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The GG as a politician

October 19th, 2003

As is often the case, I’m coming late to a story that more alert ploggers have covered at length, that of Governor-General Michael Jeffery’s remarks supporting pre-emptive military action. Roughly speaking, it seems that opinion is divided along left-right lines as might be expected. The left line, represented by my blogtwin, Tim Dunlop focuses on the Howard government’s hypocrisy in view of its criticism of less overtly political statements by William Deane. The right line, which I’ve seen but can’t now locate a good instance of, is that the hypocrisy is on the side of the left, who cheered Deane on, but are now deploring Jeffery. I have a couple of observations.

First, this is a typical instance of the policy dynamic under the current government. When faced with some aspect of Labor’s behavior in office (weak code of ministerial conduct, publicly funded political advertising and so on) the Howard government has initially deplored it and promised to do better. But when this inevitably proves inconvenient, the response is to take actions which are claimed to be in line with precedents from the Labor government but which in fact are “pushing the envelope”. Ministerial conflicts of interest and use of public money to fund political ad campaigns allow for much more impropriety (relative to the views of propriety that prevailed until the 1980s) than under the last Labor government (though who knows what the next one will be like).

In the present case, the government disliked Deane’s attempts to act as a social conscience, so it decided to appoint Hollingworth who seemed to have a track record that would protect him from adverse comparisons with Deane combined with a willingness to look dignified and stick to his script. When it turned out that the latter qualities, in operation as Archbishop of Brisbane, had produced some disastrous outcomes, the government decided to give up on neutrality and appoint someone who would speak out on their side of the debate.

The second point is that, as a result of this, it’s now clear that the post of Governor-General is a political one and that anyone who holds it is a politician. The natural conclusion is that a politician holding such an important office should have the legitimacy that can only be derived from popular election.

This is logically independent of the Republic issue. We can have an elected governor-general (David Solomon pushed this idea after 1975, and Ken Parish revived it recently) or an appointed president. Realistically speaking though, a move to directly electing the GG would lead straight to a republic with a directly elected president. By giving up on the idea of the GG as a neutral figurehead, the government has effectively conceded defeat on the main arguments against both a republic and direct election.

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  1. Observa
    October 19th, 2003 at 19:58 | #1

    Apart from the problem of the political will to appoint a neutral cleanskin there is also the problem of finding one. Of course the Republican logic you mention, might also lead one to the idea that High Court judges should also be elected, given the controversy over some of their ‘political’ rulings(It would be interesting to see how some republican democrats would handle a pro capital punishment ticket here) We might then move on to Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries of PS Depts and on to Chancellors and Vice Chancellors of Universities, Police Commissioners, etc, right on to Sherriffs and their Deputies if that’s where we’re headed. Out with all these tired political hacks and in with the new brooms every election. Then there is the question as to whether or not only wealthy Arnie types will ever get a gig for the big one.

    While both major parties agree they want to appoint the Head of State, you can forget about dumping Queeny.

  2. October 19th, 2003 at 23:53 | #2

    Pr Q hits the nail on the head:

    The right line, which I’ve seen but can’t now locate a good instance of, is that the hypocrisy is on the side of the left, who cheered Deane on, but are now deploring Jeffery…By giving up on the idea of the GG as a neutral figurehead, the government has effectively conceded defeat on the main arguments against both a republic and direct election

    Pr Q was not looking very closely for the Right wing perspective on Jefferies v Hollingsworth. On the very same Dunlopian blog I sprang to the defence of the present GG, I noticed that TD’s commnentators were applying the double standard against the GG, using just the Righty argument that Pr Q:

    Most Left wingers had no problems with Sir William Deane championing of various Aboriginal-related issues, which were frequently politically controversial eg Stolen Children.

    I tended to support the GG in that instance, mainly because his words were on a subject close to his own heart, namely security and lawful mass homicide. But I would agree that politicising the GG is directly antagonistic to the cultural figure head apolitical representative of national tradition justification of the monarchy.
    If the GG is to become political, then he requires democratic legtimacy, which in effect means an elected head of state: a president.
    As a dyed in the wool monarchist, and a detester of celebrity direct elections ala Schwarzenegger, I would oppose such an alarming usurpation of Her Majesty’s prerogagtives. I conclude the Jefferies should be told to zip it

  3. Dave Ricardo
    October 20th, 2003 at 10:04 | #3

    The more Jeffrey says, the harder it will be for the monarchists to maintain the fiction that the GG is the apolitical Queen’s representative.

    Thinking monarchists (if that’s not an oxymoron) must be aghast. Their boy is undermining their institution every time he opens his mouth.

    Go, Michael, go.

  4. October 20th, 2003 at 10:19 | #4

    “By giving up on the idea of the GG as a neutral figurehead, the government has effectively conceded defeat on the main arguments against both a republic and direct election.”

    Er, no. The major arguments stand; however, the misunderstandings that are in wider circulation have their nonsense highlighted further. But showing those strawmen are wrong doesn’t really address the real problems that a republic would present.

    Oh, what are the real problems? Go and look at the ACM website. (Hint: do not ask the ARM for a summary of objections to a republic – or the ACM for objections to monarchy, come to that.)

  5. John
    October 20th, 2003 at 10:25 | #5

    Going to the ACM site as recommended, the only substantive* argument I find is

    That the Constitutional Monarchy means that the highest office in the land is beyond politics? It denies ultimate power to politicians and helps to keep political power under check. Our impartial umpires, the Governor-General and State Governors, keep the politicians honest. They provide leadership above politics. The heart of our constitutional system should be beyond political capture.

    * As opposed to observations that constitutional monarchy has been around for a long time in a lot of countries.

  6. Observa
    October 20th, 2003 at 11:00 | #6

    Did I miss something in history lessons, or was it sorted out a long time ago that we all wanted our ceremonial head of state to be a sock puppet of parliament and that’s why the major parties are only comfortable with their appointee. When a new govt is elected, parliament is opened by queeny(or here our GG) who then go on to outline ‘my govts’ legislative program. History tells us if they didn’t do this then they get their head lopped off.

    The extreme alternative to the sock puppet scenario is a Crean or Howard govt having to deal with perhaps a popularly elected head of state like Pauline Hanson. She might just want to extend the reserve powers of the position a little beyond what ‘her govt’ had in mind. This scenario is clearly why the majors prefer their own sock puppet when in power, yet whinge like hell about their opponent’s sock puppet when they’re not. Of course there is nothing so heinous as your own sock puppet getting a mind of its own, as the vilification of Kerr will attest.

  7. October 20th, 2003 at 11:18 | #7

    I didn’t make myself clear enough. I did not recommend the ACM as a source of arguments for monarchy but as a source of descriptions of problems with a republic (and observations of manonarchical longevity, as opposed to republican lack of it, are substantive for that). My own site does have some deeper analysis, but I was content just to stop with the objections, just here.

    I should have been more specific and said, “what do the actual objections to a republic have to do with the purported arguments for monarchy?” I was trying to show that the real arguments are not the ones in general circulation. I thought that would be a more limited and easier thing to demonstrate than to come up with a complete list of genuine arguments.

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