November 1

The role of Victorian Governors 1958-1983


A paper for the 2005 Conference
of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy
H.L. Speagle. O.A.M.

Editor of the Victorian Year Book 1958-83,

Lay Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne 1979-1998

Thank you for your welcome and invitation.  I see you have put me down for the last slot before lunch, which reminds me of a pearl cast by one of our most colourful Premiers – the late Sir Henry Bolte.  He was once asked what he considered to be the supreme power of a State Premier.  After due reflection, he answered to the effect that it was the power to decide which item on the Cabinet agenda was to be placed just before lunch.

Your speakers to this conference include a State Governor, a politician and some public servants:  I wish to make clear that I speak as a retired public servant and that my experience and observation of Victoria’s governors are based on that perspective.  Obviously a Governor or a politician would see the governors’ roles from a different perspective.  Perhaps the unusual aspect of my experience lay not only in observing the governors but also endeavouring to record their tenures for history in the successive editions of the Victorian Year Book.
            That publication, dating back to 1873 and the first in the Australasian colonies, had fallen on bad times after the Second World War.  When the protracted negotiations for the integration of Australia’s statistics came to fruition in 1956, each State made its own stipulation about what it wanted from the newly
legislated integration agreement.  Top of the list for Victoria was the revival of the Victorian Year Book.  That is how I came into the picture from the Statistical Branch of the Department of the Navy, which had very close links with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (using our post -1975 name).
            The newly created Victorian Office of ABS which was responsible for the Year Book  was led by V.H. Arnold who was both  Deputy Commonwealth Statistician of Victoria (his ABS hat) and Victorian Government Statist and Actuary (his State hat).  This quite unique situation showed, over the years, that there could be considerable advantages in serving two masters, especially as he had a close and trusted relationship with Victoria’s Premier.
            My own sailing instructions, so to speak, were to record the very best available information – descriptive as well as statistical – on the rapidly changing face of Victoria and so restore a measure of community esteem for the Year Book.  Victor Arnold, only gave me two pieces of advice when I took over. (I was the first ever full time editor of the Year Book and other publications): never put anything in the Year Book seen in a newspaper unless I could confirm it independently and – with tongue in cheek – don’t have too much to do with politicians:  “its demeaning”.
            The first piece of advice led me directly to the position of the Governor.  If indeed I was to carry responsibility for accurate information to be recorded in the Year Book, where would I go in additon to accepted sources such as parliamentary papers, departmental annual reports, Governor’s speeches and such like?  The answer could only lie in the people who were in charge of major segments of community activity such as permanent heads of department (as they were then called), leaders of commercial enterprises, the arts, medicine and hospitals and others.  In addition, many of their leaders had close connections with the university faculties relevant to their areas of activity.  If all these together were considered one layer – the leadership layer – of the community, there was also one above them, so to speak, because he, as a result of his daily travels, invitations, inspections and continually mingling with these leaders in virtually every sphere of activity, held the position of Governor.  Without meaning to be derogatory in any way, he sat right on top of the heap and saw the full picture from his unique perspective.
            This position of being supremely well informed didn’t come by chance.  It was an achievement that demanded a lot of
hard work, including a lot of travel around the State.  Until the 1990’s Victoria had 208 municipalities – they were later reduced by amalgamation.  I knew that Sir Rohan Delacombe who was Governor for 1963 to 1974, visited all of them at least once – an achievement he recounted with great pride.  It was, of course, a marvellous way of really getting to know Victoria from the grass roots up.   In those easygoing days when the municipalities were reasonably compact, the Governor’s visit would be noted – and usually witnessed by many citizens. There would be a lot of sprucing up to be done – municipal gardens and reservations had to look their best, gutters cleaned, all buildings witnessing the Governor’s presence had to look spick and span, and if necessary, subjected to painting before His Excellency’s arrival, while the local mayor or shire president had to plan a reception for the Vice Regal visitor and decide on who was to be presented and what areas of local activity were to be given special prominence.  As the visit to one particular place only lasted for the better part of a day, there were limits to what could be shown, the places to be visited, and the local worthies to be presented.  As often as not, notes had to be taken about possible further contacts, or invitations.  The ADC in attendance had to have his wits about him.
