Richard Butler will soon, of his own free will, swear allegiance to his Sovereign, the Sovereign about whom he had in his campaigning days made comments which were, shall we say, ungracious. Mr Butler seems to want to be all things to all men, and indeed women for he is now on record as indicating that he will carry out his duties in a "republican way". Moreover, he says he will "wait for the day that the people of Australia change the Constitution". Mr Butler might join those in our theatres who from time to time wait endlessly for Godot.
And as The Australian (3 September 2003) mused, he did not elaborate on what this "republican way" might actually involve. He says that he prefers to be addressed as Governor, although apparently in the past he never eschewed the ambassadorial form of address "Your Excellency". We assume that the "republican way" will not extend to erecting a guillotine in Salamanca Place, nor installing a Goddess of Reason in St David's Cathedral in imitation of the French revolutionaries. Perhaps this "republican way" will relate to the style with which Mr Butler will offer his views on current affairs. This was particularly in evidence in Mr Butler's famous, some would say infamous comments on SBS concerning the recent bombing of the UN office in Baghdad:
The UN was there against the will of the coalition … These terrorists killed the wrong people. They killed good people … they killed innocent and good people.
This inevitably led commentators to ask that if these were the wrong people, who indeed were the right people terrorists could have killed. Members of the coalition, perhaps? Had the Governor-Designate forgotten that these are our closest allies, the Americans and British, to say nothing of our own compatriots! Just who were the right people these appalling terrorists should have killed?
One leading commentator, Andrew Bolt, writing in the nation's most read newspaper, The Herald-Sun, called for his dismissal. Tim Blair in The Bulletin, described him as a "media missile" and asked for the names of those people Butler thinks it would be more acceptable to have killed! "Name names, Mr Governor", he demanded, all the while addressing him, sensitively, in his preferred republican style. Pity it made him seem as if he were a US state politician, and not the holder of an Australian office that is above politics.
If this is to be the "new republican way" for a Governor to speak, in the words of Bette Davis in All About Eve, "Fasten your seatbelts, we're in for a bumpy ride". In the mean time some of the strongest criticism about the choice of Mr Butler came not from constitutionalists, but from rusted on republicans. "Why has this republican let his own side down?" demanded Greg Barns in The Canberra Times (22 August 2003). Barns you will recall, was the republicans' campaign director in the referendum, and as Mr Turnbull said, a head-kicker. "Why, Richard, why?" he lamented. Now Barns remains the republicans' strongest voice although his head-kicking embarrasses them sometimes, as when he inexplicably labelled the monarchy a corrupt institution at last year's almost immediately forgotten republican get-together at Griffith University in Queensland.
Dismissing Butler's explanation that the Oath to his Sovereign is really an oath to the people, Barns said that for Butler to swear an Oath to The Queen is akin to an atheist swearing on the Bible in court! Of course Butler is correct. The Crown is there, in the interests of the people, as a check and balance to limit any potential abuse of power. Why Butler should persist in wanting to change this is not clear.
For too long we have had diplomats representing Australia and apologising about our country and our system of government. So it was encouraging to read of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer (whom Butler had called on to resign), saying that he sees Australia as "a strong significant country which makes a difference in the world and a country that is essentially good…(and) we have a right to believe in ourselves and ..express those views internationally" (Australian Financial Review, 23-24 August, 2003).
Barns, who cannot understand why Butler accepted the position of Governor, believes that in doing so Butler experienced some sort of a conversion on the road to Hobart. He can no longer be a republican. When Henry IV stood outside of the walls of a Paris determined to fight rather than be ruled by a Protestant, the King famously said: "Paris vaux la messe"- Paris is worth the Mass. So did Mr Butler similarly conclude, as he sailed up the Derwent - "Hobart is worth the Crown"?
This article was first published in the Australians for A Constitutional Monarchy e-newsletter Hot News on 15 September 2003.
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