The GG as a politician
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.