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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17334

Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the House) (6:00 PM) —I thank all members who have spoken on the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2003 for their contribution. Obviously I found some of the contributions better than others, but I do welcome members' involvement in this debate and commend them on the sincerity of their remarks. I will briefly respond to some of the things that were raised in the course of the debate, starting with the shadow minister for workplace relations and the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Barton. The member for Barton was critical of what he said was a failure by the Prime Minister to consult on the selection of Major General Jeffery as Governor-General designate. With this appointment, the Prime Minister has followed exactly the same process which has been followed by all previous prime ministers in the appointment of all previous governors-general. It is, in effect, a prime ministerial appointment: formally it is an appointment by Her Majesty the Queen but, in effect, she always makes the appointment on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of Australia. So what the Prime Minister did was absolutely, utterly and entirely appropriate and proper and in complete keeping with precedent that has been followed by prime ministers of all political persuasions in Australia up until now.

The member for Barton said that there should be a new method of appointment. He said that there should be a committee established to call for public nominations and then vet them. I certainly have no objection to people taking an interest in who might be Governor-General; indeed, I think it is a sign of the continuing relevance of the office that people are interested in who might be the Governor-General. I state the obvious in pointing out to all members that there is nothing whatsoever to stop members of the public from communicating their ideas on any topic to the Prime Minister and, if they believe that someone might be a good Governor-General at some point in the future, there is no reason whatsoever why they cannot let the Prime Minister know in the normal way. Certainly there is no reason why members opposite, if there is someone they think ought to be considered, cannot let the Prime Minister know in the normal way.

I would make the more specific point that any formal mechanisms to try to further entrench the selection of the Governor-General into our system inevitably will increase the relative position, authority and standing of the Governor-General vis-a-vis the Prime Minister. We have a magnificent system as it exists at the moment. We have a finely balanced piece of constitutional machinery as things stand at the moment and I would be extremely reluctant to see anything happen which would alter the relative standing of the Governor-General and the Prime Minister—and I think if members opposite were to give this more thought they would feel likewise.

Another point that was made, moderately by the member for Barton and much less moderately by the member for Grayndler, was that the Governor-General's annual report should be subject to parliamentary debate and that standing order 74 preventing partisan criticism of the Governor-General should be repealed. Under our system the monarch, or the monarch's representative, is above and beyond politics. I believe it is right that the monarch, and the Governor-General, should be so. We have a highly political system of government and we have a highly partisan political culture. I think the average Australian, were he or she to think about this, would be quite relieved to see that we have one office, one person in the system, not subject to the normal political argy-bargy. I think the average Australian, were he or she to think about this issue deeply rather than in response to the kind of knee-jerk questions which are typically put on talkback radio, would think that there is much to be said for the system as it stands. If members opposite or, indeed, any person in Australia, believe that a Governor-General has said something untoward, there is no reason whatsoever why they cannot speak critically of that comment. All that standing order 74 does is try to ensure that there is at least one person in public life who cannot be blackguarded and traduced in this chamber in the way that so often and so sadly happens.

The member for Grayndler talked about the crisis involving the former Governor-General, Dr Hollingworth. I think this crisis existed in the minds of some members opposite and perhaps in the minds of some people in the media, but the fact is, if I might speak metaphorically, `the Governor-General is dead, long live the Governor-General'. Our system has survived this issue as it has survived so many other issues over the last 100 years.

The member for Grayndler spoke very critically of what he suggested was the excessive salary paid to people in offices such as that of Governor-General. I simply remind the member for Grayndler, and any other member opposite of the same view, that judges' salaries are determinations of the Remuneration Tribunal; therefore, they are disallowable instruments in this parliament. If any member opposite had any problem with the salary increases that were recently granted by the tribunal to judges, they could quite easily have moved disallowance in the normal way.

I think that the member for Grayndler rather let himself down by a series of unnecessary criticisms of the former Governor-General. We all have our views about the former Governor-General. I think all that needs to be said at the moment is that he handled his resignation with grace and dignity. I think he enhanced his own standing and, indeed, enhanced the office with the way he handled it. I thought it was rather nice of the member for Chifley to give him considerable credit, as did the member for Lowe, in his contribution today.

The member for Chifley and the member for Batman posed a number of questions to me. I am not sure that I was able to make notes of all of them but, as best I can, let me try to address some of those issues. One question was: what is happening to the Governor-General designate's Western Australian pension? As far as the government is aware, the Governor-General designate receives no pension from the government of Western Australia by virtue of his service as governor. Another question posed was: what will his final superannuation be—will it be Governor-General superannuation plus military pension, or will it not? I can put the minds of members opposite at rest by saying that the Governor-General designate's ultimate superannuation will simply be the superannuation to which he is entitled as Governor-General. That superannuation will be adjusted to accommodate his military pension so that there will be no double dipping.

I should point out to members that the Governor-General Act of 1974 provides for the pension of the Governor-General to be `reduced by the amount of any pension or retiring allowance payable to that person at that time, whether by virtue of a law or otherwise out of money provided in whole or part by Australia, a state or a territory'. None of the occupants of the Governor-General's office, as far as I am aware, are double dipping. Certainly, there will be no double dipping by Major General Jeffery once he retires from office.

I think that there was some criticism, certainly implied if not expressed, from both the member for Batman and the member for Chifley about the quantum of the Governor-General's pension. The Governor-General's pension arrangements have been in place for some time. It has been the practice for some time that former governors-general be paid a pension equivalent to 60 per cent of the Chief Justice's salary. The term of office does not affect the pension. His pension is the same whether he serves for a year, for five years, for a day or for a lifetime. Again, that is just the standard arrangement which has governed governors-general for quite a few years. It is not a contributory pension, in the same way that judges' pensions are not contributory. Government House pays the salary of the Governor-General. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet pays the superannuation and other expenses of former governors-general from an administered appropriation. The financial impact statement referred to by the member for Chifley relates to this bill only. Because Dr Hollingworth has already retired, his superannuation is not a factor in the bill.

I have tried to deal with the questions put by various members in a good spirit. I am sure that members opposite were putting those questions in a good spirit. I am confident, knowing as I do the character of both the member for Chifley and the member for Batman, that there is no way they would be trying to make partisan political points by posing those questions. There is no way that, if the answers were not to their satisfaction, they would be making criticisms of the office.

May I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate for their warm words about Major General Jeffery. I think he is a fine choice. I congratulate the Prime Minister on the choice. I am sure that Major General Jeffery will continue to serve our country well in this new office, as he has served our country very well indeed for the whole of his adult life. I certainly commend this bill to the House.

The SPEAKER —The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Administrator recommending appropriation announced.