On September 4 1939, the front pages led with news of Prime Minister Menzies’ melancholy announcement the night before, that Britain was at war and so too was Australia. Menzies’ words would attain an epochal resonance in Australian history. Yet it wasn’t until an hour after he spoke that Australia actually declared war; when Governor-General Lord Gowrie made the proclamation, news of which warranted barely a mention. The office of Governor-General may exist constitutionally at the apex of executive power, as the monarch’s agent, but it’s one that exists, as many seem to prefer, largely out of sight behind the gates of Yarralumla, hidden from influencing, or being influenced by, public debate.
When Governor-General Quentin Bryce did recently venture beyond the gates, remarking on among other things the prospect of an Australian republic, one could be forgiven for thinking Her Excellency was perceived as a modern day Oliver Cromwell, emerging from obscurity to lead a defeating charge against the monarchy herself, such was the rebuke it prompted from some circles.
It was hypocrisy, unprecedented, self-serving and a breach of trust pundits wrote. Writing on The Drum, Peter Reith echoed many, accusing the Governor-General of breaching a convention that has existed since Federation began, by allowing her opinions on “controversial political issues” to enter the public sphere. If that is the case, she is far from the first to have done so.
Any decision to go to war is controversial, with serious political ramifications. This though did not stop Lord Casey from offering his opinions on Vietnam while in office in 1966, advocating that “the military threat must be contained by military means”, while also emphasising the importance of fostering higher living standards in Vietnam to achieve long-term peace.
As his term came to a close, Sir Ninian Stephen spoke to the National Press Club on a range of issues. The power of States in Australia’s federal system has long been a controversial political and legal issue, so it would have raised the ire of state premiers when he predicted many Australians support abolishing the states in favour of a more powerful Commonwealth government. Republicans were likely not pleased either when he warned of a bloody revolution being the path towards a republic.
Bill Hayden commented on a range of political issues including same-sex rights, and dipped into the republic debate repeatedly, even acknowledging the risk of going further than someone in his office usually would. His commentary on the pitfalls of proposed republican models, of a future president being able to exercise excessive power and his assurance that the “the present system works well” no doubt frustrated the Keating Government as it tried to build momentum for a referendum.
And Sir William Deane was candid from the outset, announcing in his first media conference as Governor-General a desire in office to foster Aboriginal reconciliation. A contentious issue at the best of times, his comment may have elicited greater concern for some given his role in the recent Mabo decision had already prompted The Canberra Times’ Jack Waterford to label him a ‘disguised radical.’
Quentin Bryce remarking on the issues of our time then, was neither novel nor particularly remarkable compared to her predecessors.
Recall Lord Gowrie, who leant his expertise to the Curtin government during the war as an advisor, prompting Bert Evatt to later remember him as “a splendid counsellor to [the cabinet].” Perhaps optimistically, we can hope those who rise to the high office bring with them knowledge and expertise that government and the arena of public debate can call on. Is it right that that knowledge and expertise be locked behind the gates?
It is wishful to suggest that a Governor General can have no opinion on political issues, or that they can somehow be insulated from the influence of public debate on those issues. To argue that the utterance of opinions compromises the perception of the role’s impartiality, is to place perception above the need for trust in the Governor General’s ability to be impartial despite those opinions, and above the need for a level of scrutiny. Indeed the great danger is not that those opinions should enter into the arena of robust public debate, but that they remain hidden, certain to exist, but uncertain in their potential effect on the office, and therefore on the country, from behind the gates of Yarralumla.
As to the substance of the Governor General’s remarks regarding a republic; the trend has long been in favour of a growing sense of distinct Australian identity and independence. We have seen the legislative and judicial links between Australia and Britain greatly diminish, as it has throughout the Commonwealth. Convention and practice has made clear that while the monarch remains the Head of State formally, real authority resides locally, exercised by the elected government and by the Governor General via prerogative and executive powers. The Australian system is already in a real sense a republic… the Queen’s republic. That will no doubt come to be reflected in future Constitutional change. While some viewed the Governor General’s remarks as advocacy for a republic, I saw those published thus far as a mere observation of aspiration and perhaps inevitability. Not an agitation for a change that is imminent, but an affirmation of a change that will one day occur, when the Australian people exercise their right to make a choice on the subject, informed by rich and diverse public debate.
Image Credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Original image by ‘Bidgee’