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Abbott's GG gripe reignites republican sentiment


Sydney Morning Herald editorial with the title 'Yarralumla is not the right place for politicians'Restarting the republic debate was almost certainly not what Tony Abbott had in mind when he wrote to Julia Gillard about the appointment of Australia's next governor-general. Indeed, since the Opposition Leader then moved quickly to hose down speculation that former prime minister John Howard is his own preferred candidate to succeed Quentin Bryce when her term ends in March next year, it is not clear just what he had in mind.

Abbott has unwittingly done Australians a service, however, by writing to the Prime Minister. He has reminded us just how muddled are the terms in which the head of state/viceregal role is usually described, and why the people, not politicians, should choose the person who holds the office.

The letter to Gillard cites recent public service appointments, such as renewing the tenure of the present Australian Electoral Commissioner, which Abbott alleges subvert 'the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor'.

The 'established convention' invoked here is spurious. The Prime Minister has set a date for the election of the next Parliament but writs for that election have not been issued, so it cannot be credibly claimed that the government is in caretaker mode.

Abbott is worried, however, that the Gillard Government is intent on depriving him of the right to appoint Bryce's successor if the election hands him the prime ministership, as opinion polls strongly suggest it will.

'The announcement of appointments expressed to take effect almost nine months into the term of the next parliament and some 15 months before they become operative is a blatant abuse of power,' he admonishes Gillard. 'Quite properly, arrangements regarding the appointment of a new governor-general would be, and should be, a matter for a new or a returned prime minister after the 14 September election.

'Thus, I seek your specific assurance that this precedent will be respected.'

Abuse of power? Abbott really must have a prospective GG in mind to use such language. After all, the government has announced nothing, so why is he worried?

But Gillard staffers seized the opportunity to have some fun at Abbott's expense, hinting that he intends to replace Bryce with his mentor Howard. The Fairfax press ran gleefully with this idea, which Abbott was obliged to kill off within a day of the original story appearing. The rumour mill is now turning again, with suggestions that retired Defence Force chief Peter Cosgrove would be the preferred candidate of a coalition government.

Whether the Howard-for-GG campaign was real or illusory, the Fairfax papers squeezed all the mileage they could out of it, with the Sydney Morning Herald publishing a leader every bit as silly as Abbott's appeal to an 'established convention' that does not in fact apply.

Citing Howard's comment in 2001 that 'as a general principle' it is better to have a viceroy who is not identified with one side of politics, the Herald firmed this up to 'former politicians should not become governor-general'.

Apparently lack of partisan history is essential to doing the job properly, a point that the Herald, without awareness of self-contradiction, tried to shore up by quoting the late Paul Hasluck, who had served as governor-general — and before that, as a Liberal cabinet minister.

Of course a governor-general must act in a non-partisan manner, but the notion that former politicians should thereby be excluded from the job is belied by Australia's history.

Some of the most successful viceroys have been former politicians: Hasluck, for example, who was much admired for his independent judgment by ministers in the Whitlam Government, or William McKell, a Chifley Labor appointee who in 1951 had no hesitation in granting the Menzies Government a double-dissolution of Parliament that the ALP did not want.

There is a difference between acting out of partisan bias and acting in a way that merely happens to advantage one side of politics. Sometimes viceroys, like monarchs, cannot avoid making decisions with political consequences, yet in Australia debate about the head of state's role is still beset by mystical monarchical claptrap about the job being 'above politics'.

It can be no such thing, and the fact that it can't is the most important reason why Australia should become a republic with a head of state elected by the people. It isn't merely because our notional head of state is an absentee hereditary monarch, but because the person who actually carries out the head of state's duties is a creature of the government of the day.

The best viceroys, like Hasluck and McKell, may act independently anyway but there have been enough duds and timeservers in Yarralumla to demonstrate that we cannot presume a governor-general will always do so.

We need a better democracy than the one we have, but our political leaders have neither the inclination nor the courage to take up the task of building one. 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor. 

