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Address to ACM Luncheon

Given at NSW Parliament House, Sydney Australia on April 16, 2002 by Sir David Smith

Transcript as released by the Office of Research and Education

My topic is "What shall we do with ex Governors-General", and today's address is based on a much longer paper which I prepared for a Samuel Griffith Society conference held in Melbourne last September. Those of you who are members of the Samuel Griffith Society and who were present at that conference, or who have read my paper in the Society's published volume of proceedings, might care to leave now and see Kerry Jones later for a partial refund.

Once upon a time our Governors-General came from Britain and returned home at the end of their tours of duty, never to be heard of again, at least not in the context of Australian public life. Today those who are appointed to that high office are distinguished Australians who continue to live among us, either immediately upon stepping down or after a brief sojourn overseas. The question of what, if anything, we should do with them after they leave Government House has never been considered in public policy terms, so far as I am aware, and such precedents as we have are ad hoc, contradictory and unsatisfactory.

Our present Governor-General is the twenty-third to hold the office, and the tenth Australian. Dr. Peter Hollingworth's Australian predecessors were Sir Isaac Isaacs, Sir William McKell, Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir John Kerr, Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Ninian Stephen, Mr. Bill Hayden, and Sir William Deane.

Sir Isaac Isaacs, Chief Justice of the High Court, was the first native-born Australian Governor-General. He retired to Melbourne in 1936, at 80 years of age, and remained vigorous and active. He was a regular reader at the Melbourne Public Library and discussed books and their work with students, made speeches and broadcasts, wrote pamphlets and articles, presided at functions, and carried on an extensive correspondence. He died in 1948 at the age of 92.

Isaacs was followed eleven years later by our second native-born Governor-General, William John McKell, Labor Premier of New South Wales. McKell retired to his farm near Goulburn in 1953, at 61 years of age, to enjoy life as a practical farmer, to race his trotters, and to resume his enjoyment of boxing, a sport which he had not thought appropriate for a Governor-General to patronise. In due course he and Lady McKell moved to Sydney. McKell was now free to accept some business offers and he took up a number of company directorships, including positions of chairman of directors.

In 1956, at the age of 64 and in good health, the ex Governor-General was given an unexpected opportunity to use his diplomatic abilities and political experience. In a generous gesture by Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his minister for external affairs, Richard Casey, that McKell greatly appreciated, he was nominated as Australian member of the British-led commission to draft a new federal constitution for Malaya, and in September 1957 he returned to that country to participate in the independence celebrations. He died in 1985 at the age of 93.

Our third Australian-born Governor-General was Richard Gardiner, Baron Casey, a former member of the Commonwealth Parliament and Minister of the Crown. Casey retired as Governor-General in 1969, at the age of 78, to a farm at Berwick, outside Melbourne, and to an East Melbourne townhouse. He was still in demand as a public speaker; politicians,businessmen and scientists still called on him; our diplomats still called on him, wrote to him, sent him papers; and in 1972, with editorial assistance from T.B. Millar, he published a volume of extracts from his diaries for the 1950s under the title of AustralianForeign Minister. In 1970 he and Lady Casey went to Katmandu as the Governor-General's representative at the wedding of the Crown Prince of Nepal. But by 1973 Casey's health began to fail, and he found himself with nothing in particular to do. He had always been a doer, and he lacked the temperamental resources to cope with solitude and inactivity. After a car accident in September 1974 that put him in hospital for nine months, he was overtaken by feelings of loneliness and uselessness, and he lived out his retirement in an enforced quiet which he did not enjoy. He died in 1976 at the age of 86.

Casey was followed by Sir Paul Meernaa C=E6dwalla Hasluck, a former member of the Commonwealth Parliament and Minister of the Crown. Hasluck retired as Governor-General in 1974, at the age of 69, and he and Lady (later Dame Alexandra) Hasluck returned home to Perth. He continued writing in retirement, producing amongst other things his autobiography, Mucking About, in 1977; The Office of Governor-General in 1979; and Diplomatic Witness - Australian Foreign Affairs in 1980.

He died in 1993, at the age of 87. Hasluck's successor was Sir John Robert Kerr, Chief Justice of New South Wales. Kerr's retirement as Governor-General on 8 December 1977, at the age of 63, was marked with bitterness and acrimony, following the Fraser Government announcement that it had appointed him as Ambassador to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The Labor Opposition and the media were quick to denounce the appointment. Some were outraged at the prospect of Kerr receiving any sort of personal benefit whatsoever, while others raised the principle of a former Governor-General receiving what might be seen as a reward from the Fraser Government.

