Vice-Regal: Bryce To Depart A Dame Unlamented

THE IMMINENT replacement of Quentin Bryce as Governor-General by Sir Peter Cosgrove warrants national pride, with the ascent of the distinguished General coinciding with the overdue restoration of knighthoods and damehoods to Australia’s honours system. It’s a reminder that reputations can be easily shredded: Bryce departs as just another Labor hack, a grub, and does not deserve the damehood bestowed upon her by the Prime Minister.

First things first: I think the re-introduction today of knighthoods and damehoods to Australia’s honours roll is overdue, highly appropriate, and something that all Australians should support; it is important to be able to single out individuals in our midst of the highest standing and achievement for recognition, and the elite category Prime Minister Tony Abbott has restored to the Order of Australia today fills a gap in that Order that has been missing since the Hawke government abolished it in 1986.

It is important to note that contrary to popular misconception, these awards are neither British nor Imperial in nature; these are Australian awards, made under the Order of Australia, and as such very different to, say, being called “Sir” on account of being made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) which is, ultimately, a British award.

Republicans, therefore, can have no complaint against it on anti-monarchical grounds.

And I contend some of the noisier and outraged members of the lobby of the downtrodden can have no gripe with it, either: just as I have no problem with their advocacy for and on behalf of the poorest and most disaffected members of society, they in turn should have no problem with individuals having something like this to strive for: a recognition of excellence and achievement.

Just as the poorest should be lifted from their circumstances, so too should the best and brightest be encouraged and rewarded and spurred on to greater heights, and it is an indecent view of society that would have one to the total exclusion of the other.

These awards have been reintroduced to coincide with the completion of the present Governor-General’s term in office, and her replacement by a true Australian hero and living national treasure in the retired General, now Sir Peter Cosgrove.

To me, the timing is exquisite; the departure of Bryce doesn’t completely close the door on what has more or less been a dominant Labor generation* in terms of its prominence in Australian politics — that can only happen once the balance of power in the Senate changes in July — but I have to say that the arrival of Gen Cosgrove at Yarralumla will signal a break with Australia’s recent Labor past, and restore some much-needed dignity to the highest office in the land after the disgraceful precedent set by Bryce.

The fact Bryce was a woman in vice-regal office is no precedent; after all, she wasn’t even the first female governor of her home state of Queensland.

I actually think her gender makes no difference at all; in my view, the only considerations are a) can she do the job? and, b) how well, with hindsight, she did the job.

Only a fool would argue Bryce wasn’t up to being Governor-General; she is no idiot, and in fact, that was part of the problem.

Readers will recall that in November last year — when she foolishly waded into domestic politics, advocating in favour of gay marriage and a republic — this column slammed her interventions, pointing out (very correctly) that it was entirely improper for the holder of the office of Governor-General to be intervening in the political issues of the day. For those who didn’t see my article at the time, it is here.

Until that outburst, I had previously opined (the few times the Governor-Generalship even surfaced as a topical subject) that Bryce, by and large, had rather surprisingly made an excellent Governor-General, serving with distinction and aplomb.

What had been so “surprising” about these observations had nothing to do with Bryce’s gender and everything to do with her background, based as it is in the radical activism of the social Left. It surprised me she had been able to keep a lid on these prejudices in her official capacity. I had spoken too soon. My observations had been premature.

And in direct answer to those who might refer to Abbott’s comments at the time — that he had been “comfortable” with what Bryce had said — I would simply point out that those comments are words from a man with a vested interest, as Prime Minister, in offending as few people as possible.

No true interpretation of responsible government in Australia and the role the office of Governor-General plays in it could ever excuse such a divisive foray into rank partisanship by its occupant.

Conventions around roles such as the Governor-Generalship exist for good reason; in this case, the political impartiality and strict neutrality of the role are essential if the office is to remain uncompromised as an instrument of the system of constitutional monarchy, or to enable its holder to act properly and fearlessly if a situation similar to the events of October-November 1975 should ever again arise.

The higher the office, the higher the expectation; and in this vein, what might have been regarded as the rendering of meritorious vice-regal service was ripped apart by a few cheap cracks Bryce simply lacked the self-restraint or discipline to keep quiet about.

She leaves the office of Governor-General ready for her successor to restore it to the propriety and dignity it deserves; whilst not perhaps a complete failure, the kindest judgement of her term at Yarralumla is that is was unremarkable — save for the offensive partisan statements she made in a speech that quite literally should never have been uttered by somebody in her position.

Nobody should mark down the period spent by Quentin Bryce as Governor-General as a time to be remembered with any affection. She was not a great holder of the office. Her tenure was not remarkable or distinguished. In contexts such as these, reputations are hard-earned over long years and may be destroyed in an instant. Her time in the role has left a great stain of partisanship on a great office of state. She does not deserve the damehood the Prime Minister has bestowed upon her.

 

*To clarify, whilst the Liberal Party governed for 12 years under John Howard, federally, from March 1996 to November 2007, it must be remembered that his election took place at a time when Coalition state governments were early in an overall process of falling from office across the country; Labor has had the better of Australian politics over the past 20 years or so when the states are included for consideration, and it is this dominant Labor generation to which I refer.