            The Governors were ever careful to be seen as concerned for the countryside as the city. (the Editor of the Year Book tried to emulate them in this regard).  City visits were, of course, much simpler.  If there was an inspection of an industrial entity, there would be the walk round some of the working areas, the odd presentation or two and then lunch with the directors in the boardroom.  Again, the ADC was in attendance to note anything that would require follow up and make sure that there was no possibility of giving offence either through sins of omission or commission. The Governors in my day were always conscious of the fact that they were representatives of  H.M. The Queen; they were not just local celebrities.
            Being guests of so many people in country and city meant that the Governors had to return hospitality.  Dinners and cocktail parties had been part and parcel of Government House activity for many incumbencies, but at the end of the Second World War, especially after the arrival of the Brooks family in 1949, garden parties took on a new lease of life which I sought to explain in my book.  In a way they became the most notable outward symbol of the changing role of the Governor after 1949.  I am trying not to duplicate the book in this address, but to understand the evolutionary nature of the governorship in Victoria after
1949; it is of the essence to compare these years with the very privileged and aristocratic years at Government House before the Second World War.  The book seeks to explain this in more detail; let it just be noted here that the choice of Sir Dallas Brooks by H.M. the late King George VI was, in part at least, dictated by H.M. The King’s conviction that the Crown had to be made less closeted, more accessible in the post-Second World War years, because of the very experience of the war itself, which had made traditional class distinctions far less rigid.  When you fight a war for survival, class privileges aren’t really very relevant.  The King and his family understood this; after all they, too, had been bombed in their home at Buckingham Palace.
            And so Sir Dallas Brooks used his wonderful garden parties to invite hundreds of people from city and country to Government House – many for the first time in the lives.  They represented the 208 municipalities and people he met in the city during various visits.  He, too, had had his sailing instructions (he had been the General Officer Commanding the Royal Marines) to bring the Crown and people closer and he was reputed to be skilful in public relations.  So, he set out to woo the press (no television until 1956) and he won them.  The PR ability really gave him a splendid press coverage which ranged over all sorts
of events and inspections, including an annual ball for trade unionists where be and Lady Brooks were guests of honour.
            If the giving and receiving of hospitality was one way the Governor came to feel the pulse of the State and expand his knowledge of detail as well as of general trends, the other was the tradition of receiving calls at Government House from all kinds of responsible people who could brief him on the work they were doing.  Government officials – permanent heads, heads of government instrumentalities were high on the list, but so were vice chancellors, scientists and industrialists.  These calls were pleasant occasions, where the Governor sought to be informed and the visitor frequently gratified at his host’s knowledge of his work. Not the least important background to those calls was the Governor’s position as head of the Executive Council which studied legislation submitted by Parliament.  To hold with this activity, the Governor had an Official Secretary whose office was in the Old Treasury Building next to the Executive Council and was the link between the Governor and the departments of government.  The Governor also had his own office in the Old Treasury Building opposite the Official Secretary’s.  The Private Secretary operated from Government House where he had his own residence in the grounds.
            Sir Dallas Brooks held office from 1949 to 1963 and retired near Melbourne.  His public relations image remained very bright and it can safely be said that he faithfully carried out his sailing instructions.  The Crown and the people had undoubtedly became closer during those years, but his vision of the job had a much broader perspective – to project Victoria onto the screen of the wider world.  His military background helped here, as he was a travelled man, but one event above all others helped him to do this in the middle of his tenure of office – the Olympic Games held in Melbourne in 1956.  He once reminded me that the Games really were the first event to put Victoria on the world stage (perhaps he had forgotten the gold rushes of the 1850’s).   Also, during his 14 years’ tenure of office, he went to Canberra on several occasions to act as Administrator of the Commonwealth of Australia.  This gave him a national perspective to match his State understanding of the Governor’s office, a matter that would in time change the dimensions of the Governorship out of all recognition with the past.
            As Governor he was Victoria’s chief host at the Olympic Games, a position that involved greater expenditure than he could have been expected to pay from his salary.  In the past all governors were expected to carry out their office on that basis
and if they wanted to make a splash, had to augment their salary from private means.  Wives were often useful in this connection.  Lord Huntingfield, from 1934 to 1939, did things in great style, and he had the means to do so.  Sir Winston Dugan from 1939 to 1949 was exonerated from following suit by the exigencies of war and the uncertainties in the years immediately following.  But by the time the Brooks arrived in 1949 – with their charter – the salary would be stretched and the Victorian Government had to help with specific obligations.  But this help had not reached the stage which Sir Dallas observed when he took up residence at Yarralumla to be Administrator of the Commonwealth which met all expenses of the Governor General’s office, not merely residence and salary.
