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Richard Butler has demonstrated a valuable lesson

By Peter Tucker - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2004

Every politician and aspiring governor in the country should raise a vote of thanks to Tasmania's outgoing viceroy, Richard Butler.

Why? Because the whole sorry saga, from go, on October 3 last year, to woe just this week provides a textbook case study on what not do when making appointments to or acting in the position of governor.

For Australia's premiers the message is clear: just as James Carville wrote "it's the economy, stupid" on a big banner in Bill Clinton's office, so should every chief of staff hoist a banner in the boss's office that reads:


There are no votes in vice-regal appointments.

(The prime minister's minders can relax; he learned this lesson over Peter Hollingworth.)

No doubt, past Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon must have felt bullet-proof when he made the Butler appointment; his Labor government led the Liberals 2:1 in the polls and his personal popularity rating was sky-high. He seemingly could do no wrong in the public's eye - did it go to his head?

On conventional wisdom, Butler's CV should have made him ineligible for the job, not given it to him. Not only was he an avowed republican, but he was also a declared Labor man, no less than a staffer to Gough Whitlam. He had a reputation for being outspoken, just the sort of thing governors generally, and Tasmanian governors in particular, are not.

If Bacon appointed Butler to give the office a shake, then even he could not have foreseen the complete mess to come. That mess is now well reported in the national and international press. Readers who want a local perspective could check out these three items from the Hobart Mercury on 10 August, the day after Butler's resignation:

  1. "Butler quits after tense talks"
  2. "Three hours plus and the rain pelting down"
  3. "Impressive career in diplomatic service"

Butler quickly became an embarrassment and the political wisdom of the appointment was soon under scrutiny. Tragically Jim Bacon died earlier this year, but the rumours are strong that he confided to friends that his one main regret in office was this vice-regal appointment. Like all the rumours surrounding Richard Butler – and we are in rumour over-load on this, believe me – it may not be true, but there is no doubt that Butler was political pain, not political gain, for Labor.

And as the months passed, the pain just kept getting worse. It was left to Bacon's successor, Paul Lennon, to clear up the mess. It cost him, or the taxpayer more accurately and depending on the Auditor-General's  findings, $650,000 to see the back of Butler but as one academic commentator put it, it was "money well spent".

In politics sometimes you have to take short-term pain to avert long-term disaster. That is what Lennon did and, from a political strategy point of view, it was the right decision.

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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s School of Government.

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