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Hollingworth's partisan comments on Iraq mean he must resign

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 27 January 2003

Governor-General Peter Hollingworth has compromised his office to an unprecedented degree with his comments to departing Australian troops last week, and he must resign his position. The office of Governor-General is one that symbolises unity and complete independence from day-to-day political debate, but Dr Hollingworth’s sanctioning of John Howard’s position on the Iraqi crisis has torn those important criteria to shreds.

What Dr Hollingworth did last Thursday in Sydney was unprecedented – and his intervention was entirely different in nature from those of the two of his predecessors who have got themselves into hot water – John Kerr and William Deane.

Let’s recap how it is that Dr Hollingworth has so comprehensively destroyed the appearance of independence and unity of the office he currently holds. During last Thursday’s farewell to troops, two commercial television stations filmed Dr Hollingworth telling a group of sailors: “Look, this is something that has to be done.” He is also filmed saying: "I think it’s a matter of putting pressure on this dictator."


The Governor-General’s office sought to spin its way out these highly political and partisan comments by noting that Dr Hollingworth was merely speaking in support of Defence force personnel “as they carry out the decisions of the government”.

Oh really? Well why is it that Dr Hollingworth uses the phrase “I think it’s a matter of putting pressure on this dictator”? The reality is that these comments were personal opinions being expressed by someone about a political issue that is dividing this Nation more than any other since the constitutional crisis of 1975.

And speaking of 1975, don’t excuse Dr Hollingworth by arguing that John Kerr’s action in dismissing the Whitlam government and appointing Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, were also party political. They were not. One might argue that Kerr did the wrong thing constitutionally by sacking Whitlam but the fact is that Kerr was exercising his powers as the Queen’s Representative to break a deadlock between the Senate and the House of Representatives – in short, acting as an umpire which is an important part of the office he then held.

Some media reports have also suggested that Dr Hollingworth’s statements were in the genre of Sir William Deane’s speeches that highlighted Indigenous suffering and in particular the plight of the ‘stolen generation’. Again, there is a notable point of differentiation to be made here.

What Bill Deane did during his tenure as Governor-General was to recognise that because the Office was above party politics it could be used to help recognise the need for Australia to be a socially cohesive country. This is entirely in keeping with what the Office of Governor-General’s own official website says is today “possibly the most important role” of the Office. As an aside, this website also makes specific mention of the Governor-General’s role in meeting with Indigenous communities and individuals – Bill Deane did this and he encouraged us as a people to do better. That’s not partisan politics, its simply an appeal to common humanity.

It is also important to note that not once in his five-year tenure did Bill Deane either endorse or criticise Keating or Howard government policies.


Of course, it must be said that Dr Hollingworth was not on strong ground when he waded into this controversy. Reporting his gaffes and lack of judgement has been a media pastime for over 12 months. Almost a year ago he was embroiled in a crisis that saw calls for his resignation by some – this was over hisalleged inaction on sexual abuse allegations in the Brisbane Anglican Church while he was Archbishop there. And he was criticised by others (including this writer) for not returning from a World War II anniversary in Egypt when the Bali bombing occurred. Finally, there was the report that his VIP travel expenses were over 50 per cent higher than his predecessor, Bill Deane.

While all of these events might demonstrate that Dr Hollingworth is not up to the job, and that we need an appointment process for the holder of this Office that is more democratic and transparent, they do not mean that he should resign. None of this litany amounts to his so severely compromising the essence of his role – independence from politics – that he should resign.

In contrast to the previous controversies, however, on this occasion the Governor-General has gone too far and he must resign. Anything short of this will be an invitation to future Prime Ministers to appoint people to this Office who feel that they can weigh in on the side of whichever side of politics appoints them.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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