From Sydney Morning Herald (I’m sure they won’t mind)
The strict political neutrality of Australia’s Governor-General is a crucially important democratic principle, but one whose mention usually elicits a combination of boredom and baffled incomprehension from most people.
It’s an important principle because, although the Governor-General is appointed rather than elected (and therefore not accountable to the people in any meaningful sense), our Constitution on its face seems to vest just about all political executive power in the Governor-General. Indeed the Prime Minister and Cabinet are not even mentioned in the Constitution! The Governor-General’s almost purely ceremonial role is “secured” by unwritten conventions requiring her to act only on the “advice” of her Ministers except in a tiny handful of extreme and very rare “reserve powers” situations.
However, because these constitutional conventions are unwritten, they can and do evolve over time. For example, it wasn’t until well after 1975 that it came to be fairly widely though still not universally accepted that the Governor-General could in some circumstances properly dismiss an elected government which was unable to get a supply bill through the Senate for an extended period of time.
Since the limits of the Governor-General’s role are largely defined by a set of unwritten rules that evolve over time, any significant moves by a Governor-General to carve out a more prominent and powerful role for herself should at the very least be viewed with profound suspicion.
There have been occasional instances over the last 20 years where Governors-General arguably breached the principle of political neutrality. For example, various comments about Aboriginal reconciliation and the Stolen Generations by Sir William Deane attracted Coalition ire at the time. Nothing Deane said actually contradicted official Coalition policy as far as I know, but his remarks certainly ran counter to John Howard’s personal inclinations and his desire to appropriate the Culture Wars to party politics through rhetoric about the “black armband” view and “practical reconciliation”. Deane’s utterances were at least arguably breaches of strict political neutrality.
So too a 2003 statement by Howard appointee Major-General Michael Jeffery which appeared to advocate pre-emptive military interventions. Labor at the time had distinct reservations about any such policy, and specifically opposed the Australian intervention in Iraq. Thus Jeffery’s statement was a fairly clear breach of political neutrality.
However, both these examples pale into insignificance by comparison with the antics of current Governor-General Quentin Bryce since her recent appointment.
Her announced intention to campaign in favour of Australia’s bid for membership of the UN Security Council on a forthcoming tour of Africa is a blatant breach of neutrality. The Coalition expressly opposes it, as Julie Bishop repeated this morning and conservative pundits like Janet Albrechtsen are already fulminating. And with good reason. What concessions will Australia be forced to make to third world countries, especially in Africa, to secure their support for the Security Council bid? Will our government see the need to kowtow to third world hatred of Israel, for example? Or vote in favour of UN Resolution 62/154, on “combating defamation of religions”, an extraordinarily Orwellian Islamic-inspired gambit that Christopher Hitchens discusses in today’s Oz? One can certainly see why the Coalition is opposing the bid but, even for those who regard such concerns as fanciful or confected, the central fact remains that the Security Council bid is strongly opposed by one of Australia’s two major political parties. Accordingly, it’s totally improper for the Governor-General to make public pronouncements about it, let alone campaign actively in support of it in meetings with foreign governments.
Moreover, this is not the only example of Bryce exceeding the accepted boundaries of the Governor-General’s role in her short time in office. She also recently demanded and received security briefings from the head of the defence forces, Air Chief Marshall, Angus Houston, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Michael L’Estrange and the Treasury Secretary, Dr Ken Henry at her official Canberra residence, Yarralumla, not to mention summoning State governors and the NT Administrator for talks. Keep in mind that the Governor-General has no legitimate decision-making role in relation to any such matters. She would normally be briefed by Ministers on policy issues, essentially as a matter of courtesy (and through her formal role as titular head of the Executive Council), but as far as I know there is no precedent for the Governor-General receiving her own policy briefings from top public servants and military chiefs. Moreover, the Governor-General has even less of a role in relation to State Governors. They are appointed (and dismissed) by the Queen on the advice of their respective State governments, and again are required to act on the advice of those State governments. What possible purpose could be served by meetings between the Governor-General and State Governors? It seems as if Bryce is attempting to carve out a role for herself as Australian “uber-governor”, along with a more influential and public role on policy issues.
Presumably Bryce’s actions are being taken with Rudd government approval. Certainly her contentious diplomatic jaunt through Africa is expressly supported by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith:
“When the Governor-General is travelling in foreign countries, of course from time to time, as appropriate, she will make statements that reflect government policy,” he told ABC TV’s Insiders program.
“Australian government policy is that we want to make a substantial engagement with Africa. We see that as being very importantly in our economic and social and foreign policy interests and we reflect our commitment to multilateralism by running for the Security Council. And she will make that point appropriately when she meets with the African leadership.”
Rudd and Smith would be well advised to keep in mind the events of 1975 in assessing the dangers of colluding with Bryce in creating an over-mighty office of Governor-General. Then again, perhaps it’s a Machiavellian/Ruddite strategy to advance the Republican agenda: once the office of Governor-General is irretrievably politicised most people will more readily see the wisdom of an elected and accountable Republican Head of State. Of course, the problem with that theory is that it seems very unlikely that Rudd is any keener than any previous Australian Prime Minister to embrace the idea of an elected President.
It’s all very strange. However, one thing’s for sure. If I was the Liberal leader one of my first actions on winning government (still, admittedly, an unlikely event at the next election) would be to visit Ms Bryce at Yarralumla and inform her that I would be advising the Queen to dismiss her unless she resigned immediately.