Sourcing Governor-Generals

Some discussion about filling the office of Governor-General has been sidetracked by desired diversity outcomes being advanced in isolation from longstanding key issues. Particularly by not acknowledging the skill sets needed and the effects this requirement can have in limiting the pool of qualified and available candidates. Moreover, it doesn't help broaden and diversify the pool of talent by complaining about a retired general (especially one who is a state governor) becoming Governor-General, without acknowledging why judges and generals have often been considered so suitable. Understanding what makes judges and generals particularly suitable in terms of non-partisanship, and replicating and institutionalising such strengths and cultural influences in other professions and backgrounds, is surely the best path to achieving real diversity.


Much comment is looking at the selection pool for Governor-General backwards.

There is little point bewailing the size, diversity or alleged narrow uniformity of the pool before acknowledging the skills set needed, and then noting the backgrounds and professional experiences most likely to produce such skills. And which tend to do so consistently.


The record

In the modern era, of the 18 Governors-General selected post-1931 (when Australia took full control of selection), we've had: 

  • 4 retired senior judges (Isaacs 1931-36, Kerr 1974-77, Stephen 1982-89, Deane 1996-2001);
  • 6 former politicians with senior ministerial experience (McKell 1947-53, Dunrossil 1960-61, De L’Isle 1961-65, Casey 1965-69, Hasluck 1969-74, Hayden 1989-96);
  • 4 retired senior military officers (Gowrie 1936-45, Slim 1953-60, Jeffery 2003-08, Cosgrove 2014-19);
  • 2 retired senior academics (Cowen 1977-82, Bryce 2008-14);
  • 1 retired senior clergyman (Hollingworth, 2001-03); and
  • 1 brother of the King (Gloucester, 1945-47).

Balancing essential and desirable career experience

There are surely three key and essential qualifications for a Governor-General:

  • they understand that the office is constitutionally and necessarily non-partisan, and is so in absolute terms;
  • they are able to undertake the role and duties accordingly; and
  • this is seen to be so.

All other things being equal, such knowledge, experience and non-partisan discipline means the opportunity to serve generally comes with age and after distinguished retirement from a profession or Parliament.

Of the eighteen Governors-General above, Bryce (Qld, 2003-08), Jeffery (WA, 1993-2000) and Gowrie (SA, 1928-34 and NSW, 1935-36) had also been state governors. Kerr had been a lieutenant-governor of NSW, 1973-74.

McKell was a former (Labor) NSW Premier, 1941-47. Of the other five politicians, all had been Cabinet Ministers (three in Australia and two in the UK).

Before becoming a High Court judge, 1906-30, Isaacs had also been a federal attorney-general, 1905-06.

Such backgrounds enable a good grasp of constitutional and machinery-of-government issues.

As does service on the High Court (Isaacs, Stephen, Deane). or a state supreme court (Kerr had been a Chief Justice). Cowen had been a law professor and university vice-chancellor. Bryce had been a senior statutory office holder on the Human Rights Commission. 

Of the three Australian ministers (two Coalition and one Labor), all three had also been Foreign Minister for long periods (Casey 1951-60, Hasluck 1964-69 and Hayden 1983-88).

Foreign affairs experience is invaluable to a Governor-General in their Head-of-State role representing Australia on official visits overseas, and in hosting foreign Heads-of-State, other foreign dignitaries and foreign ambassadors in Australia.

Of the two former UK Cabinet ministers, Dunrossil had just retired from being a longtime Speaker of the House of Commons, 1951-59; an office long known for the strong conventions governing the party-political neutrality of its occupant. De L'Isle, a VC winner at Anzio, was a UK Minister after World War II.

As the King's younger brother (and uncle of the present monarch) Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was well accustomed to the non-partisanship ethos needed for vice-regal duties.

Of the senior military officers, Slim (a UK field marshal) had commanded at strategic-theatre level in World War II, Cosgrove had been a Chief of Defence Force, and Jeffery had been a deputy head of the army and later governor of WA.  Gowrie, a World War I veteran, including Gallipoli, was later a governor of both SA and NSW. All had a mix of military and broader governmental experience.

Several in the other categories of career had military service in either or both World Wars.


The modern diversity and controversy conundrum 

In modern Australia, probably even more so than in the past, the nub of the problem is that few professions and other public backgrounds now have institutionally non-partisan professional cultures.

Institutionalised non-partisanship in a professional culture means whatever someone's personal political inclinations may be, the execution of their duties has to be, and generally is, scrupulously apolitical.

The judiciary and defence force stand out in this regard, hence the number of Governors-General with such professional backgrounds.

In nearly all other professions and walks of life, there is now either no requirement for strict professional non-partisanship and the avoidance of political controversy, or only lip service is now paid to the concept.

This is not to say there are no people from wider backgrounds with genuine qualifications and attributes to act in the required non-partisan manner.

The problem is instead finding them and, to an extent, the public accepting their non-partisanship qualifications are geniuine. Bryce and Hollingworth, for example, had some difficulties with managing perceptions about their private partisan sympathies.

Particularly as with no active institutional culture of non-partisanship, the ability of a profession or walk of life to generate, or consistently generate, suitable candidates for Governor-General is much reduced. 


Polarisation and political partisanship shrinks the availability of diversity

Those calling for a wider pool – either seeking a genuine diversity outcome or ignoring non-partisanship on ideological grounds – need to address a major reality of Australian public life.

Now greatly exacerbated by the effects of social media, we live in an era of increasing political polarisation across our public life nationally.

This political polarisation, and the public perceptions it generates, now actively work against more diversity in Governor-General candidacies. Especially by disqualifying many people who are prominent in public life but are clearly self-identified, or publicly identified with a particular side of politics.

The problem with finding more diverse candidates is not really one of ethnicity, gender or age (the pale, male or stale over-simplification in isolation).

Nor is it just a risk of contemporary political, social or cultural fashions prompting consideration of candidates who meet a diversity objective but who lack demonstrable experience in, and a public reputation for, the exercise of disciplined and genuine non-partisanship in public duties. 

The real difficulty Australia now faces is finding suitably prominent and experienced citizens who can and must be genuinely non-partisan – and be broadly accepted as such.

Preferably also with substantial experience of machinery-of-government processes, foreign affairs and community outreach.

It may well be that diversity of Governors-General will only broaden when those from other than professional backgrounds known for their non-partisanship are first tested, and publicly accepted as non-partisan, by having been successful state governors.



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