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How G-G weakened monarchists' case

  • 13 March 2009

The announcement by the Prime Minister's media office of the Governor-General's visit to Africa referred to Quentin Bryce as 'Australia's Head of State'.

Whether this terminology was a self-conscious step by the Prime Minister himself, or just a lazy short-hand drafting mistake, is not the point. It shows how the term 'head of state' to describe the office of Governor-General has crept into the Australian language.

This usage has political implications. It enables monarchists to counter the popular appeal of the idea of an Australian head of state instead of the British Queen. An Australian Governor-General can be sold to the public as an Australian Head of State regardless of the constitutional position.

But it is a short-term victory for monarchists. The usage further diminishes the monarchy in Australia. It is a dead-end to describe the Queen by the much vaguer term of 'sovereign of Australia', which opens up the debate to a new republican counter-slogan: 'Australian sovereignty, not a British sovereign'.

With her trip to Africa, Bryce is on dangerous ground. Julie Bishop, the Opposition spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, has criticised the trip. So too have several newspaper editorials.

But former Governor-General Bill Hayden, who is no friend of the Rudd Government despite his Labor background, has defended the trip, arguing that Governors-General should be free to travel and to speak on Australia's behalf.

The controversy may only be clarified once it becomes clearer just what she does while she is in Africa.

The implication for the monarchy/republic debate is that the appointment of the Governor-General by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister alone has again been shown to be a flawed system. It lends itself to involving the office in partisan politics.

That's precisely what occurred with the ill-fated Archbishop Peter Hollingworth. Hollingworth, appointed by John Howard in 2001, was subject to strong criticism for his personal failings by the Labor Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, before his eventual resignation from office in 2003.

Like Bryce in 2008, Hollingworth was appointed under a system that freezes out the Parliament, the Opposition and the people at large. The perception that he was a Howard appointee, weakened his position.

Several commentators in The Australian newspaper, including Greg Sheridan, suggest Bryce's actions weaken the case for a republic with a directly elected president. That claim confuses two points. The first is ill-judged partisan activity (or activities that can be interpreted as partisan) on behalf of the government of the day by a Governor-General/President. The second is independent activity on her or his own behalf by a Governor-General/President.

There can be no valid criticism that Bryce is engaged