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Top Level Straitjacket

May 28, 2003

Paul Kelly - The Australian

The office of governor-general is now stranded trapped between the obsolete role of representing the crown and the republican idea of representing the people.

It is neither one nor the other but an office in transition beset by conflicting views among politicians, media and lawyers about its meaning and locked in a constitutional straitjacket with a public too divided to offer a release.

Australia's debate about the tragic fiasco of Peter Hollingworth reveals a nation in disarray. It is obvious that Hollingworth was not just inept in office but confused about what he was supposed to be doing. The confusion is widespread.

There seems to be a new debate opening. It is not about republic or monarchy though this is the final question. The new entry point is about the governor-general. Who should hold the office? What should be the process for appointment and removal? What is expected of a governor-general? And there is a bigger question: have Australians decided not by formal referendum but by informal debate that the governor-general is our head of state?

John Howard should never have offered the post and Hollingworth should never have accepted it. At Yarralumla this poor priest was lost. He saw himself as Howard's man and hadn't a clue what "representing the nation to itself" meant. Once attacked, he became part of Australia's contemporary culture war stunned at the frenzy of the critics and unable to comprehend the gravity of the pedophile protection issue against him.

Hollingworth failed in an office defined less by use of power and more by the incumbent's personality. William Deane made the office accessible, not remote. He went to the soup kitchen and the Aboriginal missions. Who did Deane represent? Not Howard, not the parliament, some of the people, and the Queen in name only. In truth, Deane spoke for himself and his own vision of the office yet this is a challenging and risky task.

How would advocates of a more proactive G-G feel if Howard appointed Hugh Morgan or Geoffrey Blainey or Leonie Kramer to offer their interpretations of the nation to itself? They would probably descend into complete uproar. Howard, of course, will make a safe appointment, keen not to be stung twice.

Contrary to the hype, Hollingworth didn't gravely damage the office. The office, rather, has reached the next stage of its evolution in this uncertain experiment that is defined and redefined by each incumbent. Yet it is being republicanised in the sense that the public seems more interested in the incumbent, even laying a claim of ownership. It is a welcome trend, with bizarre manifestations.

Take the media eruption of calling the governor-general head of state, pursued in the papers, the ABC and commercial media. Simon Crean now refers to the office as the head of state. So what is going on?

It has been a long-range monarchist strategy, championed by Tony Abbott among others, to argue the governor-general is the head of state as a way of killing the republican debate.

In his 1997 book How to Win the Constitutional War, Abbott said: "Let's remove any doubt and declare that the governor-general is Australia's head of state in law as well as in fact." Abbott called for a new head of state bill to effect this and was prepared to have the G-G known as president. It was a minimalist monarchy. "Where does this leave the Queen?" he asked. "It leaves her exactly where she is, Queen of Australia, no more and no less." His aim in reforming the office of governor-general was to destroy the republic. And now we have a debate about reform of that office within the monarchical system.

There is a powerful contradictory argument that any incremental reform of the office must promote the republican cause. Crean and shadow attorney-general Robert McClelland have called for a change in the appointment process for our head of state, proposing that a three-person committee gives Howard a list of candidates from which he should choose. Its real significance is that the next time a Labor PM appoints the G-G, a different, a more consultative mechanism will be used.

Those two pro-republic professors from the University of NSW, George Winterton and George Williams, offer a series of ideas. Winterton advocates that Howard consult other federal party leaders and premiers about candidates before making his nomination. Williams goes further. He says the Hollingworth issue proves the system is broke and needs to be fixed. Williams wants a new law to guide appointment and removal. Appointment, in effect, would become a bipartisan decision with a shared ownership of the choice.

There is a case for modest reform. But only modest. In reality, no Coalition PM will surrender the solo power of patronage for the G-G's office. And would a Labor PM allow a Liberal Opposition leader to veto his preferred choice?

On removal, Winterton says the federal parliament should define guidelines for conduct falling under three headings doing nothing; grounds for resignation but not dismissal; and grounds for dismissal. He sees the Hollingworth case in the second category.

This is where the media and the Labor Party didn't get it (and still don't). Their demand for Howard to sack Hollingworth short of any case of proven misbehaviour would have guaranteed damage to the office and was always inferior to the resignation option that Howard wisely facilitated.

In reality, there are limits to the reform of the G-G's office within the monarchical system. Howard's role here is manifest: he opposes any reform at all, and some republicans will agree with him.

The Hollingworth demise assists the republican spirit in Australian politics. But this is separate from whether it assists the republic or the ultra-minimal monarchy as models. The issue in Hollingworth's legacy is whether the republic is the solution or a still-evolving governor-generalate.

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