13 June 2024
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The office of Australia’s Governor-General

Malcolm Mackerras
21 May 2024

On Monday the first of July the office of Australia’s Governor-General will pass from General David Hurley to Ms. Samantha Mostyn, and I want to make my own contribution to the commentary on that event. I do so in the unusual circumstance of being one of the patrons of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. As to why I am a monarchist I have explained that on “Switzer Daily” in my article posted on 14 September 2022 “Why I am a monarchist” https://switzer.com.au/the-experts/malcolm-mackerras/why-i-am-a-monarchist/

In my mind there is an unusual difference between these two holders of the office. Whereas David and Linda Hurley were once near neighbours of ours I am not aware of ever having lived close to Sam Mostyn. Therefore, I know the Hurleys well personally and, indeed, have occasion to greet them quite often, but I do not know Mostyn. All I know of her is that I have seen her twice on ABC television. In neither case did she come across to me as belonging to the left of politics. I have, therefore, only become aware of that aspect of her by the public commentary occurring in April this year consequent upon the announcement that she would become our next Governor-General.

It is my view that Hurley has been a good Governor-General and I have every reason to expect the same of Mostyn. That she belongs to the left of politics does not concern me in the least. Several previous vice-regal officers have had political backgrounds of a partisan nature and done a very good job. I would no more count that against her than I would count the military background of three past men holding the office. It is, however, worth recording the names of recent Governors-General from the days when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and, therefore, advised the late Queen Elizabeth II as to who should be her Australian representative. Here they are:

William George Hayden (from 16 February 1989 to 16 February 1996)

Sir William Deane (from 16 February 1996 to 29 June 2001)

Peter Hollingworth (from 29 June 2001 to 29 May 2003)

Major General Michael Jeffery (from 11 August 2003 to 5 September 2008)

Dame Quentin Bryce (from 5 September 2008 to 28 March 2014)

General Sir Peter Cosgrove (from 28 March 2014 to 1 July 2019)

General David Hurley (since 1 July 2019)

With the possible exception of Peter Hollingworth, I argue that all the above were good appointments. I admit, however, that part of my thinking has been influenced by the fact that I support the system whereby those distinguished Australians have been appointed. That brings me to the point of my article. I plan to discuss the office, not the merits of the people who have held it.

Is the Governor-General the Australian head of state? To that question I give a strong affirmative answer. However, I admit that there are many learned people who strongly assert I am wrong. King Charles III, they aver, is the Australian head of state. To them I say that the term “head of state” is nowhere used in the Australian Constitution nor in any official document. To that I add this point which I have learnt from conversations with former official secretaries to Governors-General. When she visited Australia Queen Elizabeth II never said in public: “I am your head of state”. She often said: “I am your Sovereign” or “I am your Queen” but she never, never said “I am your head of state.” When I say the above, I am told that I am being pedantic – but the fact is King Charles III is Australia’s Sovereign.

Now here I tell a personal story which concludes with me giving my commendations to the management of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, MOADOPH for short. I have been a volunteer guide there for 16 years. There are 40 volunteer guides. Tours begin at the main public meeting place Kings Hall under the statue of King George V who was Australia’s Sovereign and King on 9 May 1927, that being the day the building was opened by his son, the Duke of York. That man was not expected ever to be king, but the disgraceful reign of King Edward VIII meant he did become King unexpectedly.

Once a fortnight I have been accustomed to meet my audience of (typically) about ten people and I would ask each member of my audience this question: “Who is Australia’s head of state?” Typically, six would say “the Queen” and four would say “the Governor-General”. No one has ever said: “the Prime Minister”. Anyway, I would say: “I’ll give my answer later”. Then we would go into the Senate chamber where I would tell the audience about the design of the chamber followed by my take on the Senate electoral system.

Upon coming back to the statue of King George V my line has been to say that not a single word of the Constitution has changed in relation to any section affecting this argument. Nevertheless, I would say that if the question were asked in 1927 the correct answer probably would have been “the King” but when the question is asked today, I say the correct answer is “the Governor-General”. I then tell the audience about political developments in this area over many years which have, in my opinion, changed the “correct” answer, even though not a word of the Constitution has changed.

The correct answer depends on what is meant by the word “representative”. Various sections of the Constitution refer to the Governor-General as “Her Majesty’s representative in the Commonwealth”. Some learned opinion says: “that means David Hurley is the deputy to King Charles III.” I say: “King Charles III is merely the sole elector of the Australian head of state who is the Governor-General.” I say that because the entire powers of the Crown lie with the Governor-General.

Recently MOADOPH installed, as part of its education program, a quiz on Australia’s democracy. Typical of the 16 questions is this which is the 10th question: “Who is required to vote in federal elections?” Three possible answers are given, being “Most Australian citizens aged over 18” or “Everyone in the world” or “Australian, British and New Zealand citizens”. To the right there is a button which the visitor is invited to press. Upon pressing that button, the correct answer lights up which is “Most Australian citizens aged over 18.”

However, the first question/answer has raised my objection. It is: “Who is Australia’s head of state?” Three choices are given: “King Charles III”, “The Prime Minister” and “The Governor-General”. The visitor presses the button and “King Charles III” lights up. So, the visitor who says “Governor-General” is just as wrong, just as ignorant of Australia’s democracy as he who says: “Prime Minister”. Therefore, I am ignorant about Australia’s democracy!

In my statement of objection, I wrote that, under the Constitution, the Governor-General dissolves the Parliament for elections and issues writs both for elections and referendums. State governors issue writs for Senate elections. Section 68 says: “The command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative.” Therefore, King Charles III plays no role in either our government or our democracy. So, two lights should come up indicating that this is a disputed answer to the question. Furthermore, I note that every reference in the Constitution linking Australia’s democracy to the head of state refers to the Governor-General, never the Sovereign.

A member of the board of MOADOPH, however, objected to my proposal that two answers be accepted as correct. The decision has been made, therefore, to ask a new question to which the answer could not be disputed. I think MOADOPH should be commended for listening to the opinion of a mere volunteer guide and deciding to agree with him that questions of fact should not be asked if there can be any dispute about the correct answer.

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