            Eventually the Victorian Government would have to follow the Commonwealth’s example, but this did not happen until the end of Sir Rohan Delacombe’s tenure in 1974.  He, as he reminded me in his letters after retirement, had to meet the salaries of his personal staff, but he was the last incumbent to do so.  It was no easy obligation even if salary and pension were adjusted during inflationary times.
            Historically, this question of money and the fact that the Victorian Government eventually had to meet the full cost of the
governorship had a quite momentous effect on the office, which hitherto has been a very personal office.  The Incumbent had been the personal choice of the Monarch (in consultation with the Premier and the Colonial Office) and in a sense was quite independent of the government in office.  One might describe it as the good, old patrician days and just as the Monarch in Britain had a social relationship with the aristocracy (as symbolised in the Coronation Service), so in Victoria the Governor tended to socialise mainly with the privileged sections of the community – the landed, the wealthy, the diplomatic and political leaders.  However, once the Victorian Government became fully responsible for the outlays of the office, it would then have a lot of say – all of it, before long – in how the office was to be carried out.  He who pays the piper plays the tune.  It would also influence the making of the appointment.
            This was first apparent in 1963 when a successor had to be found after Sir Dallas Brooks’s retirement.  The Victorian Premier at that time was Sir Henry Bolte and for some political reason I cannot recall, was prevented from travelling to London to help make the appointment. He absolutely insisted that it be a British not a local appointment in order to ensure total impartiality in the conduct of the office.  There was one most
eligible “candidate” here – the Chief Justice and Lieutenant Governor, the Hon Sir Edmund Herring – who would have been a most popular appointment with total support from all sides of politics.  But it was not to be.  The Premier insisted on a British appointment as a matter of conscience and principle – there were no personal considerations.
            So, not being able to go to London, he sent his remarkable factotum and amanuensis – Geoffrey Smith, the Head of Protocol.  Having arrived at the Colonial Office it was suggested to Geoffrey (who told me the story years afterwards) that he might care to meet three gentlemen who had recently retired after distinguished careers in the Armed Services.  I never quite discovered why the Colonial Office chose these three – did they need to find some consolation prizes “in the colonies” for reasons of their own? Anyway, Geoffrey met them in a contrived social setting and later told me that when Sir Rohan Delacombe came, he knew this was the man to be our Governor.  His judgement proved to be sure.
            Sir Rohan had had a distinguished military career ending as G.O.C. of the British sector in Berlin with the rank of Major-General.   He had made his own way in his chosen profession with great distinction and, ever since school days, had acquired
the nickname of “Jumbo” because he was tall and large in stature. There was also a farming background in the family which made him ideal for understanding and communicating with rural Victoria.  He came to love the bush nothing delighted him more than a bush breakfast with the bacon and sausages sizzling on the fire and the billy tea bubbling away in the smoke of gumleaves.  He would also occasionally spend the night with his neighbour (the Director) in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens observing the wildlife.
            It wasn’t easy to succeed the very popular Sir Dallas Brooks.  But Sir Rohan was his own man – a quieter, lower key personality who soon came to be widely appreciated for his many sterling qualities.  He was meticulous about his visits to all local government areas at least once and thus he built up a formidable knowledge of the State.  His genuine interest in meeting people whether through official calls (as noted above) or through visits and various functions made people feel he was really interested in them ( a very regal quality this) and the respect and admiration in which he was held grew and grew.
            The combination of a military and rural background tends to make a man very perceptive.  One of the disciplines officers in the services are taught is the appraisal of a (usually) complicated
situation, and people on the land are also brought up to be observant.  The outcome is sharpness of perception and Sir Rohan was highly endowed with this.  He could see beyond the obvious and ask unsettling questions.  One day he visited a drilling rig in Bass Strait – the visit that has been arranged for some time.  He noticed something unusual about his hosts and all the men he met.  There was something odd in their behaviour.  Well into the visit, he said to his host: “You have found oil, haven’t you?”  The man was non-plussed:  “Ssh – not a word, not a word.”
            With his rural background he understood the significance of the environmental movement before most politicians.  This was a factor in Sir Rupert Hamer’s strong electoral victory in 1973;  he had told me soon afterwards that it would become harder and harder for Dick Hamer to win future elections on just this issue.  This ability to see the whole picture, all aspects of the economy and social life, gave him quite incredible perspicacity.  What a blessing for the editor of the Year Book who also had to encompass the whole of Victoria! He was also able to master detail and once caught out an Attorney General on an inconsistency in the drafting of a parliamentary bill.   Another grace he had was the gift of encouraging others.