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, governor-general, Quentin Bryce, republic



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Existing comments

You are right Ray we need real democracy. And a carefully publicly vetted, scrutinised and democratically elected Australian head of state, which is one of us,lives in our own country and actually represents us. I can’t imagine that a former politician would fit the bill. My petition to Buckingham Palace on very serious hidden domestic human rights abuses, which was forward to GG Quentin Bryce in Canberra, was ignored by her. Ms Bryce already denied us as Queensland constituents, when she was still the Governor of Queensland. The current Queensland Governor, Penelope Wensley is also totally incommunicado and refuses to respond to the documented and corroborated judicial corruption allegations against her brother Robert Wensley QC as detailed by Independent Australia http://www.independentaustralia.net/tag/jordan-nash/ on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/user/2plus2doesnotequal5 and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.nash.9/posts/410831995650507 Abuse of power? Tell me about it and added to that is the police brutality, gross police misconduct and systematic denial of electoral representation and mainstream media attention! We continue to be denied as Australian citizens in our very own country in order to protect the guilty. And they call this a democracy!!!

Jennifer Nash | 23 April 2013  

This shows us the lack of respect of the Australian Constitution and Statutes by Abbott.Once again he lets his vision of being a power hungry dictator relieved to all. Shame Tony and the Liberal Party. The sooner Malcolm Turnball returns to the Leader of the Liberal Party the better for all.Next thing you know Abbott will offer Turnball the position of Governor General.

Stuart John Pearson | 23 April 2013  

Perhaps mention should be made of the fact that the PM has already extended the current GG's appointment beyond the election period? Abott's letter is a primitive attempt to build a straw man, or woman - neither necessary in the 21st century.

Patricia R | 24 April 2013  

Whatever ensues I trust even the idea of making John Winston Howard Governor-General will be consigned where it should be: to the dustbin of history. Howard was and is a backward looking man and his attitude to a future republic, which I think inevitable, would debar him automatically as the G-G needs to be above politics. We need someone in the Ninian Stephen; William Deane or Michael Jeffery mould. Not a tarnished (as they almost inevitably are) ex-politician, although there were some exceptions to that: Lord Casey was magnificent. But then he had class. Howard doesn't. After the Muhamed Hanif affair Howard's appointment would send the wrong signal to and alienate the Government of India; all Australians of Indian origin; the large number of Indian students in this country and large sections of the small "L" liberal and multicultural communities in this country. It would give a completely wrong impression of where this country is at in the 21st Century. Even though I am a constitutional monarchist, I think, after the reign of Her Majesty ends, there will be a groundswell of support for a republic. I hope those who redo the Constitution will be like the men who forged it: the likes of Barton; Deakin and Griffith, not some of the intellectually and morally deformed dwarves of current Australian politics, whose only motivator seems overweening personal ambition. Hopefully, when we have a republic, it will be rather like Ireland, another ex-British colony. I hope we have women of the calibre of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese as President.

Edward F | 24 April 2013  

In this morning's Canberra Times, Jack Waterford suggests that Abbott might mischievously (Jack's word) appoint Michael Kirby, a person who would obviously be welcome to both sides as well as to the wider population. Re the reference to Ireland in Edward's comment, you can add to his two examples the current President Michael D Higgins. Last week, he told the European troika a few home truths about the effect of their policies on ordinary people.

Frank | 24 April 2013  

Ray Cassin's piece of republican advocacy is, to say the least, thin. He says that there have been "duds" as GGs. So what? Popular elections gave returned dud governments and dud Presidents. Where human beings are concerned we can all individually or collectively get it wrong. And the thing about the GG being above politics means above PARTY politics, ie not being in the job to usurp governments duly elected. And elected Presidents will have a mandate with the prospect of conflict between government and president being not just about constitutional matters but bread and butter matters.

Fr John Fleming | 24 April 2013  

It makes me wonder why Abbott even raised this, given the predictable response. Being a former MP should not be a barrier to being Governor General. Casey, Hasluck and Hayden did the job with dignity and without controversy. I don’t think much of John W Howard’s politics but if appointed I expect him to act with the same integrity and lack of political partisanship. The Prime Minister could respond to Abbott’s letter along the lines of “timely to review the appointment process for G-G”, away from the current one where some UK bureaucrat on behalf of the Queen rubberstamps the name given to them by Australia. The PM could propose a bipartisan Parliamentary committee to recommend a name for approval by the Australian Parliament, leaving the Brits out of the process altogether. Legislation could ensure the stability of the process and as it is only a change to the process it possibly could be done without amending the Constitution. Abbott and bipartisanship don’t often go together but even he would be scratching for a good reason not to support it.

