Flat White

Leadership beyond politics, rarely found in republics

16 January 2019

7:39 AM

16 January 2019

7:39 AM

The oldest office in the land has just changed hands, with barely a ripple on the surface. Acting on the advice of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Queen Elizabeth has, as Queen of Australia, appointed the respected Justice Margaret Beazley to be Governor of New South Wales after General Hurley takes up his role as Governor-General.

This brevity of the announcement illustrates the simplicity, efficiency and economy of this proven method of finding leadership beyond politics and as well as of a significant and necessary check and balance in our constitutional system as very few such systems anywhere in the world can achieve.

It’s achieved this way. Although the premier makes the recommendation, the appointed governor is not in any allegiance to him or her. The governor owes his or her loyalty to the Queen, the Sovereign to whom the governor has sworn allegiance and through the Sovereign to the Constitution and the people. That it is how it works and there are examples which demonstrate this, for example, that of Sir William McKell.

This is something which we should not forget. It is something we should cherish. Very few countries can attain this.

Little wonder then that the question of the states was avoided in the attempt in 1999 to ram through the Keating-Turnbull politicians republic first at the federal level.

We shouldn’t forget that the office of governor of New South Wales is the oldest office in the land. Even when NSW was a penal settlement the governor was never a dictator. He came with a Charter of Justice and operated under the rule of law.

The fact is that the penal colony was never, as Malcom Turnbull once wrongly claimed, a British Gulag.

That Malcolm Turnbull was wrong can be demonstrated simply. The very first civil case, Kable v Duncan, was brought by two convicts against a First Fleet ship’s captain. And they won substantial damages.

So can Mr Turnbull point to one occasion when prisoners even sued, much less sued successfully, their gaolers in a Soviet Gulag or a Nazi concentration camp? Of course not.


Then when the British gave the colonies self-government in the middle of the nineteenth century, ( and incidentally how often do colonial powers give self-government?), the governor became as the late Professor Patrick Lane described him, a local constitutional monarch providing leadership beyond politics and a constitutional check and balance in a splendid local version of the Westminster system.

Little wonder that the Australian colonies progressed so quickly that by 1900 they had decided, of their own volition, to federate into one country and to become one of the world’s five great federations.

Indeed this was the first time in the world that the people themselves made this decision.

The governors continued after federation at the state level with the governor-general at the federal level all providing both leadership beyond politics and a constitutional check and balance as very few societies do.

Next, with the 1926 Balfour Declaration, the British made Australia and the other five Dominions independent. This was given legislative effect in the 1931 Statute of Westminster adopted in Canberra in 1942.

The unusual thing about this in relation to Australia, unlike the other dominions, was that the states were not included.

This is because the states didn’t trust Canberra being involved between them and the Crown and especially in relation to the appointment of the governors. The states feared, not unreasonably, that the Canberra politicians would sooner or later turn the governors into French style prefects acting on their instructions and not as local constitutional monarchs .

So until 1986 we had the anomaly of state matters being handled through Foreign and Commonwealth Office with a British minister, having listened to the state government, formally advising the Queen on, say, the appointment of a Governor of Western Australia.

Remember this was not some British plot. The states made it very clear that they would never agree to Canberra being involved, even though it was suggested they would be no more than as a letterbox. The states just didn’t trust them.

It was the Queen herself who provided the solution. What she effectively said was that she was prepared to accept being advised not as with other countries by one prime minister, but by a prime minister and six premiers.

And so it came to pass in the Australia Acts, 1986. Apart from appointing and removing governors, the governor exercises the powers of the Crown in the relevant state, except of course appointing and removing the governor. These are the Queen’s as well as other matters if she is in the state. And it is the premier who advises the Queen whenever she exercises the powers of the Crown.

Few countries have been able to achieve what we have, leadership beyond politics and sophisticated checks and balances within the constitutional system and at all levels of our federal Commonwealth.

And this is precisely because we are a federal Commonwealth under the Crown.

Another reason not to adopt, blindly, some politicians’ republic which will be doomed upset our carefully crafted constitutional balance as was the Keating-Turnbull republic.

Illustration: Government House, Sydney.

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