Like his monarch, he was ready ‘advise, to encourage and to warn’.  I once saw him encourage a tense vice-chancellor who was really up against it during a student rebellion in the late 1960’s.
When the centenary edition of the Victoria Year Book was close to being sent for printing, I spent some time with him – to look at the big picture and make sure we hadn’t omitted any important area of State activity.  He was kind enough to prepare for our meeting and gave me two pages of headings and impressions, one set outlining how he and Lady Delacombe first saw Victoria on their arrival in 1963, the other the major developments during the 10 years following.
The lists were incredibly comprehensive:  landscape, farming, mining, climate, Melbourne’s parks and gardens, people, dress, voluntary community work, schools, food and so on.  Not much was missed.  The second list pointed to major construction projects, the discovery of natural gas and oil, natural catastrophes, politics, industrial unrest, the changing appearance of Melbourne and the importance of sport.
For good measure he also noted problems into the future including the need for water conservation (this in 1972), the drug
problem, constitutional and industrial relationships, traffic, decentralisation and the development of the arts.
            Sir Rohan widened the Government House contacts even further than his predecessor and although he still had to pay his personal staff, other financial help was now gradually forthcoming from the Victorian Government.  When he retired in 1974 and sadly missed, the tenor of the Governor’s office was ready for change, with the Government gradually taking over all responsibilities.  The fact that his successor, the Chief Justice, Hon Sir Henry Winneke, was the first Victorian born incumbent,  was highly symbolic in itself.  The office was gradually evolving from the Monarch’s representative to Victoria’s Head of State and incorporating both aspects.  What in earlier years had been the domain of social privilege was evolving into a relationship of the Crown with community representation – in some dim way mirroring happenings in the late seventeenth century.
With Sir Henry Winneke, I conclude.  Being a fine lawyer, he always saw his office through legal eyes – the protection of what he called the State’s ‘essentialities’.  This was a comforting reflection for me as I felt, when taking over the Year Book 15 years before Sir Henry’s appointment, that the
Governor’s position must be carefully recorded, as it was the centre of the State’s government.  When political life is placid for years on end, the astonishing importance of the position is barely noticed.  I was aware of this because Victoria’s political history for the previous 20 or so years was anything but placid, especially from 1945 to 1955.  On one occasion (in October 1952) Sir Dallas Brooks actually had to make a personal (though carefully advised) decision to recommission Sir John McDonald to form a (short lived) government; his rival, Mr T. T. Hollway, was not best pleased with the Governor.  It is in such situations that the Governor’s position becomes electric; it ceases to be the ‘sleeper’ unnoticed by most when the political waters are smooth and untroubled.
Having known seven Victorian governors and observed three others, let me briefly reflect on the qualities common to them all and indeed requisite for them all.  First, absolute moral integrity to exist and to be seen to exist.  Second, the gift of wisdom quite apart from knowledge to enable the incumbent to exercise a ‘right judgement in all things’. Third, high professional standing which evinces respect and admiration rather then envy – in whatever field.  We have had soldiers, a sailor, lawyers, the head of a university college, and an
agricultural scientist in recent years.  Fourth, the ability to get to the core of a problem or situation quickly and confidently.  Fifth, diligence to be on top of the job even if some aspects can be boring and unglamorous at times (such as checking legislation for possible inconsistencies).  Sixth, total and absolute independence from the political players and centres of self-interest.  (The October 1952 Victorian parliamentary deadlock is a good example).  Seventh, a sense of fair play that can cut through moral rationalisations and obfuscations – if necessary, to call a spade a spade.
Eighth. In a rapidly changing society the incumbent must have a mind open to newly emerging patterns and possibilities in the nation’s life.  Although prophecy is a hazardous occupation, if would seem  likely rather than unlikely that the Governor’s role itself will be subject to further development and re-definition without its integrity being in any way compromised.
Ninth. A genuine interest in all sorts and conditions, of men and women, and the ability to make them feel that the Governor cares about them.  This means that Governors must be good listeners and able to ask probing (perhaps even unsettling)
questions, not least of politicians and indeed anyone responsible for the work of any institution in the community.  In our day and age, this is perhaps the telling Royal prerogative.
The governors I knew all met these standards which – it may well be claimed – were and are the essentialities of the office just as the office itself is to the State is serves.


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