Paul Bongiorno: The office of Governor-General is broken and needs replacing

Scott Morrison’s secret ministries have thrown a shadow over the highest office in our land, providing further evidence that a Governor-General is no longer fit for purpose.

Though the current incumbent David Hurley, appointed by then prime minister Scott Morrison in 2018, has not trashed the conventions in the same way as his predecessor Sir John Kerr did in 1975 by sacking prime minister Gough Whitlam, he has nonetheless exposed fatal flaws in the system.

Assistant Minister for the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, sums it up very well – “there is no rule book” for how our derivative head of state should behave.

There are just conventions or “gentlemen’s agreements” – the actors in these dramas invariably turn out to be power-grabbing alpha males.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will later today, after discussions with his cabinet ministers, release the advice of the Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue on whether Morrison acted legally in furtively cloning five ministries.

Matt Thistlethwaite: There is no Governor-General “rule book”.

But again, on Monday Albanese was taking out insurance against an expected finding of legality being taken as exoneration for his defeated opponent Morrison.

“There’s separate questions about the functioning of our democracy, about conventions and whether any have been overturned, and whether there is a need for any reforms required to ensure that something like this can never happen again.”

In the short term that means clarifying the powers of the Governor-General and at the very least requiring by law that all ministerial appointments, even temporary ones are publicised.

It now appears that Morrison used a temporary arrangement usually applied to acting ministers to make himself a secret dual minister without time limitation.

After Morrison advised the Governor-General to commission him in this way it is clear those “gentlemen’s agreements” no longer serve a key tenet of our democracy.

The very basis of responsible government is knowing who to hold responsible and on that, Morrison not only betrayed the trust of his ministers, he undermined authentic accountability.

The role of Hurley here is critical; he claims it was not his responsibility to publicise these arrangements.

But it has now emerged that since December 2019 his office stopped reporting to the Senate an indexed list of files chronicling all his official activities.

This requirement was legislated back in 1994.

Greens senator David Shoebridge says “it is a pretty stark coincidence that this refusal to provide transparency happens just six months after David Hurley takes on the role of Governor-General.”

A job given to him by Scott Morrison.

According to The Australian Financial Review the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, acting on its own authority says, “there needs to be a better system of notifying the public when ministers are appointed”.

There also needs to be a better system on appointing the Governor-General according to those ferocious guardians of the status quo, the Australian Monarchist League.


These conventions can only be changed by constitutional referendum, so while we are at it we should repatriate our head of state.

After managing to torpedo the 1999 Republic referendum by running, among other claims, the argument “if it ain’t broken why fix it?”, its chair Philip Benwell, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition “should arrive at a joint nomination”.

The fact is, any number of decorated gentlemen have trashed the conventions despite being conservatives who pretend to uphold them, nothing short of codification of the rules will suffice.

But the rub is these conventions can only be changed by constitutional referendum, so while we are at it we should repatriate our head of state.

The Australian Republic Movement says left unchanged they are “ticking time bombs”, as we saw in 1975 and again in other manifestations in 2020 and 2021.

The lie that the Governor-General is the de facto top of our constitutional pile is demolished by the fact they are appointed by the Queen and derive their authority from the Crown of this foreign monarch.

The position of Governor-General began as representing the monarch’s government at Westminster but in the intervening years both in London and Canberra all other legal ties have been severed.

It is ironic that Scott Morrison, an avowed constitutional monarchist, has broken another of the conventions, and that is as prime minister he should do nothing to drag the Crown into controversy or contention lest its standing be damaged.

People at the local supermarket may not be talking about it but these are real issues that need to be addressed to allow Australians to keep making the proud boast that we “live in a free country”.

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