Money for (almost) nothing - are we too good to our GGs?
In the lottery that is (public) life, being appointed Governor-General is akin to winning the jackpot. Candidates for the job – none of whom are struggling for a quid in the first place – receive a generous $394,000 a year and, as today’s investigation in the Sunday newspapers shows, enjoy lavish pensions which follow them to the grave.
It’s not a bad arrangement for a position which, under our funny constitutional arrangements, requires that you don’t really do anything.
The job rarely invites too much scrutiny, save for those rare moments in our history when the appointee is accused of exceeding their constitutional role, or finds themself mired in an unrelated scandal which leaves them unable to do their job.
Sir John Kerr became and remains the most spectacular member of the first category with his dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. If Kerr remains a hate figure for Australia’s lefties, many conservatives still remember the role played by Sir William Deane early in the Howard years, where his championing of reconciliation for indigenous Australians and recognition for the stolen generation put him at odds with the Prime Minister of the day, earning him the nickname “Holy Billy”.
The hapless Peter Hollingworth, the former Archbishop of Brisbane, was in the second scandal-plagued category. His tenure as G-G lasted less than two years amid public anger over his seeming ambivalence towards a shocking case of child abuse where he suggested the female victim was the protagonist.
Bill Hayden’s appointment by Bob Hawke, who pinched the Labor leadership from Hayden on the cusp of 1983’s unlosable “drover’s dog” election, still ranks as one of the more audacious demonstrations of the jobs-for-the-boys principle Australian public life has seen.
Our governors-general might occasionally be regrettable, but they are usually forgettable. But regardless of how they are perceived and how they perform, they enjoy a degree of taxpayer-funded generosity which is probably out of step with the rigours of their job.
Their salary is tied to that of the Chief Justice of the High Court, and exceeds that of the Prime Minister who, unlike the Governor-General, must go to the people every three years to seek re-election.
As the Monty Python sketch reminds us – “King, hey? Well I didn’t vote for you!” – the nice thing about landing a gig with that unusual family in our glorious motherland is that there’s no performance reviews.
Since the ill-fated republican referendum, and particularly in light of the policy tensions between John Howard and Sir William Deane over indigenous issues, there’s been an on-again, off-again debate about whether the G-G plays any real role at all any more. Save for the swearing in of ministers and delivering the PM’s speech at the opening of Parliament, the statesmanlike role of the Governor-General is now blurred with the office of the Prime Minister. This goes to being our mourner-in-chief when our troops die serving their country overseas, or when civilians fall prey to an act of terror or a natural catastrophe, and on happier occasions when simply cheering on our many national teams at major sporting events.
These days the Prime Minister often takes the lead on those occasions, with the G-G bringing up the rear. Whether that’s a 400k-a-year job is something many Australians would question. Others would probably shrug their shoulders and argue that as the Queen’s representative in Australia, and having the ultimate legal responsibility for resolving a constitutional crisis, the position by definition must attract a level of remuneration that reflects the importance of the office.
It is much harder to argue that the generosity should continue once their tenure has ended. Peter Hollingworth is pocketing an annual pension of $271,968, which is almost 10 times the average weekly wage. It’s not a bad package for a guy who succeeded only in being disliked while in office. And as I said at the outset, none of these people are exactly being rescued from a life of poverty on the occasion of their appointment.
Drawn as they often are from the ranks of the military and judiciary, you could imagine them standing around at the right garden parties in the leafy streets of Manuka in the nation’s capital when a vacancy suddenly arises. As such it’s more than fair to have a look at the manner in which they are showered with riches until the day they die, in return for doing a job which is largely ceremonial, which imposes pretty limited demands on them at the time, and none whatsoever upon its completion.
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