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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 5633

Mr HAWKE (7:19 PM) —I rise to support the Governor-General Amendment (Salary and Superannuation) Bill 2008. This bill has broad bipartisan support, but I would like to begin by taking up the member for Bonner on some of her remarks where she indicated her support for a republic. Indeed, the member for Bonner said in her argument that it would be great to have a female achieve the highest office in the land. I could not agree with that argument more, because the Governor-General is the highest office in the land. I come from the school of thought that says that the Governor-General is the head of state. We do have an Australian head of state, so I find it incongruous that the member for Bonner then proceeded to argue this ongoing myth that we tend to hear repeated around the place that the head of state is not an Australian currently. The truth is our head of state has been Australian for many, many years. Indeed, the member for Bonner substantiated that position in her own contribution just now when she said that the incoming Governor-General will be the first female to achieve the highest office in the land, and indeed it is. Therefore, I would like to record my support for her remarks in that regard.

This bill arises out of the constitutional requirement that the Governor-General’s salary not be increased during his or her term of office. The Constitution is very clear that the Governor-General’s salary will not be altered during the period that they remain there. I support the conventions and the traditions of this provision. The salary of the Queen’s official representative in Australia and our head of state, the Governor-General, ought to be about the same as that of the Chief Justice of the High Court, in recognition of the serious and substantial contribution that they make to our democracy and its stability and the important role they play across Australia in representing our country and our nation-state.

The power of a Governor-General is not simply applied during a constitutional crisis. Indeed, most of the powers, I would argue, are reserve powers. In recognition of a person’s ability to hold reserve power, it is actually a role that requires a serious level of professionalism and a serious level of understanding of our system and the way it works. It requires qualities worthy of recognition with a high salary. Despite many of the myths that are circulated, governors-general are not simply a rubber stamp. They do play an important function and we seek to pay them well in recognition of the times when they will be required to make very serious decisions and contributions that could affect the entire course of our nation.

The Governor-General exercises the role of constitutional auditor. He or she does so through exercising three constitutional rights which have been categorised as the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. The Governor-General acts as an impartial, non-political constitutional umpire, and acts as the impartial auditor of constitutional and legal processes. Indeed, in recognition of how serious a role that is, we ought to be supporting the bill and its provisions here before the House today.

While the Governor-General’s role as auditor is usually hidden from the public, both ministers and public servants are well aware of the important work that the Australian Governor-General undertakes. It ought not be underestimated. Indeed, anyone who has watched the reports, series and documentaries on the dismissal when the Governor-General dismissed the Whitlam government would know that the pressures and constitutional requirements placed on such a figure are immense, serious and require a certain temperament and experience.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Major General Michael Jeffery who is finishing his service as our 24th Governor-General. As with his military history, he has once again served our nation with distinction and has been a fine choice as our representative in that role. Some interesting points to note are that he has given over 900 major speeches throughout his time in office and he has had over 700,000 hits on the Governor-General’s website each month. He and his wife, Marlena, are patrons to over 190 community organisations in Australia. During his tenure he has represented Australia at overseas events and the funerals of very influential people, including the funerals of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, who was one of the greatest presidents the free world has ever had. I want to specifically wish the Governor-General and his wife, Marlena, all the best for the future.

I would also like, in a bipartisan fashion, to welcome and congratulate Quentin Bryce on her appointment as our 25th Governor-General. She is an incredibly impressive individual and is a testament to all sides of politics. Under the current system with its current conventions, we can select individuals who are very impressive, who have great distinction and who will serve with great temperament. I note that Quentin Bryce has a series of firsts to her name. She was the first female to lecture in the faculty of law at the University of Queensland, the first director of the Queensland Women’s Information Service under the umbrella of the Office of the Status of Women and she became the Queensland director of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In a rare event she slipped to the second woman appointed as Governor of Queensland, but she has reclaimed the mantle and was in January this year appointed the first woman to occupy the position of Governor-General of Australia.

The strengths of the candidature of our current and next Governor-General provide a clear indication that our system works. The system of appointment on the advice of the Prime Minister encourages the selection of an impartial and well-respected person. It avoids internal politics and wheeling and dealing for a political appointment. The stable and successful liberal democracy which we live in today is a result of the strength of this system. It is something that is often underestimated. Sometimes you do not know the importance of a measure or a mechanism in a machine until it breaks. You do not realise how important a particular feature can be until something goes wrong.

Following the 2020 Summit the role of the Governor-General in Australia has again come into the spotlight. One of the only outcomes in my mind that arose out of the 2020 Summit was support for an Australian republic. It really was the issue of the republic that shows what real problems arose from the 2020 Summit. I note that of the entire governance panel every member—that is, 100 per cent of them—supported the republic. Not one member voted against it, which is really quite revealing of the nature of this summit when you consider that 100 per cent of people rarely agree on anything.

Consider that in 1999, only nine years ago, a referendum on this question lost the popular vote in every state and in 72 per cent of electorates, and now the governance panel of the 2020 Summit, which was there to consider and consult on views, was 100 per cent in support of a republic. I also note that, only one month after the 2020 Summit, in May 2008, a Roy Morgan poll found that only 45 per cent of Australians want a republic with an elected president, which is down six per cent since 2001.

There is a tendency to not understand how important the role of Governor-General is in our society. There is this attempt to create a myth that we do not have an Australian as our head of state but, as the member for Bonner acknowledged, we do have a woman achieving the highest office in the land and it is a very good thing. It is something which both sides of this House support.

Our Constitution, which as Governor-General Michael Jeffery recently pointed out ‘is taken for granted because it’s worked so seamlessly and so effectively’ is something that we ought not to overlook. We have had 100 years of political stability as the Constitution has ensured that the checks and balances, which were put in place by the wise founding fathers of our country, work. Whilst many constitutional models over time have failed, Australia’s has not. In fact under our system Australia is one of the world’s seven oldest democracies. Of the seven oldest democracies, five are constitutional monarchies as is Australia. Of the leading 10 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, eight are constitutional monarchies.

The Australian Crown has significantly evolved since Governor Phillip came to our shores. The evolution of our Constitution signifies its greatest advantage. Our Constitution is able to adapt to and to grow with the circumstances of the times without the need for radical, sudden and disruptive changes. The provisions of this particular bill before the House indeed indicate some of those conventions that have worked over the years. It is a proper convention that a Governor-General not be able to raise their salary during their term. It is a sensible, foresighted measure that has led us to this place today to discuss this legislation.

The strength of our Constitution has equipped our nation with a strong, stable, democratic government. Any Australian republic, if we are ever to have one, needs to be from the bottom up not from the top down. It needs to be led by a broad consensus of the Australian people not by a minority of elites. In keeping with our nation’s egalitarian spirit, I hope that constitutional reform, when it does next occur, will be for the right reason and in a considered and representative fashion. The Governor-General is unquestioningly the head of state of Australia. I support this bill with its provision for a higher salary for the incoming Governor-General and, together with my fellow coalition members, wish Ms Bryce all the best for her term of service as Australia’s head of state.