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The Butler affair serves up an opportunity to reform vice-regal appointments

By George Williams - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2004

In a little over a year, Australia has lost its Governor-General and the Governor of Tasmania. The resignations by Peter Hollingworth and Richard Butler occurred in undignified and controversial circumstances that damaged them and their offices. Although their situations differ, together they reveal problems with the positions of Governor-General and of Governor in each of the States.

Butler was always an unusual choice. An outspoken figure with strong republican views, he was an awkward fit as one of the Queen’s Vice-Regal representatives. Yet it seems that he has not committed any act for which he should be dismissed. Instead, he deserves credit for resigning now that it has become clear that his position is untenable and his tenure not the hoped-for success.

The Queen will appoint Tasmania’s next Governor, but the real power lies with Premier Paul Lennon, who will advise the Queen of his choice. Unlike John Howard last year, Lennon should not rush to choose a replacement. Tasmanian Chief Justice William Cox should be asked to act in the position until stock can be taken of what went wrong.


The basic problem with the office of Governor is that it has outgrown its original purpose. It is no longer occupied by people sent from the United Kingdom to keep an eye on the colonies. Instead, Governors have come to play an increasingly important role in Australian community and cultural life. Despite this, the office remains governed by unwritten conventions from a different era that contain vague and uncertain powers and provide no link to the people. It is instead left to each Governor to forge such a connection once they are installed.

Governors now serve the people of their State and the people should have some say in their selection. We are beyond the days of Government House being the domain of retired judges and military officers. While they can make excellent Governors, so too can other community leaders and the office should be open to people such as diplomats, business leaders and sports men and women. Being in favour of an Australian republic should also not be a disqualification. After all, polls regularly show that this amounts to over half of the Australian population.

The first priority should be public discussion about the appointment process. It can be changed without a referendum, and may not even need a law passed through Parliament so long as the Queen continues to make the final formal appointment. This leaves considerable scope for imagination, and new approaches could include parliamentary appointment or even direct election.

In the short term, I favour more modest change. The Premier should retain the key role, but this should be at the endpoint of a process that gives people a say.

The selection of the next Governor of Tasmania or of any other State should begin with people having the chance to put forward nominations. Names should be sought from across the community as part of a debate about who should hold the job. These names should be vetted and reduced to a shortlist of three to five by a committee of community leaders, politicians and a former Governor. The Premier, in consultation with other political leaders, should then select one of these people for appointment.

This would improve the current system yet also leave the final decision with the Premier. It would also give people a voice in the selection of their Governor for the first time and provide the new Governor with a measure of popular legitimacy and support that could bolster them in their role.


The lack of criteria for the dismissal of a Governor also needs to be fixed. One option would be to adopt the position that exists for High Court judges. They can be removed by the federal Parliament for “proved misbehaviour or incapacity”. The present situation where a Governor can be dismissed at the whim of a Premier without reasons being given to the people or any form of open process is unfair and inconsistent with the rules that govern other public offices.

The resignation of the Governor of Tasmania provides an opportunity to reassess the position of other State Governors. These nineteenth century offices needed to be reformed for twenty first century Australia. The place to start is with how the Governors are chosen. Reform might lead in the longer term to an Australian republic, or simply to a more effective constitutional monarchy. Either way, change is needed now.

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This article was previously published by The Age on 11 August 2004.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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