The most interesting aspect of the reaction to the governor-general’s last Boyer lecture, with its last-sentence support for abolishing the monarchy, is the thinness of the opposition from the left to her expression of her political views.
As the events of the past few days have shown, in politics, to speak is to act. By lending even gentle support to the anti-monarchy cause, the governor-general has reopened the republic debate at least for a few days. It’s a more potent intervention given that the current prime minister once headed a successful push to retain the monarchy, and given that the current opposition leader is also the GG’s son-in-law.
I hope that the view remains strong on the left that an appointed head of state should not be a political player. In this view, the governor-general is supposed to work through and react to a checklist of constitutional questions and otherwise stay mute. One of the errors of Sir John Kerr back in the 1975 crisis was arguably that he gave in too easily to the temptation to become a political actor, instead of sticking to this mechanistic view of his role.
In short, the governor-general needs to be essentially a constitutional robot.
Kerr’s replacement, Zelman Cowen, came to the role politically unaligned and stayed that way, as best anyone could tell. I interviewed him as a student and was annoyed at how much of a cipher he was on political issues. Afterwards I came to think of his approach as important to the post-1975 healing process. The real story was his dedication to being a robot.
Whatever your opinion of Kerr or Cowen, the GG-as-robot view has obvious attractions. The elected government governs, and the governor-general acts only to resolve, in strict accordance with the constitution, actual constitutional impasses. Politics is purely the debate between government and opposition.
Note that this is not necessarily an issue that goes away when the monarchy is abolished. Depending on the replacement constitutional model you prefer, come the abolition of the monarchy we will probably retain the capability to create constitutional impasses. And so a president/governor-general/whomever will have to break them. If we choose a non-monarchical constitutional model minimally different from what we have now, we may still need our head of state to stay out of politics.
Those who are in favour of letting the governor-general advocate abolition of the monarchy, however, are lending aid to a different model. The more the governor-general becomes a political figure, the more the assumption will grow that a post-monarchical head of state should be a political player. That is a model with some interesting difficulties.
The abolitionists are also lending aid to one other cause: the right of our next governor-general to speak out on political issues. Since our next governor-general will likely be appointed by the current prime minister, this is an interesting prospect.
Perhaps because Quentin Bryce is broadly of the left, and perhaps because her controversial Boyer Lecture also advocated gay marriage, a surprising number of people on the left have come to her defence. They should ask themselves what their reaction would have been if she had opposed gay marriage instead – or how their views about the GG’s conduct might change if she were replaced by, say, Tim Fischer.
And those in the centre-left who prefer their GGs robotic should say so, loudly, however much we agree with Bryce’s comments.
Here’s an idea: when it appoints the new governor-general next year, the government could set out what it believes the rules of conduct should be for the role. Done right, that could be a valuable reinforcement to our constitutional structure, both now and post-monarchy. Australians could usefully know a bit more about what the governor-general is there to do.
Note 1: For the record, I am in favour of abolishing the monarchy; I just don’t care about it much either way as long as we have a robotic governor-general.
Note 2: It’s now 2022, and I want to note (mostly for my own benefit) that Charles Sturt
University’s Bede Harris has had a decent crack at codifying the rules for the governor-general’s role.