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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14854

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (2:00 PM) —by leave—I wish to make a statement to the House regarding the resignation of the Governor-General. I formally advise the House that I have received, as announced, a letter from His Excellency the Governor-General informing me that he wishes to resign from the office of Governor-General and asking me to advise Her Majesty the Queen that his commission as Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia should be revoked. I table the letter from the Governor-General.

As a consequence of the advice I have received from His Excellency, I have put in train the steps to obtain the revocation of his commission, and his resignation as Governor-General will formally take effect later this week when the revocation is signed. As he foreshadowed in his statement yesterday afternoon, the Governor-General will seek to give an address to the Australian people later this week. I saw the Governor-General at Government House this morning to discuss transitional arrangements and it has been agreed that he will make arrangements to leave Government House by not later than 30 June. He must, as honourable members will be aware, make alternative accommodation arrangements. He did offer in the course of our conversation this morning to pay the Commonwealth board for the period between his resignation and 30 June. I took the view that, although that was a generous offer on his part, particularly having regard to the illness of his wife it was an offer that I would not take up. But I want to record my appreciation of the gesture of the Governor-General in making that offer.

This has been a difficult issue for a number of people, not least of course for people who have been touched by the trauma of child abuse. It has also been a very difficult issue for the Governor-General. I want to record my gratitude to Dr Peter Hollingworth for having placed the strength of the office of Governor-General and considerations attending that above his own personal comfort and consideration. I believe that, given all of the circumstances, his decision to offer his resignation was correct. It is the right decision to take in the circumstances. It is his decision and a decision in which I believe he has placed concern for the office and his sense of obligation and duty to the Australian people above other considerations. Much has been said about his behaviour both before he became Governor-General and since being appointed. It is undoubtedly the case that he made a very serious mistake as Archbishop of Brisbane—an error of judgment that he acknowledged more than a year ago. I think it is also fair to say that in public life in recent memory no person has paid a higher price than Dr Hollingworth has for that error of judgment. He paid a very high price for his error of judgment.

Opposition members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! This is a matter of moment, and I will uphold the standing orders.

Mr HOWARD —This issue has raised very directly the issue of child abuse within our community not only in the past but also in the present. Child abuse is an abomination. It is an abhorrent practice which all decent men and women are repulsed by, whatever their views may be on other issues. I am sure that whatever our differences of opinion may be there can at least be unanimity on that one particular issue. There was a different attitude in the past in relation to the handling of child abuse allegations and child abuse practices. That different attitude in the past was largely but not entirely reflected in the handling of this particular matter by the Governor-General. I think the contemporary approach is correct, I think the approach in the past was incorrect and I think it is important that that be said. I think the more transparent approach of the present is infinitely preferable to the different approach of the past. Nonetheless, it has to be recognised that community attitudes on this have changed. We know the problem. We do not in my view need more inquiries. What we do need are more targeted, more effective approaches.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Batman!

Mr HOWARD —I think it is important, notwithstanding the natural revulsion that all of us feel on the issue of child abuse, to keep some of the events surrounding the Governor-General in proper perspective. Child abuse remains a problem within our community but a problem that is not confined to institutions. In fact, most of the contemporary available evidence suggests that the greatest level of child abuse—both in the past and at present—occurs within the domestic environment. It remains the very strong view of this government that the most appropriate way to tackle and ameliorate the problem of child abuse within our community is for governments at all levels to have more effective early intervention programs which seek to target families at risk and families where child abuse may occur. It is also important, of course, that all institutions—and when I speak of institutions it would be a mistake to imagine that child abuse has occurred only within church institutions; any suggestion that it has been confined to those would be a complete misreading of past and very painful experience—look to their responsibilities and adopt the more transparent approach which has been the norm for at least the last decade or indeed more.

It would be doing a great disservice to many decades of commitment to the relief of human suffering if I did not take this opportunity to record in this parliament on behalf of the government my respect and admiration for all of the good work that Peter Hollingworth has done for his fellow Australians over a life of 68 years. It is worth remembering the way in which his appointment was greeted at the time, just over two years ago, because there is always a tendency, in the light of what has happened subsequently, to rewrite history, to impute knowledge, to infer an understanding and knowledge of circumstances that simply did not exist at the time. I rely in particular in making that assertion on two comments that were made at the time of the Governor-General's appointment. The first of those came from the Premier of Queensland, who I would assume was well acquainted with matters that were well known around the city of Brisbane. He had this to say: `It is very great news for Queensland.' That was the reaction of the Queensland Premier from an article in the Courier-Mail on 23 April 2001. I would also like to remind the House of what was said by the then Leader of the Opposition, the now member for Brand. This is what he had to say:

On behalf of the Federal Opposition, I congratulate the Most Reverend Peter Hollingworth ... on his appointment as our next Governor-General.