Three weeks later Kerr put an end to the storm by announcing that he would not be taking up the appointment. For the next five years Sir John and Lady Kerr lived in England, making frequent visits to Europe. During this time Sir John wrote his autobiography, Matters for Judgement, published in 1978. He and Lady Kerr returned to Australia at the end of 1982, to their home in Sydney. He died in 1991, at the age of 76.

Kerr was succeeded by Sir Zelman Cowen, Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland. On his retirement in 1982, at the age of 62, Cowen took up the appointment of Provost of Oriel College, his former Oxford College. He and Lady Cowen lived in England for the next eight years. During this period he served for five years as Chairman of the British Press Council; maintained significant academic links with universities in a number of countries; and served on the boards of many academic and community organisations, in Britain and in Australia. The Cowens returned to Australia in 1990, where Sir Zelman became Chairman of such divers organisations, among many others, as John Fairfax Holdings Ltd and The Australian National Academy of Music. He also served as Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Executive Government to the 1985-88 Constitutional Commission established by the Hawke Government. He has continued to write and speak on a wide range of topics, including the republic which he strongly supports, and is currently engaged in writing his autobiography.

Cowen's successor was Sir Ninian Martin Stephen, a Justice of the High Court. Stephen retired in 1989, after more than six years in office, at the age of 65, and immediately embarked on another career of government and non-government appointments. Within two months of leaving Yarralumla he was off to Barcelona as leader of a delegation to lobby for Melbourne's right to host the 1996 Olympic Games. Three months later Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced Stephen's appointment as Australia's first Ambassador for the Environment, an appointment in which, so the Prime Minister told us, the new Ambassador would report to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister Senator Gareth Evans, and the Minister for the Environment Senator Graham Richardson. This diplomatic appointment was to last for three years, and I shall have more to say about it later.

Stephen also took up many other appointments: Chairman of the National Library Council; Chairman of the Committee of Review into the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University; Director of IBM Australia Ltd.; a UN observer at constitutional talks in South Africa; Chairman of Northern Ireland Peace Talks; first Chairman of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation; a judge of the International Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda; Special Commonwealth Envoy to peace talks in Bangladesh (where his effigy was burnt by protesters in Dhaka); a judge of the International Court of Justice in a case brought by Portugal against Australia over the Timor Gap agreement; and this is but a partial list of his wide-ranging appointments to national and international bodies. He has also made a number of speeches, and he launched former Prime Minister Bob Hawke's autobiography.

He retired as Ambassador for the Environment after three years. Prime Minister Paul Keating scrapped the post, combined its duties with those of an existing diplomatic post based in Geneva, and appointed a career diplomat to it.

Stephen was succeeded by William George Hayden, a member of the Commonwealth Parliament, a Minister of the Crown, and a former Leader of the Opposition. Hayden retired in 1996, after seven years in office, at the age of 63, to his farm in Ipswich. He was appointed Adjunct Professor of Humanities at the Queensland University of Technology; and Queensland premiers from both sides of politics invited him to undertake special tasks on behalf of their respective governments. He was appointed by Prime Minister John Howard to be a delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, and he campaigned against the republic during the 1999 Referendum campaign. He is chairman of the editorial advisory board of Quadrant. He continues to write and speak on current issues, including foreign affairs, immigration, multiculturalism and republicanism.

Our final ex Governor-General is Sir William Patrick Deane, a Justice of the High Court. Deane retired in 2001 after almost five and a half years in office, at the age of 70. On his retirement, amidst all the journalistic eulogies, it fell to The Australian, oddly enough, to sound an editorial note of caution and to give some advice to his successor, Dr. Peter Hollingworth. "To the extent that the office affords a governor-general some moral authority, forays into politics or other areas of public controversy only serve to undermine it. … Sir William tried to avoid the dangers by concerning himself with problems, not solutions. Yet a number of times he went very close to crossing the line into politics, and occasionally crossed it." What a pity The Australian withheld these words of wisdom until Deane's last day in office.

Deane has been appointed president of CARE Australia, and works with disadvantaged children through the Youth Off The Streets programme.=20

For the major part of its first century as a federation, Australia treated its Governors-General badly, and its ex Governors-General not at all. We enshrined the salary of the office in section 3 the Constitution, fixed it at ten thousand pounds until the Parliament provided otherwise, and said that it could not be altered during the Governor-General's continuance in office. The ten thousand pounds became twenty thousand dollars in 1966, but Parliament was tardy in providing otherwise, and the Governor-General's salary, fixed in 1900, remained unchanged until Sir John Kerr's appointment in 1974. And we provided no pension whatsoever for an ex Governor-General.

