How G-G weakened monarchists' case


Quentin Bryce and Kevin Rudd, screen cap from ABC NewsThe 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 in the latter; that is, speaking out of turn as a loose cannon. Rather the criticism is that she is unwisely doing the Government's bidding on a controversial political issue. If that is the case, the controversy contributes to a case for change, not a defense of the status quo.

This system should go. It would be far better to have either parliamentary appointment by a two-thirds majority of Parliament (the 1999 referendum approach) or direct popular election by the people. The former would involve parliamentary debate and include the Opposition. The latter would involve the people in an electoral process. 

The Trajectory of the Australian Republic Debate: John Warhurst's Occasional Lecture presented in the Senate earlier this month.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst, the Senior Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement, is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University.

Topic tags: john warhurst, quentin bryce, republic, monarchy, queen, head of state, governor general, peter hollingwort



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Existing comments

The debate is not new and the reasons keep mounting up for an independent head of state preferably appointed by the Parliamwnt. If we have to have an elected head of state then we need to change the Consitution to codify the powers of the Governor General (or President). You can't have a Government that holds office by the indulgence of the head of state.

Kevin V Russell | 13 March 2009  

Two thirds of parliament would ensure bipartisan support; but to ensure the people feel engaged parliament could approve more than one nomination and the electorate could choose one of them. The President would then feel free to tell the Prime Minister when he was making a fool or a villain of himself, which some of our PMs have been in sore need of.

Michael Grounds | 13 March 2009  

Bryce's political and personal posturings are a foretaste of what is in store for us if we get a popularly-elected President which is the most likely scenario under a republic if the 1999 referendum is any guide.

It would not surprise me if her attitude towards the office of Governor-General were not calculated to further weaken the Australian monarchy.

What did surprise me, when we started to get this series of republican vice-regal representatives like Bryce, is how people with certain constitutional views can accept appointment to positions which are symbolic of the very opposite.

Sylvester | 13 March 2009  

I think the article is flawed. In the UK, the Queen acts on the advice of her Government, and that includes international visits that are sometimes simply political in nature and purpose. If our Governor General stands in for the Queen in Australia, then s/he must also act on the advice of her/his government and that includes visits of a political nature. Both the article and Sylvester's comments conveniently ignore the real nature of the current monarchy.

Whether we want a monarchy or something else is another matter and, as Kevin implies, we need to settle the role of the new head of state before we address the method of appointment/selection/election.

Warwick | 16 March 2009  

Personally, I don't think that the Prime Minister should have any say in how Australia is governed. An opinion yes, but they should only call a referendum when the public calls for it, not if they think that Australia should be a republic. He or she serves under the Queen, through the representation of the G-G, so in a way, it's like telling your boss to go stuff themselves. The same goes for the G-G.

Andre | 17 March 2009  

Republicanism in this country is dead. No one cares any more, in fact, my generation (Y) have an increasing respect for constitutional monarchy as a system. We distrust politicians, and do not have the baby boomer rapid anti-British bigotry.

Republicans had their chance in 1999, and blew it. Instead of learning from their mistakes they decided it was all Howard's fault. It has become such an idea fixed they can no longer see they have to convince the Australian people of the NEED for change, they think it will just happen because they want it.

God Save The Queen of Australia.

LD | 18 March 2009  

"Progressive" republicans should consider that, had Quentin Bryce been nominated as president under the model proposed in 1999, she almost certainly would have been effectively vetoed by the Coalition partycroom, and thus been vetoed for bipartisan appointment. We would end up with lowest-common-denominator appointments because of Australia's combative, binary political culture.

The status quo is thus probably the most convenient, and least worst, option.

Hugh Abbot | 19 March 2009  

I believe the current Governor-General is doing the wrong thing but the fact we can see it is the wrong thing shows us that the system of Constitutional Monarchy is better, in a republic this sort of politicisation of the Head of State would be the norm.

The Queen is our supreme Head of State and she remains above party politics. Long live the Monarchy!

Dave | 29 March 2009  

Um, Dave, mate, you might care to look into Margaret Thatcher's comment, "the Queen is the sort of women who would vote for the SDP". Nevertheless, the Queen is not above politics, but from it - if she does anything that annoys the pollies, she can be zapped of her powers, courtesy of Parliamentary supremacy. She is THEIR poodle. Watch House of Cards, "To Play the King", or just look at what happened in Belgium in 1992, Nepeal 2006 or Luxumburg 2008 when the monarch tries to be IN politics. Not above politics, but FROM it.

Btw, LD I'm a Gen Y - and I distrust politicians - that's why I support adopting a Swiss-style Republic - citizen initiated referenda and a federalist platform. That's what a REPUBLIC is - power to the PEOPLE, not politicians (the latter being, of course, a constitutional monarchy). The pollies in Parliament WON.....250 years ago, end of story. You support the status quo - YET play on distrust of pollies - hence the status quo IS broke.

So, GSTQ! Because when her own historian calls her a philistine, she needs all the divine intervention she can get.

Daniel Urquhart | 21 June 2009  

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