Opposition members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! The Prime Minister has the call.

Mr HOWARD —Mr Speaker, I am reading from a statement of the then leader of the Australian Labor Party.

Archbishop Hollingworth has a distinguished background of service as an Anglican prelate. His fine record of community service qualifies him well for this highest of public offices.

The SPEAKER —The member for Kingsford-Smith is warned!

Mr HOWARD —He goes on:

I am sure that Archbishop Hollingworth appreciates deeply the dispassionate role that he will play in the Australian political process in his new appointment. I look forward to a co-operative working relationship between Archbishop Hollingworth and the Federal Opposition ...

Mrs Irwin —So what?

The SPEAKER —The member for Fowler is warned!

Mr HOWARD —He goes on:

... and I feel confident that our good working relationship would continue beyond the next election should there be a Federal Labor Government.

I remind the House of those two statements to gainsay the suggestion that has been put about in some sections of the Australian community that this appointment was the subject of criticism and questioning from the very beginning. The reality is that—save and except the question of appointing for the first time to the post of Governor-General somebody who was a clergyman—the appointment was very widely welcomed on both sides of Australian politics at the time. Nothing that can now be said by the Leader of the Opposition and nothing that can now be said by those who sit opposite can alter that fact.

Mr Leo McLeay —You appointed him and he resigned.

The SPEAKER —The member for Watson is warned!

Mr HOWARD —I did give consideration to the issues relating to the separation of church and state at the time of Dr Hollingworth's appointment.

The SPEAKER —The member for Brisbane is warned!

Mr HOWARD —I acknowledge that some people who on all other grounds not only supported the appointment but also had a high regard for Dr Hollingworth believed that it was wrong in principle to appoint a person of the cloth to occupy that position. I took a contrary view. I was guided in that contrary view by three precedents at a state level—namely, two former governors of South Australia and also a former Governor of the state of Victoria—and also the appointment of the former primate of the Anglican Church of New Zealand to the position of Governor-General of New Zealand. I acknowledged then and I acknowledge now that there were those in the community who held an opposite view, but that opposite view was based upon that principle, not based upon any allegations of individual unsuitability of the then archbishop of Queensland.

I do wish to take the opportunity of reminding this parliament and reminding many in the community who over the last few months have been extremely critical of the Governor-General of the fact that he has dedicated his life to the service of the less fortunate and the underprivileged within the Australian community. He made a very significant error of judgment in relation to the matter that has been under discussion and under debate, and he has paid an extremely high price for that error of judgment. I repeat: it is a higher price than has been paid by many others in the community who have been guilty of equally bad error of judgment.

There has been no evidence that has emerged that in any way has led to a fair claim of moral turpitude by the man himself. In his service in the Anglican Church, and in particular his service with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, he was a person who went about the streets of Melbourne doing good for the less privileged. He is a person who was a constant harasser of governments of both sides of politics to ensure that the social welfare policies of the day adequately reflected the needs of the less fortunate and the less privileged in the community. It would be unfair to him—and it would, I think, be contrary to the instincts and the principles of the fair go that we as Australians believe should be extended to everybody—if this opportunity were to pass without an acknowledgement being made of his contribution, particularly in that work.

I would like to thank him for the time that he has served as Governor-General of Australia. I want, in particular, given the very serious illness of his wife, to wish him and his wife, Ann, the very best for the future. There will be many Australians who will have a range of views on different aspects of this matter. I hope that all Australians recognise that the totality of a person's contribution to humanity should be measured by the sum of what they do in all of their life. If you look at the sum of Peter Hollingworth's life, it has been a life of great commitment to this country; it has been a life of great service for the underprivileged; and it has been a life of great commitment to the church of his choosing. I believe it is that life, and the totality of that life, that should be properly judged in these circumstances.