Our first Governor-General, the Earl of Hopetoun, was the first victim of government and parliamentary parsimony. On 5 May 1902, after sixteen months in office, Hopetoun cabled the secretary of state at the Colonial Office to report that: "No allowance whatever will be given. On a salary of =A310,000 per annum I am expected to pay a staff, visit various states, paying all travelling expenses excepting railway, occupy two great Government Houses, paying lights, fuel, stationery, telegrams, postage other than official, dispense hospitality, maintain dignity of the office." Hopetoun had already strained his private resources, and he saw difficulties ahead for his successors. He asked to be recalled, and his appointment came to an end after two years.

Our second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, handled things rather better, securing Parliament's agreement to an allowance for the next Governor-General for the operation of Government House. In addition, an Official Secretary to the Governor-General and the Executive Council was appointed and paid by the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, our first twelve Governors-General were expected to meet some staff salaries and some household expenses of Government House out of their salary of =A310,000. The last to do both was McKell, who was ready to retire at the end of his extended term, particularly as he was heavily out of pocket, with half of his salary going on staff salaries. He informed Menzies of this, and the Prime Minister acted to make all staff salaries a charge against the Treasury, a change which was greatly appreciated by McKell's successor, Sir William Slim, and those who were to come after him.

The matter of a vice-regal contribution to household expenses was not so easily settled, and our first seventeen Governors-General, up to and including Hasluck, were expected to make their contributions. Out of recognition that the passage of time was steadily eroding the real value of a salary fixed in 1900, the Commonwealth progressively reduced each Governor-General's contribution, but it did not disappear altogether until the appointment of Sir John Kerr in 1974. In that year the Whitlam Government asked Parliament to approve a Bill to fix Kerr's salary at $30,000 to replace the constitutional amount of $20,000, and ever since, the Governor-General Act has been amended to fix the salary of the incoming Governor-General for the duration of his term of office.

Just as our Governors-General were treated less than generously, so too were our ex Governors-General, for prior to 1974 there was no pension entitlement payable to an ex Governor-General. In 1970 the Gorton Government approved the payment of ex-gracia pensions to certain former Governors-General and their widows - those known to be in necessitous circumstances - but in 1974, when fixing the salary question, the Whitlam Government also asked Parliament to approve a vice-regal pension as of right for all future ex Governors-General and their widows, at the amounts fixed from time to time for ex Chief Justices of the High Court and their widows. The arrangement was not made retrospective, and those ex-gratia amounts payable at the time were continued.

The view that former Governors-General should be able to meet social obligations which might be expected of them as a result of occupancy of the office has meant that they are also provided with certain facilities and privileges in retirement. These consist of a fully-furnished office in their home city; the normal range of office facilities such as postage, telephone, office furniture and equipment; a full-time secretary; telephone and facsimile facilities at home; access to motor vehicle transport in Australia; domestic air and train travel for official purposes; and overseas travel subject to the Prime Minister's approval.

There is thus today no longer any element of personal financial sacrifice to burden a former Governor-General willing and able to meet the expectations placed upon him by the Australian community, and this is as it should be. On the other hand, as ex Governors-General continue to be supported by the Australian community by way of pension and facilities and privileges, and because the community will continue to have expectations of them because of the high office which they once occupied, the kinds of things which they do in retirement are important to the community and to the office itself.

My survey of our nine ex Governors-General shows them to have been men of great talent and with distinguished records of community and public service before coming to that office. They also retired with their intellect and their vigour intact, at least so far as their respective ages would allow, and each one proceeded to occupy himself in a range of community and public activities.

So far as I have been able to establish, from public records which are not necessarily comprehensive or complete, only McKell, Cowen and Stephen seem to have accepted appointments to the boards of public companies. Fortunately, for the sake of their own personal reputations, and for the dignity of the vice-regal office, none seems to have found himself associated with a company or with a board that was involved in questionable or unlawful activities. Nevertheless, given the responsibilities, risks and potential liabilities attaching to company directors, one would have to question the wisdom of ex Governors-General accepting such appointments.

There is, however, one class of employment that should never be offered to, or accepted by, an ex Governor-General. Fortunately we have had only two examples where this has happened. I refer, of course, to salaried employment as a public servant, and particularly as a public servant of the Government that had previously served under the Governor-General concerned.

As I have already mentioned, Sir John Kerr's acceptance of an ambassadorship under the Fraser Government unleashed such a torrent of criticism that he declined to take up the appointment. The (Melbourne) Age expressed its "disgust and concern" while its political correspondent, Michelle Grattan, reported that the cynicism of the appointment had taken her breath away. Much was made of the fact that Kerr would receive a salary in addition to the vice-regal pension. Three weeks later The Sydney Morning Herald reported that his decision not to take up the appointment was a matter of great relief and great pleasure.

Yet eleven years later, when the Hawke Government announced Sir Ninian Stephen's acceptance of an ambassadorship, the media fell over itself to praise the appointment. There was no thundering denunciation from The (Melbourne) Age - on the contrary, it saw the appointment as a "masterstroke", and even Michelle Grattan continued to breath easily. The Sydney Morning Herald absolutely lauded the appointment, while The Australian saw it as a coup for Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The fact that Stephen would receive a salary in addition to the vice-regal pension was mentioned in passing but was not otherwise commented upon.

So far as I have been able to discover, only two commentators were sufficiently honest and objective to be able to put media euphoria over the Stephen appointment into proper perspective.

Gerard Henderson, Executive Director of the Sydney Institute, wrote in The Australian of 31 July 1989 that: "I cannot recall any recent government appointment that has met with such widespread acclaim as Bob Hawke's decision to make Sir Ninian Stephen Australia's first Ambassador for the Environment." Henderson conceded that he supported the Stephen appointment and had no doubt that Sir Ninian would do a good job. And then he wrote: "But forgive me for a moment if I raise an unfashionable point. The last governor-general to accept a diplomatic appointment was universally condemned for doing the very thing for which Sir Ninian is now being widely acclaimed.

The essential charge against Sir John was straightforward - namely that a former governor-general should not accept a job offer from any government."

Henderson then went on to remind his readers of what the media had said about Sir John Kerr's appointment as Australia's Ambassador to UNESCO eleven years earlier. "The Age [had] editorialised that a former governor-general 'should not accept an office involving financial gain from the Government'. The Sydney Morning Herald [had] intoned that the Fraser government 'should never have set a precedent under which a future governor-general may have some future appointment to hope for from the party in power'. Leading journalists of the day (Michelle Grattan, Alan Reid, Laurie Oakes, Peter Samuel) [had] said much the same thing. Paul Kelly [had written]: 'That a governor-general who exercises his discretion in a way favourable to the government in power is to be, or can be, rewarded after his term of office can create a dangerous political precedent.'" And then to reinforce his reference to media double standards, Henderson compared Kerr's dismissal of Whitlam in 1975 and his grant to Fraser of an early election in 1977 with Stephen's grant to Hawke of early elections in 1984 and 1987. But Henderson's comparisons fell on deaf ears. The medias' moralising on the possible exercise of vice-regal discretion in the hope of some future appointment, so virulent in 1978, was strangely absent in 1989.

While Henderson wrote of the dangers to ex Governors-General of any subsequent appointments being seen as rewards, Peter Ryan, a former Editor of Melbourne University Press, writing in The (Melbourne) Age of 29 July 1989, raised an even more important principle that goes right to the heart of the nature of the Governor-Generalship. Ryan asked: "Why did Sir Ninian do it? After an impeccable record of public service, culminating in an extended term as Governor-General, where his genial dignity made him both loved and respected, why would he start an honourably earned retirement by pulling the trigger of the double-barrelled weapon that has just wounded him personally, and that has put another scar on the scarcely healed frame of the Governor-Generalship. … In one perhaps hasty decision, he let himself be kidnapped right into the murky middle of conservation politics. … And he [has] called yet again into question the essential nature of the Governor-General's office, and how its incumbents should behave. To take the second aspect first, Governors-General are not ordinary people. … Like the field marshals, they are on the active list until they die. That symbolises the high honour, and also represents its price. What Governor-General, however long he may live in retirement, does not retain about him something of the aura of his late great office? [Sir John Kerr's UNESCO appointment] had raised in pointed form the question whether retired Governors-General should look for further appointments under government. Did not Sir Ninian notice? … All the considerable weight of esteem that he enjoyed (and earned) as head of state he has now cast in support of one side of politics. …[He] will 'report' to [Prime Minister] Hawke, Senator Richardson and Senator Evans." And then Peter Ryan posed the question which is the nub of this issue: "Is it dignified for a former head of state to 'report' to politicians? … I feel sorry for Sir Ninian. … But I feel sorry for me, too. Somebody has let me down."

My final comment on this important matter of principle raised by Peter Ryan comes from Sir Paul Hasluck. For this former Governor-General, the thought that a former Governor-General should become a Commonwealth Public Servant and be subject to instructions given to him by ministers and departmental heads, and particularly by those who once had served under him, was anathema. And for this former Official Secretary to Governors-General, the thought that we should allow our expectations in this matter to be determined for us by the media, with its flexible principles and moveable standards, is also anathema. The office of Governor-General is far too important for us to allow any ex Governor-General to demean the office by becoming the paid servant of any Australian Government.

Hasluck saw the office of Governor-General as the apex for an Australian, and he believed that, once having held the highest office, one should not go below it. As he put it so succinctly and pointedly: "An apex is the wrong shape to be a stepping stone."

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© Sir David Smith

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