It has been said that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. If so, Australia’s Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, knows a thing or two about paying compliments. Of course the hypocritical aspect of Ms Bryce’s recent ABC Boyer Lecture is only one of many wrongheaded things about that lecture. But it is a good starting place for anyone wanting to respond to our Queen’s representative in Australia.
And here there is such an embarrassment of riches one is not sure what to point out first. Perhaps it is the fact that Ms Bryce has spent the last decade and a half or so either as the Governor-General of Australia or as the Governor of Queensland. These are high-paying jobs. They carry status. They give the holder lots and lots and lots of perquisites. Nor are they even all that difficult or stressful, as far as high-paying jobs go.
And during that entire time Ms Bryce was perfectly content to take the Queen’s silver, as it were. Imagine if an opponent of the coal industry had spent the last 15 years heading up a worldwide coal industry think tank on a huge salary and lots of benefits and only with four months left in his tenure gave a speech slamming coal, and intimating he’d always been against coal.
After mocking someone like that for the sheer, brazen hypocrisy of his speech, you’d at least expect him to pay back his 15 years of salaries from the institution he now disavows.
Yes, you might draw a distinction between the person who only recently experienced some sort of Damascene conversion, and the one who was always in the other camp but liked the idea of a ‘job with benefits’, as it were.
Either way you’d be a hypocrite. But one sort is worse than the other. And it seems pretty clear to me that Ms Bryce’s hypocrisy falls into the worse of those two sorts of camps.
But let us put away charges of hypocrisy, damning as they are, and focus on other wrongheaded aspects of Ms Bryce’s lecture. Start with the horrible breach of convention it entailed.
Here’s the thing. In all but the most unusual of circumstances the job of Governor-General involves very little in the way of using your brain, other than paying strict attention to the convention that has developed over hundreds of years that you, as Governor-General, express no opinions at all on any contentious and disputed political issues of the day.
That is not a tough thing to live up to and it is an integral aspect of the job. Indeed it is that severing of the job of head of state from anything political that makes the existing system so hard to replace, without making things worse. Having a Prime Minister say one thing and a President (directly or indirectly elected) say another has bad consequences. Or at least that is surely the case unless you buy in fully to the American-style system of a full separation of powers, checks-and-balances regime. And even then it seems to me that our Westminster system is better than the Madisonian one in the United States (just look at the political gridlock Stateside right now).
So Ms Bryce knew before she took the job that she was expected to keep her mouth shut. And yet here she is giving her views on same-sex marriage, which is clearly a party political issue at the moment. And worse she gave her views on one of the most fundamental constitutional issues of the day, namely the benefits or otherwise of the constitutional monarchy. That, frankly, is also a highly partisan issue. Much higher percentages of pro-republic people are in the Labor party than in the Coalition. So Ms Bryce’s comments coming as they do from a pulpit she only got to inhabit because she is the Governor-General are nothing short of outrageous, and they are outrageous even leaving aside the rank hypocrisy mentioned above.
Ms Bryce seems to have forgotten that she is not a politician running for office.
It gets worse. You see even if you were magnanimous enough to overlook Ms. Bryce’s egregious breach of the convention to keep her mouth shut in normal circumstances, these are not normal circumstances. By that I mean that she was not simply commenting on political matters, she was commenting on political matters in which her son-in-law was on one side of both those issues and the Prime Minister of the day on the other. And she sided on both issues with her daughter’s husband.
Now I would have thought that even someone foolish enough to talk politics as the Governor-General would not be so doubly foolish as to do so on issues where she effectively comes out of the closet and suggests ‘my son-in-law is right and Mr Abbott is wrong’.
Can anyone, seriously, ever imagine the Queen doing anything remotely like this? Not a chance. How about the Governor-General in Canada, where I am at present? Again, people here are dumbfounded by this.
So Ms Bryce has been foolish by breaching convention and talking big ticket politics and she has been foolish on stilts by being the party political cheerleader for her daughter’s husband, whom even she must have realised was the leader of the Queen’s official opposition. Really, it all beggars belief.
There are a few other tangential issues to note. Firstly, does it surprise anyone that this speech took place at an ABC-sponsored lecture? (No need to answer, that was just a rhetorical question, not a real one.)
Secondly, in all of this Mr Abbott has been very magnanimous. He has also been wrong about what is expected of a Governor-General. But he assuredly has been magnanimous. And perhaps that is what is called for from a sitting Prime Minister. But it is not what is called for from the rest of us.
In my view, Ms Bryce ought to resign immediately. If she had any sense of the hypocrisy of her position, she’d also pay back the last decade and a half of her
James Allan is the Garrick professor of law at the University of Queensland and until Christmas is on sabbatical at Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto.