Jun 24, 2003

Governor-General Amendment Bill 2003: Second Reading


24 June 2003

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.58 p.m.) —I second the amendment. If the Australian people heard that there was going to be a debate in the parliament today about the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2003, I think it is fair to assume that they would have thought that it was a debate about an appropriate appointment to the position. One of the things exposed by the crisis surrounding Dr Hollingworth’s incumbency of the position of Governor-General is the inadequacy of the democratic process in the appointment of the Governor-General.

The bill before us today simply proposes to amend the Governor-General Act 1974 to set the official salary of the next Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, who will take office on 11 August. I congratulate Major General Jeffery on his appointment. I have not met him, but I certainly hope that he goes a long way to restoring faith in the highest office in the land. The bill increases the sum payable to the Governor-General from $310,000 to $365,000. The proposed salary has been set so that it moderately exceeds the estimated average salary of the Chief Justice of the High Court. This principle is consistent with the convention that has applied since 1974.

In moving the amendment today, Labor are putting on record our concern about the failure of the democratic process to allow the Australian people input into the choosing of the Governor-General. We outlined the proposal put forward on 26 May—a constructive proposal by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Barton—which would improve the accountability of that process. We also seek to reaffirm the need for greater public accountability, as provided by my private member’s bill—which has not been brought on for debate in this House. That would allow for the Governor-General’s annual report to be considered and commented upon by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and, ultimately, by all members of parliament.

I also have a private member’s motion before the parliament. Again, the Leader of the House ensured that it would not be brought on for debate. The motion dropped off the Notice Paper because it was not debated during yesterday’s private members’ business. My motion would delete standing order 74 in recognition that no holder of a public office should be above parliamentary scrutiny—a fact accepted by most parliamentarians and overwhelmingly supported by the Australian public.

Under this bill, which had to be rushed through the House due to the circumstances in which the convention operates, the Governor-General will receive an annual pay rise of $55,000, or more than $1,000 a week. The person who has carriage of this bill, none other than the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, happily moved a motion granting this $1,000 a week increase. It is consistent with what is occurring in many of the upper echelons of our society. Indeed, we parliamentarians on 1 July will receive a four per cent increase in our salary. But that pales into insignificance when compared with the incomes of the top 100 CEOs which, not counting retirement benefits, have increased in 2003 by an average of 38 per cent—an average pay rise of more than $10,500 a week. The extra pay earned by top CEOs in just a fortnight is equivalent to the entire annual pre-tax income of employees on the current federal minimum wage of $22,432.

The Governor-General’s salary is linked to members of the judiciary. Federal Court judges have just received a pay rise of up to $28,000, or nine per cent, a year. The High Court Chief Justice will now receive $336,450 and Federal Court and Family Court judges will now receive $284,910. There is a big difference here from average Australians—and average Australians will be concerned about a bill increasing a salary by $55,000 in one hit. In contrast, 1.7 million low-paid workers were awarded a pay rise of $15 to $17 a week in the latest Industrial Relations Commission safety net wage case. But even this miserable pay rise was opposed by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who is at the table, who believed that low-paid workers should have received only an extra $10 a week. Almost nine out of every 10 new jobs created in the 1990s paid less than $26,000 a year; nearly half paid less than $15,000 a year.

Since 1996, the real wage rise for a typical low-paid worker was only 2.6 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for a typical high-paid employee. So I think this bill today will be of some concern to the community. It should be put on the record that people in electorates such as Grayndler, Batman and, indeed, workers in the electorates of Warringah and Lowe will not receive this sort of pay increase. Not only will they not receive it but also for many of them it might be three or four times the salary on which they have to keep themselves and their families. It is important that this parliament recognises that.

While I and the Australian Labor Party have congratulated Major General Michael Jeffery on his appointment to this high office, we still maintain that the process for choosing our governors-general should involve wider consultation with the Australian people. Putting in place a process, as outlined in our amendment, that involves the Australian people and limits the prerogatives of the Prime Minister, whomever that might be, must be the fundamental lesson from the debacle that we have seen. There is also the need for a genuine consultative process for the selection of governors-general. I have attempted to legislate to ensure that the vice-regal position is not above public scrutiny and accountability.

It is now six months since I introduced into this House for debate the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2002 on 9 December last year. The government still has not allocated time in the parliamentary timetable—and there are only two Mondays left—for that bill to be considered and voted on. That is why Labor’s amendment incorporates much of the philosophy behind that bill. The Governor-General Amendment Bill 2002 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, ultimately, by all members of parliament. Currently the annual report is simply laid before each house of parliament and members and senators are prohibited from discussing or commenting on it. My bill is not revolutionary; it simply seeks to restore the accountability of the Governor-General to the parliament and therefore to the people of Australia.

A vibrant and effective democracy depends on the open and free exchange of views and opinions both amongst the wider community and inside our parliaments. However, as a result of a historical hangover from the time before Australia had even formed into 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 adapted from a similar convention governing Britain’s House of Commons. As I have reported before—as you would be aware, Mr Speaker—things have got better. In the old days, people were sent to the Tower of London for criticising their head of state. In some places in the world there are still measures that are even more draconian than those that operate here—draconian as they are. The latest issue of the Economist, dated 21 June 2003, reports:

Morocco’s appeal court upheld a prison sentence (but reduced the term from four to three years) against Ali Lmrabet, the editor of two satirical weeklies, who is accused of insulting the king. Mr Lmrabet has been on a hunger strike for over a month.

So, Mr Speaker, while you have the onerous duty of upholding standing order 74, it could be worse. In some places in the world you have to go on a hunger strike and almost kill yourself for being critical of the head of state.

Frankly, in a democracy it is important that freedom of speech be without exception. It might not be the case in Britain, where we inherited this from, but here in Australia we pride ourselves on our egalitarianism—on having a fair go, on treating everyone equally and on no-one being above the law, be they the Prime Minister, the Governor-General or, indeed, the Speaker or a member of the House of Representatives. We are all equal in this nation. That is why our parliamentary standing orders should reflect modern Australia in the 21st century and the draconian provisions of standing order 74 should be removed. I suggest that one of the by-products of Dr Hollingworth’s unfortunate circumstances is that, de facto, they have been removed because in recent times we have had to debate and scrutinise the Governor-General in this House. I give credit to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing a number of questions in the House such as that asked by the Leader of the Opposition on 13 May 2003, when he asked the Prime Minister:

Isn’t it the case that the Aspinall report found that at the time Dr Hollingworth made his decision to continue the known paedophile priest in the ministry he was aware that this person had repeatedly abused one boy as well as his brother? Prime Minister, didn’t Dr Hollingworth swear a statutory declaration in April this year, whilst he was Governor-General, claiming that he believed the priest’s abuse was an isolated occurrence? Prime Minister, doesn’t the report itself say in relation to that claim that there is no evidence that anyone told him that—

The SPEAKER —Gracious as he was to make concessions to the chair, I interrupt the member for Grayndler to point out that I am having a little difficulty linking his present remarks with the amendment, which I do not see has any reference to the Aspinall report, although they are relevant to the bill.

Mr ALBANESE —They are relevant to standing order 74 on what is allowed.

The SPEAKER —I point out to the member for Grayndler that he is drawing a long bow, because the amendment does not make specific reference to standing order 74.

Mr ALBANESE —Yes, it does, Mr Speaker.

The SPEAKER —I will take another look at the amendment. The member for Grayndler may continue but I point out that we are getting onto very thin ice.

Mr ALBANESE —When I helped write the amendment I made sure that it referred to standing order 74 so that I could make this point. To continue the question posed by Mr Crean:

… the parents and Bishop Noble did not, nor did the priest? Further in the report it states, `There was not the slightest basis for him to have that belief.’

That question was allowed in the parliament—as it should have been—because it would have been absurd if it had not been. The whole reason why we are having the debate on this bill today is that we are going to have a new Governor-General. Why do we need a new Governor-General? Because the former Governor-General had to step aside due to these controversial issues. It just shows that commonsense had to prevail—that archaic standing orders which simply do not have any commonsense eventually have to be considered for what they are. The amendment that we have moved today is simply in recognition of that. Compare that with the reason why I moved to amend the standing orders. My statement in the parliament last year, which I was pulled up on, was:

But none of these appointments matters when compared with the appointment of the Queen’s representative, our Governor-General.

That was a very moderate statement compared with the questions that were asked in this parliament to make sure that there was accountability and—thank goodness—to ensure that we can now move forward and uphold the dignity of the office of Governor-General, which was not being upheld during the controversy over Dr Hollingworth’s incumbency in that position.

All over the community—in the media and around the kitchen table—Australians were discussing the position of the previous Governor-General, but we in this parliament were very much limited. My bill would ensure the 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 situation 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 that is an un-Australian comment. I have a great deal of respect for Mr Sinclair, but he does not comprehend my view that we in this country believe in egalitarian principles and that in fact no-one is above the law. That applies to other citizens—which is why we have had this controversy.

We have moved this amendment to give the government an opportunity to recognise that we were right in introducing the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2002 and the private member’s motion. The Australian people currently do not have the right to choose their head of state, as is shown by this bill today. The Australian people should at the very least be allowed to participate in the selection of the Governor-General in the way which our amendment outlines. They should also be allowed to have democratically elected representatives comment on the performance of the Governor-General.

I do not hide the fact that I am a republican but, while the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, is our head of state, they have to be a figure of national unity; and you do not create national unity and consensus by having provisions which stop democratic accountability. The great affection and respect that Australians had for Sir William Deane during his tenure—due to the role that he played—was something which Major General Jeffery can look towards and hopefully emulate himself, because it is time that we restored the public’s faith in our public institutions. There is a great deal of disquiet within this nation, not just about the Governor-General but also about institutions of parliament and alienation from public institutions. Just as we need to be accountable, we need to make every office in the land accountable to the people of Australia—through a process of selection but also by scrutiny of performance.

The amendment which has been moved by my colleague the member for Barton, and which I am very proud to second, would do that. It would be a small step forward to ensure that the next time a Governor-General is selected—and it will not be under a conservative government, given the term of office—

Mr Abbott interjecting—

Mr ALBANESE —of the member for Warringah and others—there is a better system. There is a better way. The current system is simply undemocratic and inappropriate for Australia in 2003.