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G-G Bryce breaks bold not bland


Quentin Bryce smiling, in a hatThe Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, addressed many issues in her Boyer Lectures. The first three attracted only moderate attention but she burst onto the front pages when she signed off her final lecture by revealing her long term hope that Australia might become a nation where 'people are free to love and marry whom they choose. And where perhaps ... one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation's first head of state.'

Her aspirations were reported as putting her at odds with her Prime Minister in supporting both gay marriage and a republic, though Tony Abbott publicly agreed that it was appropriate that Bryce should express her personal views in a graceful style as she came to the end of her term.

The controversy shows how careful a governor-general is expected to be. It should also open a conversation not only about how future governor-generals should act but also, if Bryce's aspiration comes true, about how a future Australian president should act.

The Boyer series is an important part of our cultural life. Recent lecturers have included Marcia Langton, Geraldine Brooks, Glyn Davis, Peter Cosgrove, Rupert Murdoch and Noel Pearson. The next governor-general may well come from among this group.

The lectures were always a potentially risky venture, one that no previous governor-general has attempted while in office. She could have accepted on condition that she spoke next year.

Governors-general give many talks and speeches but none of this standing and potential scope. Their impartial, non-partisan role normally encourages them to err on the side of being carefully bland rather than bold where major public issues are concerned. Bryce was brave and her decision may well come to be seen as a further step in the development of the role of governor-general.

Her topic was 'Back to the grassroots'. Her emphasis, drawing on her life as an academic, lawyer, feminist and community and human rights advocate as well as Governor-General, has been on building communities, courage in everyday life, the powerful role of women in Australia and across the world and the future of Australian citizenship.

She was not afraid to speak about themes with such clear policy implications that they carry with them danger signs. In the second of her lectures, for instance, she spoke about the international disgrace, shared in full measure by Australia, of violence against women.

She challenged Australians: 'Wherever I go around the country the rape crisis centres and women's safe houses are full, resources are over-stretched, and countless more women are awaiting refuge from horrific circumstances.' Her voice was not just an expression of solidarity with the women who run such refuges, but also a call to the whole community to do more to remove this stain from Australian life.

Bryce's brief interventions on same sex marriage and the republic, though careful and aspirational, may submerge her earlier thoughts. She may come to regret not delaying them until after she leaves office. But more attention has been focused on the monarchy-republic issue when really the more instructive issue for the office of governor-general is the same sex marriage question.

Not only does the republic raise the distraction of whether a republican should become governor-general in the first place but also realistically it is not a first order issue for the next three years. Her vision has heartened republicans but is not an immediate threat to the status quo.

Same sex marriage, on the other hand, has reached several state parliaments and the High Court and the new Federal Government must soon decide whether or not to allow its MPs a conscience vote. It is likely to return to the Parliament in this term.

Should we know the views of our governor-general or future president on such a topic? I believe we should, when they are couched in such considered and graceful terms, but I understand that others like their governors-general to be blander. Since Sir William Deane we have alternated between different visions of the role.

This is a conversation both the Parliament and the community ought to have before the Abbott Government announces Bryce's successor. We should be much clearer about how we now expect the position to evolve.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was Chair of the Australian Republican Movement, 2002-2005.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Quentin Bryce, Boyer Lectures, same-sex marriage, republic, governor-general



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Existing comments

As the Queen's representative, it's reasonable to expect the Governor General to behave in a similar manner to the Queen. That is, being above party politics; controversial social engineering issues; self serving or self aggrandisement speeches. Ms Bryce's speech seemed to err from this commonly held expectation of her office. A fair question is: Would the Queen have said these things? Ms Bryce, is after all, meant to be a representative of the Queen. Her comments about the Republic seemed to me the most bizarre of all. Were it not for the monarchy, Ms Bryce would not have had this honorary job, and all its trappings, and its generous remuneration.... how hypocrtical (now she is coming to the end to this cushy job) to say that a republic would be better - which of course would mean no more Governors General! There seemed to me to be more than a little grandstanding in Ms Bryce's comments. If she'd really been about simply voicing her own personal perspectives, she could have waited till she left the role.

Micah | 02 December 2013  

I managed to read only the first two of Quentin Bryce's Boyer Lectures and was most impressed. Bryce has been an outstanding and hard-working Governor-General and an outstanding advocate for women and their families all her working career. Thanks Quentin.

Pam | 02 December 2013  

As the Queen's representative, it's reasonable to expect the Governor General to behave in a similar manner to the Queen. How true, Micah, which is exactly what the Governor General is doing. Her Majesty gives an annual speech in London where she spells out what she expects of her Parliament, and it is addressed to all members of the Parliament. We notice how her son and heir speaks regularly on subjects that are not always above politics and that address controversial issues. No one accuses the Queen or the Prince of Wales of self-serving or self-aggrandising speeches. Certainly not. Wouldn’t hear of it! One of my favourite statements from Charles was many years ago, when he said in Sydney or somewhere around there that a mature nation is capable of determining its own constitutional future. The gist of this, Micah, is that Charles was talking, bizarrely, about the Republic. I doubt if Her Majesty ticked off His Royal Highness when he went back home. As it is, the Governor General has added to the commonsensical (and in the case of the Royals, sensical) public discourse on this matter. Like Mr Keating’s famous visit to Balmoral, when he advised the Queen he intended to raise the debate on a Republic in Australia, Queen Elizabeth is certain to have been informed in advance of the Governor General’s lecture content. The Governor General is clearly a courteous individual and knows the protocols.

