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Our vice-regal maverick

Last year, the official secretary to the governor-general, Malcolm Hazell CVO, gave a speech in Wagga Wagga to shed light on the governor-general’s role.

11 March 2009

12:00 AM

11 March 2009

12:00 AM

Last year, the official secretary to the governor-general, Malcolm Hazell CVO, gave a speech in Wagga Wagga to shed light on the governor-general’s role.

Last year, the official secretary to the governor-general, Malcolm Hazell CVO, gave a speech in Wagga Wagga to shed light on the governor-general’s role. Tucked away amid his learned commentary was the anticipation that Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Australia’s 25th governor-general, would ‘present her own interests and themes to the Australian community when she assume[d] office’ in September.

Mr Hazell could not have been more prescient. Apart from sacking Mr Hazell immediately, Ms Bryce has championed the necessity of paid maternity leave and summoned state governors to Canberra to receive private security briefings from senior public servants. Most recently, the Prime Minister announced Ms Bryce would embark next week on a 20-day nine-nation tour of Africa to ‘strengthen Australian engagement with Africa’. The foreign minister, Stephen Smith, was less oblique: Ms Bryce is travelling to ‘underline a very important policy of the Australian government [in particular to] reflect our commitment to multilateralism by running for the Security Council’.


Ms Bryce’s personal desiderata are best left unheard. Recent debate about whether we can ‘afford’ government-supported paid maternity leave, for instance — encouraged by Ms Bryce’s comment that ‘we should have every single support we can for families’ — belies the inherently political nature of the proposal. Even putting to one side the moral and economic costs of collecting taxes to pay for paid maternity leave, it is entirely possible that such leave, where contributions are expected from employers, sharpens businesses’s resolve to avoid hiring women in the first place. The desirability of mandating fewer, but more amenable, jobs for women is best left to elected politicians.

The governor-general is the final arbiter of due process in the Australian federal government, the commander in chief of our armed forces, ‘the highest single expression… of the idea that Australians of all parties and all walks of life belong to the same nation’, whose presence acts ‘to represent… the Australian nation to the people of Australia’, to quote former governors-general Sir Paul Hasluck and Sir Ninian Stephen respectively. Debate about the governor-general’s role normally extends to nuanced discussion over constitutional interpretation, but never questions the strict impartiality of the post. Ms Bryce’s travel plans and musings on maternity leave flout these sage conventions.

Concern about politicisation of the governor-general arises not from haughty reaction, but from a desire to conserve our stable and enlightened democracy. A politicised governor-general will leave herself open to criticism from the opposition and the press, and thus diminish her ability to perform an important ceremonial and constitutional role. Can anyone imagine Elizabeth II slipping in a few new ideas of her own in her routine speech to open Parliament at Westminster? Her Australian representative should exhibit a similar modesty.

The governor-general’s transgressions are all the more disappointing this week. Monday was Commonwealth Day, although sadly few Australians realise this. While the governors of New South Wales, Queensland and Canada, for example, at least marked the occasion with official statements and formal gatherings, the Queen’s chief representative in Australia — in contrast to her predecessor last year — had not even marked the event on her official website, or so much as mentioned it in two speeches given in Perth on Commonwealth Day itself. Indeed, Ms Bryce gave International Women’s Day significantly more attention.

The 53 Commonwealth countries, in every continent, offer vast scope for their citizens’ mutual enrichment, yet for all the Rudd government’s talk of an ‘education revolution’ it contributes nothing to the Commonwealth’s own eminent international scholarship programme. Perhaps the Australian government has forgotten we are even a member: of the nine African countries the governor-general is proposing to visit, eight are already part of the Commonwealth. Surely these nations are aware of Australia’s enduring fealty. In any case, the Prime Minister himself could have imparted our best wishes, or ‘engaged with Africa’ as he puts it, at far less expense at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.

But in addition to cultural benefits, the 60-year-old Commonwealth of Nations, of which Australia is a founding and pre-eminent member, can offer enduring economic benefits. Australia has, for example, privileged diplomatic access to India, an English-speaking economic giant that offers endless opportunity for Australian business. The importance of such ties should be even more obvious as China and Japan are struggling. Yet the government’s proposed India-Australia free-trade agreement has stalled. Surely the governor-general’s time would have been better spent visiting India for Commonwealth Day, and strengthening Australia’s bilateral relationship along the way. Perhaps Her Excellency will pursue this next week with the Indian ambassador in Addis Ababa.


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