Brett | 24 April 2013  

I didn't/don't like Mr Howard's politics either, but would hope that as a prospective GG he would rise to the standard of conduct required as Her Majesty's representative. The trouble is that I very much doubt that he would be able to reach that high standard of integrity that we Australians desire for someone in that role. How to resolve the difficulties of being an independent country and still being tied to the British Crown is one that I don't think either side of politics is fit to argue yet. Although it chafes, I think this is one situation that could be left to our descendents for the moment - or until after this batch of small-hearted politicians have left public power, and some bigger imaginations come to the fore.

Curi-Oz | 25 April 2013  

God help us if we ever get to choose the GG. We'll obviously have to be choosing between people already in the public domain, the last sort of person we want in such a job. The chances are we'll get some 'thinking person's celebrity' regaling us with their own moral agendas. In fact we'll be virtually inviting them to do this to us. And Ray, they'll be exploiting not only their own (likely) charisma, but the 'mystical monarchical' status (that will of course remain in the exalted position of GG whether we’re a monarchy or not) to inflict who-knows-what 'claptrap' upon us. They will be a potential alternative to the parliament and every other authority. With the present system, we get mostly good harmless people (who might only inflict long speeches or a bit of pride on us), although I suppose the unlikely potential remains for some divisive figure like Howard to ascend. The best GGs courageously confront us only with the most fundamental, and virtually universally held, moral issues. And usually questions, not answers. And only when we need it.

david moloney | 25 April 2013  

If the electorate chose the GGs Australia would have only wealthy people, or people backed by wealth (such as the Unions) as candidates just like the elected officials in the USA. We have all heard of the billions spent on having a US President elected. I can't recall a fabulously rich person chosen by 2/3 of our Parliament to hold that position. As for Mr Abbott, I think he's perfectly justified in being concerned that JG is going to jump the gun. She's done it with the Electoral Commissioner. She's trying to make governing as hard as possible for the next government by promising great reforms but not the funding for them. Just proves how she is wedded not to the welfare of all Australians but to her Socialist ideology.

Lyn F | 25 April 2013  

i think one way we could elect a President is something like this [url]http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/australian-identity/republic/independent-australian-constitution/[/url]

Little Devil | 26 April 2013  

I think what many people have been inferring is that most of our current, or recent former, politicians are neither fit to be Governor-General nor President when that office supersedes it. I concur. We have the same problem Plato posed. I disagree with his solution. How do we change things? No simple pat solution trips off the tip of my tongue.

Edward F | 26 April 2013  

Let’s be clear, this is a storm in a teacup. Until the writs for an election are issued and the Government moves into caretaker status the Prime Minister has every right to appoint a new Governor-General, or other appointed positions. Mr Abbott has no right to make that decision until/unless he becomes Prime Minister. The only one jumping the gun is Abbott writing to the PM about it. If he does not like the G-G he can do something about it when in office. If the boot was on the other foot I reckon Mr Abbott would govern until the last possible day. As I understand it, the PM has extended the term of Governor-General Bryce for just a few months into 2014, which addresses Abbott’s concern and gives him the opportunity to make his choice when/if elected. I still don’t know why former politicians should be barred from the job. Seems to me they have all shown a great capacity for integrity in the position, regardless of which party they came from.

Brett | 27 April 2013  

There would be a slight problem for the Coalition retaining Quentin Bryce as G-G: during her term in office she involuntarily & guiltlessly acquired Bill Shorten as a son-in-law. There is no question as to her integrity but the fact is probably uncomfortable to both her & the Opposition.

Edward F | 28 April 2013  

Elect the GG? No way! That way we get, by definition, a politician. It would fundamentally change the relationship between the GG and the parliament, the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister. An elected GG would have greater power than the PM in some ways, as he/she would be elected by the people to that position, whereas (in spite of Kevin Rudds delusions) PMs are not elected by the people, they are determined by the relevant political party.

EdC | 30 April 2013  

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