NOT AMUSED | 02 December 2013  

Are you raising a hare about the next GG, John? I know the present crowd have every reason to be grateful to uncle Rupert, but surely even they would not have the cojones to make him GG. Or would they?

Frank | 03 December 2013  

I find two reasons to comment on this article, first, to comment that the G-G'S comments are not worth commenting on, and second, to proffer the hope that the current incumbent is not succeeded by John Howard.

john frawley | 03 December 2013  

Frankly I couldnt give a hoot what G-G says on SSM. For me my RC Faith suffices frankly: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html

Name | 03 December 2013  

'For me my RC Faith suffices frankly'... ah yes, chapter and verse, so much easier than having to think things through. But where would we be if we all had closed minds? Back in the time of the Inquisition?

Ginger Meggs | 03 December 2013  

GG Bryce should have been treated in same maner as Qld Governor Sir Colin Hannah when he intruded into politics he was sacked within hours. The fact that Bryce favours left wing causes has saved her bacon. Any future Australian President should be treated in the same manner. One political comment = unemployment.

Andrew Jackson | 03 December 2013  

It is no surprise that G-G Quentin Bryce support a republic and same-sex marriage. It was Kevin Rudd a republican and a convert to same-sex marriage that apointed Quentin Bryce Governor General in 2008. Mrs. Bryce must apologise to Her Majesty Elizabeth the second Queen of Australia and to the Australian people for having taken the position of Governor General under false pretences. Let's not forget that when she accepted the position of G-G she swore allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the second

Ron Cini | 03 December 2013  

Bloggers here labour under the illusion that the Republic is a “left wing cause”, which would be news to the many conservatives, not least Malcolm Turnbull, who are active Republicans. It is not a left wing cause but a national cause across politics that has to do with self-determination and the future of the Constitution of the Commonwealth. They also wish to think that a Governor-General must, by definition, be a Monarchist and that to take on the position otherwise is to act under “false pretences”. As it stands, this is not the first Governor-General who is a known Republican, nor will she be the last. To argue otherwise is simply naïve. The Crown is well aware of these facts.

NOT AMUSED | 04 December 2013  

Is Australia still a colonial outpost of Britain? It's a bit sad to think that in the twenty first century we can't even manage to be an independent, nation state and the puerile arguments persist. Embarrasingly, we may have to wait for a republic until the the monarchy actually ask us to leave. Currently, our politicians still swear allegiance to a foreign Head of State. Sad really.

Shane Howard | 04 December 2013  

The cultural cringe is alive and well. How interesting that those critics who are so ready to point to proper protocol and to bow and scrape before 'Her Majesty' (and would no doubt object vehemently if the Queen were to be referred to as 'Betty Windsor'), will in the same breath deliberately demean our own GG by referring to he as 'Mrs' Pryce. May I remind them that our GG is actually Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Pryce.

Ginger Meggs | 04 December 2013  

Sir Ginger, is she really that excellent ?

fr john george | 04 December 2013  

NOT AMUSED is concerned that the issue of the Republic is viewed by bloggers as a left wing cause. I can hardly be described as a Left Winger but generally Left Wing groups do support a republic and right wing groups are monarchists. Turnbull may be in the LIbs but he is only just in and could probably move to the Right wing of the ALP with very little difficulty. The issue which seems to always be missing in the republic debate is what type of republic. I for one want an end to the monarchy but a retention of those parts of the Westminster system that work. e.g. a non political president. That is why I say the GG (or if she were President) should be sacked or impeached. This is precisely why the Keating model was far superior to the American model. NOT AMUSED is wrong that the question is just a National issue - Unfortunately most Republicans are extremist leftists who once given the opportunity to play with the Constitution would do more than change the nomenclature of the GG. The Current GG along with Sir Colin Hannah intruded into politics and should suffer the same fate.

Andrew Jackson | 05 December 2013  

To Andrew Jackson: NOT AMUSED is concerned that the issue of the Republic is viewed by bloggers as only a left wing cause. By talking about wings at all Andrew is invoking the French Revolution, when the concept of political wings first emerged in Western politics. There hangs a tale. In my experience, the issue which seems to be everywhere present in the republic debate is what type of republic. Hence the arguments for a small model or big model. While in fact the main concern seems to be the role of a President. Why? Because everyone seems to take for granted (whatever their kind of wing) that the rest of the political system will remain Westminster and just precisely what it is now. If the state is by definition a political entity then it is meaningless to expect a non-political president. What Australians expect, I think, is a leader who leads for all and will sometimes say things that are unpopular at the time. In my view politicians are unwise choices as president, lawyers and visionaries are preferred. By the way, NOT AMUSED never said that the question is “just a National issue” and therefore cannot be accused of being wrong about something she never said. Andrew’s argument gets totally rhetorical and out of control after that, saying most Republicans are extremist leftists who must not be given the opportunity to play with the Constitution. These statements reveal an incredible lack of connection with the reality of the modern day republican debate.

