Maybe it’s the sleeping monarchist in me – my Irish Catholic granny would be so ashamed – but wasn’t it pretty grubby to see the way our Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, was treated the other day? Admittedly, he made the mistake of snubbing Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek when she went up for a handshake after he reopened parliament. Okay, it was a silly mishap and His Excellency has apologised. But boy did that set off the Labor MPs. ‘Know your place, Tanya!’ one yelled out in derision, opening the floodgates to a range of inaudible ‘arghs’ and ‘ooohhhs’ on live television.
Shortly after the Labor caucus’s mass impersonation of the hyenas in The Lion King, Uncle Scar himself, Senator Stephen Conroy, got up to attack the GG. ‘What we’ve had today is the ghost of 1975 revisited upon us’ the shadow defence minister cried, ‘The long, dead arm of Sir John Kerr crawled out of his grave to participate in a travesty of democracy…’.
Sir Peter Cosgrove – the dead arm of Kerr? Would that be the Peter Cosgrove who led our boys (and girls) into East Timor in one of the Howard Government’s shining international moments? The Cosgrove who made such a fine Defence Forces Chief? The Cosgrove whose biography you probably bought your grandad for Christmas? It’s a bridge too far to cast one of the most respected figures in modern Australia as some sort of constitutional villain.
As for the Kerr comparison, Sir John was off on a frolic of his own with the Dismissal of 1975 and stretched the Constitution to its limits. Sir Peter did precisely what Kerr refused to do – he took the advice of the PM – and section 5 (proroguing the parliament) has been used several times before including on one occasion by that infamous Liberal Party reactionary Gough Whitlam in 1974. It’s true it’s usually used for visits by the GG’s boss, the Queen, or emergencies like Harold Holt disappearing. And the PM has dragged Sir Peter into his early election gamble – it remains to be seen whether it will really pay off or be another of Malcolm’s messes.
Opening parliament, the old soldier had to read out the Government’s laundry list – a very partisan speech indeed – and it’s not something we’re used to seeing from Governors-General. But remember they have to do this whenever parliament opened: who can forget watching Dame Quentin Bryce – as bleeding a heart as they come – having to say ‘stop the boats’? Well, apparently everyone has, not least Senator Conroy.
The Queen has to give a comparable speech every year for the UK government of the day. We get it only every three years so we’re understandably not used to it. But there is a way to behave. This is not some MP from wherever, this is not some party apparatchik. This is the bloody Crown.
To be fair, Bill Shorten slapped down Senator Conroy with quite remarkable toughness. ‘The Governor-General has one of the most important roles in our democracy and that should be respected by everyone’ a statement from the Opposition Leader’s office read. ‘This was intemperate and unnecessary. Senator Conroy should confine his remarks to the Government.’
Good to know that if Labor ends up on the treasury benches after July 2 – and look at the polls, it’s not an impossible dream anymore – that Sir Peter will not be forced out of Government House prematurely. But for a brief moment we saw a breakdown in the way we expect our effective head of state to be treated and a glimpse of what might happen if we politicised the Crown any further.
Imagine it: it’s the opening day of parliament, not long after Australia’s first presidential election. And strutting down the halls of the parliament comes none other than our universally adored President Kevin Rudd (the UN Secretary-General thing didn’t work out somehow). What can we expect as our new head of state – all of a sudden a bit more political in character – tries to enact this sacred ritual of democracy? I have a feeling the reception might be even less warm than Senator Conroy’s recent outbursts.
It’s a nightmare even the most committed republican has had. A head of state denigrated by the parliament and by the political process, losing all authority as a higher constitutional being and therefore as a unifying figure for the nation.
We’ve had our controversial GGs in the past. Peter Hollingsworth standing down over allegations he hadn’t dealt properly with matters of sexual abuse when he was Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. Not to mention, Sir John Kerr and that little incident of kicking out an elected government. But gosh, we even had cabinet ministers like Paul Hasluck and Bill Hayden made Governor-General and that worked out okay, a relief to any republican readers.
But this week’s mess is a reminder of how important – and how fragile – the Governor General and the Crown really are. Both the Government and the Opposition have played around with it this week and both parties will come to regret this.
Westminster democracy for all its faults remains the best and most stable form of democratic government. We don’t get presidents constantly at war with legislatures as we do with the soon-to-be impeached Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. And we don’t have silly proportional representation in our lower houses – denying us governments for months on end as we’re seeing in Ireland and Spain.
The Governor-General is central to that. He is the glue that binds our Constitution together and establishes the supreme authority of the state. It’s a sacred role, an ancient one that has served Australia (and many other Westminster countries) well over the years. Try to treat him with a tiny bit of respect. Labor would have screamed if Dame Quentin had been hollered at the way Sir Peter was as she held her office in those dark days of the hung parliament. But who’s to say dark days and hung parliaments won’t return? It’s good to see Shorten is at least trying to keep Stephen Conroy and his fellow GG-hating hyenas at bay.
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