July 25, 2019

Horse 2576 - I Like The Unknowable Power Of The Governor General

It came to light through a series of tweets that former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote a number of warning memorandums to the Governor General, in case Immigration Minister Peter Dutton won the impending leadership spill in 2018, and was recommended by the Liberal Party caucus as the next Prime Minister. That is of entirely academic as Mr Dutton lost the spill and Scott Morrison became the Prime Minister, however the existence of these memorandums indicates a mostly ignored aspect of our weird version of parliamentary democracy.

Mr Turnbull's concerns to the Governor General related to the Section 44 eligibility of Mr Dutton and the mostly unresolved question of his pecuniary interest in the Crown, as a result of receiving funds through a closely held trust. I can only assume that with the election which recently returned the Morrison Government, that Mr Dutton will have sorted out his interests.
Quite apart from that though is the unspoken spectre in the room and seat of unspoken power, which is permanently installed in the metaphorical throne room of the Governor General.
Section 64 of the Constitution states that it is the Governor General who makes and unmakes cabinet ministers; including the unwritten ministry of the minister without portfolio - the Prime Minister.

Ministers of State
The Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish.
Such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General. They shall be members of the Federal Executive Council, and shall be the Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth.

Ministers to sit in Parliament
After the first general election no Minister of State shall hold office for a longer period than three months unless he is or becomes a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.
- Section 64, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (1900)

It probably would irk republicans that this vestige of imperialism should remain in the Constitution, and perhaps they will cite the events of the 11th of November 1975 as proof but if your only contention is one series of events in 119 years, then I'd say that the system works pretty well.

There are absolutely no restrictions on who the Governor General can appoint as a minister. They could appoint Sandi Toksvig who is not even an Australian citizen as the Minister Of Lemonade which isn't even a real cabinet position (except that it would then be one after the Governor General appointed her). The only stipulation is that the person becomes a member of the House of Representatives or Senate within three months. The Governor General could depose Scott Morrison and appoint Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister of Australia for that same reason. Ms Ardern could be Prime Minister of Australia as a minister of the Crown for 89 days because the law only requires that she becomes a Member of Parliament after three months; the restrictions on being an MP don't specifically apply to a cabinet minister.

It is worth remembering that Edmund Barton actually was Prime Minister for 87 days without holding a seat in the House of Representatives because the first federal election didn't take place until March 29. John Gorton was Prime Minister in the Senate when he started and then resigned before winning the seat of the newly departed Harold Holt. Technically he didn't have either a seat in the House of Representatives or the Senate for 23 days; which was the second time that we've had a Prime Minister with no seat.

If this sounds daft, then I think that you need to be thankful that you live in an era of stable and boring government. This has that potential for abuse but given that most of the time, no-one knows who the Governor General is, then that stability is exceptionally valuable. The world could be a much more chaotic place and I think that it is to that kind of world that Section 64 was written in preparation for.

The bloody events of 1848 created countries from thin air and Europe was revisited with another bout of bloody chaos and mayhem in 1870. Australia had its series of constitutional conventions in the 1880s and 90s and must've been aware that the ticking time bomb of Europe was likely to explode once again at some point.
That did come to pass less than a decade and a half into the new nation's history when one particular archduke took an unfortunate trip in a motor car in Sarajevo. Up to that point, nobody really knew what an archduke was; much less why that should trigger another continent wide conflict. As far as Australia was concerned, the First World War mostly happened on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, she still moved to send troops anyway.
The Second World War happened so close to home that although the sounds of war were heard, very little was damaged and there was no actual invasion of Australia. Section 64 could have been written with such a world in mind, where the need to hire a short term expert, or perhaps an advisor on a war footing, might be needed.

I am sure that in 1901, the framers of the Australian Constitution, were probably thinking of some kind of Colonel Blimp figure, for whom the fields of war were the extension of the playing fields at Eton. They were probably thinking of someone who had been sent as an envoy in some kind of patriarchal condescension on a national scale.
Imagine if in 1942, after the bombing of Darwin, that a series of events meant that Winston Churchill came to Australia. I suspect that absolutely nobody would have minded him being appointed as a cabinet minister of war. Think about our American allies. Someone like Douglas MacArthur or Dwight Eisenhower may have been useful as a cabinet minister, and getting a seat at the table to listen in on policy decisions.
Perhaps related to this is that on at least one occasion, there have been talks of sending the next in line to the throne as the Governor General, as if it were like a training ground in how to be King. That hasn't come to pass.

Instead we have a Governor General who is recommended by the parliament on an almost exclusively partisan basis, to represent a monarch who is ten thousand miles away, and who is also unelected. The really bizarre thing is that the system works brilliantly. I don't know of anyone who would choose to set up a system of government like this from scratch and yet, if we look at all the other systems where the head of state is elected by the people, it is almost always disastrous. The 1999 referendum sent the message that the people of Australia want to elect the head of state but the status quo was retained; which has turned out to be one of the best results that could have happened. Since then we have had seven Prime Ministers. Admittedly I have no idea how many Governors General that we have had in that same time period but that is testament to the fact that they have remained out of the way of politics.

I think that as we have at least seen into the window, if only as if looking through a brick of glass at a bank, that the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Governor General is still more complex than most republicans would have us believe. The Governor General retains the power to hire and fire the executive and while republicans will see that as an inherently idiotic construction, it is worth remembering that this has only been done once since Federation and in that case it may have been entirely necessary.
The Governor General is not normally subject to the winds of politics and of themselves can not be forcibly removed. However, when the perfect storm of politics does happen to blow its merry confusion around the place, it is the Governor General who remains planted, rather than the Prime Minister who may be snapped like a twig.

I say all of this as perhaps a preparatory warning to republicans who might want to change the Constitution. The people of Australia have made it clear that they want to elect the Grand Poobah Governor General President Highness King Boss, rather than having parliament do that for them. In theory that should be sensible but as soon as you do that, the position is instantly politicised and will be made worse. We have one of the most stable democracies in the world and to uproot that, just for the purpose of changing a few hats, seems stupid to me.
I like that the Prime Minister is secretly scared of the Governor General. I fear that a change in circumstances either raises the power of the Prime Minister (which is bad) or would solidify the position of the Governor General (also bad). To do nothing in my opinion is the best way forward.

1 comment:

Simon Grady said...

Why do you think that we should be ruled by an unelected monarch who lives on the other side of the world?