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Hollingworth should resign in the interests of his office and the nation

By George Williams - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2003

There are now grounds for the Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, to resign. He should do so in recognition of the fact that he is no longer able to fulfil his constitutional duties. This assessment is separate from the ongoing media debate about morality and ethics that goes to the heart of what Australians expect of the office.

Hollingworth's decision to allow a priest to remain in the ministry after an admission of sexual abuse may make him unfit to be Governor-General. Certainly, many Australians have formed a judgement against him on this basis.

Others believe that he may have committed no more than a serious error of judgment. In the words of the Prime Minister, he may not have been guilty of any moral turpitude.


Without the Constitution setting down criteria or a just and open procedure for dismissal, it is difficult to determine whether Hollingworth should resign or have his commission terminated on the basis of these issues.

Much comes down to politics and public opinion, an unfortunate situation given that the position should be above partisanship.

Notwithstanding this, Hollingworth should resign because he is no longer able to do the job. Whether this is a fair outcome, given that there has been no government inquiry and instead a media trial, is beside the point.

Hollingworth has become compromised. In addition, long-term damage is being done to the institution of governor-general.

Hollingworth has two roles as Governor-General. First, he must be a person who can undertake the symbolic aspects of the office. He should strive to unite the nation at times of national crisis or grief and must be able to represent us overseas. Indeed, since the term of Sir William Deane and the 1999 republic referendum, many Australians now see the governor-general as our de facto head of state.

For this, he requires the broad confidence and support of the Australian people. Hollingworth now clearly lacks this, with polls showing that an overwhelming number of Australians believe he should resign.


In a poll of 1400 people published in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, less than one in five said Hollingworth should remain in the job.

Second, the governor-general may act as umpire in times of constitutional crisis. His broad and undefined reserve powers mean he could be called upon to dismiss a prime minister or to determine who should form government after a close election. To exercise such powers, he must be above politics.

A crisis could be deepened if the governor-general might be thought, even incorrectly, to favour a party over another party that would dismiss him. He must not only be impartial but must be seen to be so.

The Governor-General has lost the confidence of the Opposition. Simon Crean, the alternative prime minister, has called for him to be dismissed in the best interests of the nation and the office of governor-general. It is now difficult for Hollingworth to be seen as impartial between John Howard, who has said that he will not dismiss him, and Crean, who has said that he will.

The controversy and media debate that has enveloped the Governor-General has not always been fair and has often been undignified for a position that many regard as our de facto head of state. In the process, the office has been damaged and the incumbent compromised. As a consequence, Hollingworth should resign.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 7 May 2003.

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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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