A stint in Government House is the PM’s gift to give
If Ricky Ponting scores a double century in the Boxing Day Test and announces his retirement from cricket, there would be nothing preventing the Prime Minister making Australia’s greatest run scorer the next governor-general.
How about Kylie Minogue? She would bring international experience and contacts to the vice-regal post and is a recipient of France’s highest cultural honour, the Order of Arts and Letters. She’s talking about retiring to a “big house” with a garden. Would Government House be suitable?
While either scenario might seem absurd, it could in fact be a reality. There are no rules, no selection criteria, no formal list of qualifications, no formal vetting procedure and no restrictions for appointing a person to the highest office in the land. It is the personal gift of the prime minister, who alone makes a recommendation, which the Queen is obliged to accept.
It is not a decision of Cabinet, the government or the Parliament and the people certainly have no say. Tony Abbott could give the job to John Howard. Julia Gillard could select Paul Keating. Yet the whole process is now out of step with most other major government appointments.
The Reserve Bank governor is chosen by Cabinet.
To become a member of the ABC board you must first be nominated by the public (after the government advertises the vacancy). An independent panel assesses applicants against an official criteria and provides a written shortlist. For the position of ABC chair, the prime minister is also required to “consult” the Opposition leader. And if the person chosen was not on the shortlist the government must table a statement in Parliament.
The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is nominated by federal Cabinet but must be approved by a majority of state and territory governments. It was difficult when some Labor states played hardball against Peter Costello’s choice to put Graeme Samuel in the job but it was open and transparent.
And there was extensive consultation before Nicola Roxon named Stephen Gageler as the latest High Court judge.
The Attorney-General spoke to her state and territory counterparts, her shadow George Brandis, the Chief Justice and other High Court justices, the chief justices of the Federal Court, Family Court and Supreme Courts as well as bar associations, law societies and deans of law schools who submitted up to five names for her to consider.
But the appointment process for the GG has been frozen in time along with the republic debate. The failed 1999 referendum proposed a president with similar powers as a governor-general but they would be chosen by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament.
At the time this was criticised as being the “politicians’ republic” that denied the people a direct say. But at least the Parliament is elected by all the people. What we have now is one person’s GG.
The vice-regal office became mired in scandal when Peter Hollingworth was chosen by Howard and then quit in 2003 after controversy about his handling of child sex abuse complaints years earlier when he was Brisbane’s Anglican archbishop.
Howard said he made sure there were “background checks” on his replacement, former SAS commander Michael Jeffery who had been “road-tested” as WA governor.
Quentin Bryce, the first woman to hold the office, had also been a state governor. Bryce has been terrific in the job and won bipartisan praise. This week Gillard said the Queen had agreed to a request to extend her term by six months to March 2014 to make sure there would be no change in the vice-regal post during the 2013 election year.
Speculation is now running about who might be the 26th GG.
If Abbott becomes PM and lives at Kirribilli House overlooking Sydney Harbour, he could seek to have his mentor, Howard, living next door in Admiralty House. The nation was reminded of Howard’s capacity to play the role of statesman during the Bali bombing anniversary.
Perhaps Abbott might choose Malcolm Turnbull, following the lead of Bob Hawke, who gave it to Bill Hayden, who he’d vanquished as leader.
There’s been speculation in the past that Turnbull could become president but this would be a twist for the monarchist Abbott, who helped beat the republic campaign led by Turnbull.
Abbott could decide to appoint the first indigenous Australian to the highest office. Noel Pearson’s name leaps to mind.
Maybe Gillard will try the tactic used by John Gorton in 1969 to get rid of his rival, Paul Hasluck. Would Kevin Rudd accept the job?
These examples may seem silly but it’s been done in the past to fix political dilemmas or reward mates.
There’s strong speculation Gillard will consider respected former Defence chief Angus Houston.
Some believe there should be formal qualifications to carry out the vital legal aspects of the job, particularly the reserve powers made famous by Sir John Kerr when he sacked Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975.
A wildcard could be Adam Gilchrist, the former wicketkeeper who is chair of the National Australia Day Council.
He has displayed great civic duty and would be non-threatening to politicians but a youthful face for the office.
There’s no shortage of interesting and worthy candidates. There should be a formal process for nominations and consultation. The final choice can still rest with the PM but if it’s good enough for the High Court, the ACCC and the ABC, then surely we deserve something more substantial than the gut feeling of one person to select the next governor-general.
Phillip Hudson is Herald Sun national political editor.
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