23 January 2008

A modern model for a modern Governor-General

The Australian hasn't missed a chance to rub salt into the Fairfax media's wounds for the latter's suggestion that Kym Beazley had been sounded out about becoming Australia's next Governor General.

Its coverage includes an editorial today "Reality check time: His or Her Excellency should be non-divisive", a pot stirring piece of whimsy by Philip Adams "If Bomber won't do, let's have Germaine", and a more solemn backgrounder by Greg Craven."The importance of being discreet and charming".

While there are many, maybe even a majority of, Australians who, like me, support a republic, some of them, also like me, recognise that the formal transition won't happen automatically given all the current constitutional obstacles that need to be overcome. We are IMO nevertheless a de facto republic now, albeit one which operates within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. In preparing the way for a formal transition to a republic it is important that the office of Governor-General not be devalued or downgraded.

The 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government still casts a shadow over Australian political life, at least among those, like me, whose memories stretch back that far. In theory it could be, given the appropriate (or inappropriate) circumstances, repeated. Not that I'd wish it but I do accept that there needs to be a head of state, and preferably (with due deference to the quite different US system) when where the functions of head of state and head of government are, as they are now, separate. I'm reasonably open minded about this but haven't seen any strong arguments in favour of an alternative system.

Governor General Jeffery has, as far as I can tell, performed his official duties with dignified competence, even though Mr Howard did much to sideline him eg by taking a lot of the limelight at the Commonwealth Games, Rugby World Cup and no doubt other events as well.

Mr Rudd is reputed to be something of a control freak so we may not expect a much different attitude from him, but it will be interesting to see who he appoints to succeed General Jeffery.

My suggestion is Marie Bashir the current governor of NSW. Why? Recently I heard her interviewed by Jim Maxwell on ABC radio during a cricket match broadcast. She struck me as someone who clearly met Greg Craven's criteria of discretion and charm, but also as someone who recognised that, while her role was essentially ceremonial, she had the power to seek clarification of some of the matters which came before her.

PS Also in today's Australian
Tom Frame writes about the NSW "Rum Rebellion" of 1808. "Who'll watch guardians when ex-officers rule us?" he asks. An interesting historical reminder and one with, as Frame points out, much contemporary relevance elsewhere in the world today.

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