informed the nation that not only would Mr. Beazley not be recommended, but that the next Governor –General will not be a serving or former politican, Labor or conservative. This was a wise, indeed statesmanlike decision, for which Mr. Rudd must be commended.
…and who should be Governor-General?…
I expect that Mr. Beazley would have performed well. He might even have got over his republicanism, if he hasn’t already. But his nomination would have been controversial, at least at the beginning. A large number of people would have been unhappy because of that. This sort of division and controversy would is not good for an office which is not just some ceremonial rubber stamp, but is, as the High Court has ruled, the “ Constitutional Head of the Commonwealth.”
So who then should be the next Governor-General? The rule that anyone who campaigns for the office of the “black pope” to head the Jesuits is thereby disqualified could be applied here. Indeed there is much to be said for the sort of person who has to be persuaded that it is their duty to accept the position.
The appointee should be towards the end of an illustrious career, and able to play the public role with dignity and the constitutional role with independence and propriety. There is not much more that can be said about an ideal Governor-General.
[An edited version of this appeared by invitation on the Crikey.com newsletter on 21