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A single error and public whim are not reasons to sack the Governor-General

By Nick Ferrett - posted Tuesday, 20 May 2003

The Governor-General's sin is this: while Archbishop of Brisbane, he left a man, whom he had every reason to suspect to be a paedophile, in a position where that man might potentially commit acts of paeophilia. In other words, in what the Board of Enquiry led by Peter Callaghan QC determined to be a serious error of judgment, he left someone in a position where that person could (and probably would) commit seriously bad acts against children. That is bad, but it is the single act for which he stands condemned. He did not participate in or assist acts of paedophilia. He made one (albeit serious) error of judgment.

This is to be stacked against a life-time of good work. Whatever one might say about Dr Peter Hollingworth's reputation for social climbing and what some have termed "naked ambition", he is a man who throughout life has dedicated himself to the alleviation of human suffering. His record demonstrates that beyond reproach.

Is the one great error enough to unbalance the life-time of great work, of good judgment?


Many comparisons have been made between the current Governor-General and his predecessor. Sir William Deane seems (with apologies to Messrs Gilbert & Sullivan) to be the very model of a modern Governor-General while Dr Hollingworth is made a pariah. This comparison, and the idea that Sir William Deane is a role-model for vice-regal rectitude are, frankly, ridiculous.

Dr Hollingworth has, in the job, been exactly what a viceroy ought to be: aloof from public debate so that, if the occasion arises, he is not seen to be in favour of one side or the other. He attends to his ceremonial duties and, as he goes about his daily life, remains closely concerned with his life's work: serving God and man.

On the other hand, Sir William immersed himself in political issues of the day, most notably those concerning Indigenous rights. His warm and cuddly image is a function of the fact that people who write opinion pieces in the newspapers and dine at Circular Quay liked what he had to say. That is not to say that Sir William was not well motivated in his conduct of the office, it is simply to say that he was far more dangerous to the office in a constitutional sense than Dr Hollingworth is ever likely to be. Sir William has changed the culture of the country to the point where it is acceptable for the Governor-General to be (ever so slightly) at political odds with the government of the day.

Many now take the view that, at a political level, Hollingworth is unsustainable and ought to go but that is exactly why he ought to stay. The Governor-General's position ought not to be held hostage to political whims. It is meant to be an office beyond politics. The quickest way to change that is to yield when the going gets tough. If there were good reason to doubt his ability to do the job that would be one thing but one error (particularly one unrelated to his vice-regal duties) is not enough to found that view.

Neither is it sufficient to say that once the Opposition states that it lacks faith in the Governor-General that the Governor-General ought to go. To accept that view is to give the Opposition an unfettered right of veto over the appointment of the Governor-General and there is simply no constitutional basis for that.

In any event, this issue is a political life-line for the Federal Opposition rather than the subject of a faithfully held view.


In the law, when a judge is accused of bias he steps down if there is some real reason to suspect bias - not merely because of an accusation of it. Otherwise he is not only entitled but duty bound to act. I suggest that the same is true of the Governor-General. A mere allegation of impropriety or unfitness cannot be allowed to be enough to remove him from office. The unfitness must be proven otherwise he should not only be allowed to stay, but feel duty-bound to do so.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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