Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The importance of being discreet and charming

By Greg Craven - posted Tuesday, 18 March 2008

There are three things an Australian prime minister should never do: punch the American president; forget their spouse's birthday; and appoint a dud governor-general. Of the three, anointing a rogue viceroy probably would be the biggest mistake.

Kevin Rudd needs to keeps this in mind as he ponders a replacement for the incumbent, Michael Jeffery, later this year. But there are already signs that Labor may not be thinking altogether clearly about who should warm the Queen's chair.

The Prime Minister has ruled out retired politicians, which puts paid to the chances of former Opposition leader Kim Beazley. Speculation is mounting that the Government is understandably eager to appoint a woman, with the names of Indigenous elder Lowitja O'Donoghue, cultural supremo Janet Holmes a Court and health expert Fiona Stanley all mentioned.


In fact, the fundamental rule of politics in appointing a governor-general is the same as the one that applies to selecting an Australian Test wicket-keeper: go for a safe pair of hands. Everything else is secondary.

This follows from the grim reality of the office. In terms of the animal kingdom, the governor-general is a constitutional panda, but with a thin streak of mean grizzly.

On the one hand, the essential persona of the governor-general is as the cuddly opener of fetes and launcher of garbage scows. He or she smiles on command and follows prime ministerial advice as a tram follows tracks. Their most independent moment would come in politely asking the prime minister if the annexation of Madagascar is an entirely practical idea, before cheerfully signing the declaration of war.

But deep within the mind of every viceroy lurks the memory of the dismissal in 1975. They know, and the prime minister knows, that it is the fatal exception that will beat the mundane rule, if push ever comes to shove. Should Malcolm Fraser's "reprehensible circumstances" arise again, history shows the governor-general can fillet a prime minister like a fat flounder, and there is no appeal from immutable constitutional power. Ask Gough.

So there is only one question that Rudd should start by asking himself in appointing a surrogate head of state: does this person clearly understand the nature of their office, that they are merely a dignified constitutional symbol, with no practical scope for independent action? Once he is satisfied on this point he can pass to more interesting questions of gender, occupation, background and football allegiance.

The complicating factor is that there are certain sorts of background that do program potential governors-general as the card-carrying constitutional conformers that one is looking for. At the same time, other backgrounds flash warning signals like the splash of colour on a redback spider.


For example, judges normally are reliable because they understand the constitutional reality of the governor-general's position, that he is there to witness the exercise of power, not to exert it himself. Ninian Stephen was an excellent governor-general in this tradition. John Kerr was the exception that proved the rule, but his was always a disastrous personality match for the office.

Generals and admirals also are a safe choice, because they have a long experience of taking orders and living under strictly defined chains of command. The present Governor-General, Jeffery, is a fine example of this type of viceroy.

Remarkably, former politicians also score extremely highly. This is because they have been practitioners within the constitutional system and know how it is meant to work. In this category, former Liberal minister Paul Hasluck and former Labor Opposition leader Bill Hayden both were fine governors-general. Beazley would have continued this tradition.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in The Australian on January 23, 2008

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

3 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Professor Greg Craven is Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Deputy Chairman, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council, and a constitutional lawyer.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Greg Craven

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Greg Craven
Article Tools
Comment 3 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy