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Visions and values of Australia's Governors-General

By David Smith - posted Thursday, 18 July 2013

On Saturday 23 February the Australian National University hosted a seminar entitled "Visions and Values of Australia's Governors-General". The seminar was opened by the University's chancellor, Professor the Honourable Gareth Evans.

In inviting the chancellor to give the opening address, no doubt the seminar organisers had hoped for a scholarly contribution to the proceedings from a distinguished professor. Instead, what they got was a polemical diatribe from a former politician who had sat in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and who had held ministerial appointments in the Hawke and Keating governments. You can take the man out of politics but you can't take politics out of the man.

Professor Evans, in typical lawyer fashion, bemoaned the fact that the Australian Constitution makes no mention of the office of Prime Minister or the institution of Cabinet. Oh dear! But that hasn't stopped us from having them.


The office of Governor-General has been described as "the highest single expression in the Australian governmental structure of the idea that Australians of all parties and all walks of life belong to the same nation". Professor Evans attributes the words to Sir Zelman Cowen, but in fact they came from Sir Paul Hasluck. Be that as it may, Professor Evans notes that "neither this actual language, nor anything remotely like it, appears in our 1900 founding document". To which I can only add "nor should it".

Professor Evans noted that Sir William McKell, Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and Mr. Bill Hayden had been excellent Governors-General, "two from each side of the aisle", and he thought it

fair to say that notwithstanding their long histories of engagement … in party political warfare, each of them made the transition to the role of Governor-General – which should of course be seen to be non-partisan and to symbolize the unity of the country – with dignity, competence and effectiveness.

No argument from me with any of that.

However, when Professor Evans got to Sir John Kerr he allowed his selective memory and his political amnesia to take over, and here I part company with him. He described Sir John's tenure as "catastrophic", but I doubt that the vast majority of the Australian people who so decisively and comprehensively rejected Gough Whitlam and his Government in landslide defeats at the 1975 and 1977 national elections would agree with him. According to Professor Evans,

Sir John's dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975, and commissioning the Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser to lead the country to an immediate election, in circumstances where the crisis caused by the Senate's blocking of supply had far from run its course, and in complete defiance of all hitherto accepted understandings of the constitutional conventions concerning acceptance of the advice of the serving government, generated bitter political divisions in the country which, on this subject, have barely healed to this day.

(Emphasis added – I shall return to these words later.)

Professor Evans's next words to the seminar participants were:

I have written and edited books on all this in my previous incarnation as a constitutional lawyer and am afraid that my views on Kerr's values, vision and understanding of the office have not mellowed – either as a Labor politician, with all the emotional baggage that might be thought to go with that, or as a lawyer being as intellectually objective as I can be.
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About the Author

Sir David Smith was Official Secretary to five Governors-General from 1973 to 1990. He is a former visiting scholar in the Faculty of Law at the Australian National University. His book Head of State: the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal was launched in November 2005 by former Governor-General Bill Hayden.

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