Dec 9, 2002

Governor-General – Amendment Bill

GOVERNOR-GENERAL AMENDMENT BILL 2002: First Reading

9 December 2002

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (1.11 p.m.)—The Governor-General Amendment Bill 2002 bill seeks to amend the Governor-General Act 1974 to require that the Governor-General’s annual report be considered and commented on by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and then ultimately by all members of parliament. Currently the annual report is simply laid before each house of the parliament with members and senators prohibited from discussing or making comments on it. This bill is not revolutionary; it simply seeks to restore the accountability of the Governor-General to the Parliament of Australia. We should expect nothing less. A vibrant and effective democracy depends on the open and free exchange of views and opinions amongst the wider community as well as inside our parliaments. However, as a result of a historical hangover from a time before Australia had even formed a nation, any criticism or discussion of the Queen or her representative, the Governor-General, is banned from federal parliament. This restriction is imposed by standing order 74, which was adopted from a similar convention governing Britain’s House of Commons.

I have also sponsored a private member’s motion, which, in conjunction with this bill, seeks to remedy this situation and ensure that this parliament is able to consider and discuss all issues of national importance, including the performance of the Governor-General. Across the community, in the media and around the kitchen table, Australians are discussing the performance of our Governor-General, but no such debate is permitted in the federal parliament amongst our democratically elected representatives. This is a shame. My motivation for tabling this bill is to ensure public accountability of whoever holds the office of Governor-General and the manner in which they conduct their public duties and responsibilities. Those who defend the current embargo on parliamentary discussion about the performance of our governors-general had their motivation for doing so blatantly exposed by the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ian Sinclair. Justifying his opposition to any change, Mr Sinclair told ABC Radio on 31 October:

The monarch is seen as a person who is a little bit above the laws that apply to every other citizen.

I believe most Australians would consider such a situation obscene and alien to Australia’s egalitarian principles. Despite his intentions, Mr Sinclair’s contribution simply underlines why the status quo is no longer tenable. No public office holder is above the law and no public office should be shielded from parliamentary scrutiny. It is that simple.

The government’s position with respect to my bill is nothing short of hypocrisy. While the government, through the Leader of the House, has indicated its support for the retention of the current situation, claiming that the office of Governor-General `should be above party politics’, it has spent the last 6½ years undermining just about every public institution in this country for its own ideological purposes. It has not only politicised institutions that are meant to be independent of the executive arm of government but also systematically sought to manipulate and subject them to the electoral agenda of the Liberal and National parties. It has nobbled the federal Public Service through the removal of numerous departmental heads and replaced them with people the Prime Minister can trust.

During the children overboard affair the government politicised and manipulated the defence department for its own political advantage. Twelve of the government’s 14 appointments to the IRC have been from employer backgrounds. Also, it stacked the board of the ABC with Liberal Party apparatchiks and mates of the Prime Minister. We now have the rumour that Peter Reith will be the next to be appointed. But the most disturbing example the government’s hypocrisy is the way in which it let one of its own, from the safety of parliamentary privilege, launch a vicious and personal attack on High Court Judge Michael Kirby. The subsequent apology could never repair the damage done. Of course, Tony Abbott’s memorable campaign of hysteria against politicians during the republic referendum showed that some conservatives are even prepared to denigrate parliamentary democracy itself.

The Australian people currently do not have the right to choose their head of state. At the very least, our democratically elected representatives should be able to comment on the vice-regal performance. I am a republican and proud of it. But whilst the Governor-General, as the Queen’s representative, is our head of state, he or she must be a figure of national unity and inspire respect and affection, which Sir William Deane successfully achieved during his tenure. It is time to restore the public’s faith in our public institutions. Let us start by making the highest office in the land accountable to this parliament. I commend the bill to the House and call upon the government to have a full debate and a vote on this private member’s bill.

Bill read a first time.