NOT AMUSED | 05 December 2013  

Well, Fr JG, in my opinion yes. But that's not the point is it? I would have thought that as you are someone who obviously places importance on your own title as reflecting the importance of your own person and position, you might have shown a little more respect for the person and position of the Governor-General, whoever the incumbent might be. That is surely what a true conservative would do. Institutions and conventions are important in maintaining a civil society.

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2013  

Well said, NOT AMUSED. There is much more to a republic than the question of whether the head of state is determined by birth or otherwise.

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2013  

To Ginger Meggs: Thanks, though the question of the birthplace of the head of state is a vital one, not yet even discussed, at least that I know of, in the debate. The birthers know their American Constitution, even if they don’t know commonsense. As if Obama would stand for President if he was born in Kenya. King George III was never a contender. Yet the British Crown has had all sorts of non-nationals on the throne, in fact it’s British because some outsider from Scotland united the kingdom. They have had Dutch people telling them what to do and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had to be changed to Windsor after 1914. If a rule in the French Constitution had said only a born Frenchman can be head of state then would we have ever heard of Napoleon? As it is, a President of Australia could, at the present stage of debate, be anyone from any country. The chances of a New Zealander being President of Australia remain live, methinks, or anyone who has become a naturalised Australian. We certainly don’t want to limit the possibilities for having the best possible government in the world. Hear! Hear! Madame Speaker!

NOT AMUSED | 05 December 2013  

Yes NOT AMUSED, I didn't express myself well. By 'birth' I meant 'by whom', not 'where'. And your comments about 'everyone seem[ing] to take for granted... that the rest of the political system will remain Westminster and just precisely what it is now' is very relevant. Unfortunately, the whole republican debate has been dumbed down into a choice between an hereditary monarch and a limited-term president, however chosen, whereas, in my opinion, the real problem to be addressed is the concentration of power in the hands of the PM or premier and her/his cabinet. At the Commonwealth level, we've only (sometimes) got the Senate to protect us from an elected dictatorship; in Queensland, we have nothing, and we can all see to where that leads.

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2013  

Thanks Ginger Meggs. Your words chime with my thoughts on this subject. A choice between an hereditary monarch and a limited-term president is not a very imaginative approach, is it? We seem to want a President who is little more than a glorified Governor General. Britain or the US? Britain or France? Our models are hackneyed and do not address what you rightly see as the real issue: who is being given the real power? The danger of a PM or Premier and cabinet grabbing absolute power is very real where the head of state cannot control things. The December 2013 spectacle of a small clique inside Parliament (and not the Cabinet) running the country is warning that that sort of model won’t work in a well-regulated republic. People are not even asking whether we disband federalism in a republic, or, alternatively, create more states than we have now. I agree with you about the Senate and in a republic there should be even more checks and balances. We have the Romans to thank for this, aqueducts, oration, and the list goes on. Mind you, a fascinating fact about Australian politics is the way we all respect the electoral system. One of the reasons the parties rush to change things, and create schmozzles in the process, is because they have to get it all done before the other mob (as The Telegraph once put it so elegantly) come back in next time and change it all over again. Meanwhile, Queensland history is a warning to us all of what can happen in dark times in Australia.

NOT AMUSED | 05 December 2013  

Thanks John, I had not heard about the GG's previous lecture addressing violence against women, which I think really does deserve public awareness and creative response. I have heard a lot of comme nt about her brief and vague references to SSM and the future possibilities of a republic. Well done Your Excellency.

Ken Dev | 06 December 2013  

I never liked Quentin Bryce, or believed she was suitable for the GG role. Granted, she is very bright, elegant and all that - bit plastic and too made-up, though. However, she should have kept her political views quiet, however "graciously" she put them, until after her term ends. I remember her stating that she was a republican, just after accepting the office of G-G. So why the hell did she take the position anyway? God knows who the next one will be. I have an idea it will be Peter Cosgrove, or John Howard. I don't like either of them either. I'm very leftwing, by the way, but the republic issue is of very little importance these days. The system we have works very well. There is no perfect system. When she goes, Ms Bryce should continue advocating women's rights, which she's very good at, and same sex marriage etc. Let the Government - heaven help us - just get on with it.

Louw | 07 December 2013  

I think this whole discussion proves that the notion of monarchy is undemocratic in itself. AUstralia is a democracy so good on you G-G!

AURELIUS | 09 December 2013  

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