Politics Opinion

Governor-General should be accountable for role in Morrison scandal

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Governor-General David Hurley (right) with former Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Governor-General's role in Scott Morrison's secret power grab highlights a desperate need for transparency in Australian politics, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

DAVID HURLEY, the Governor-General, should be considering his position this week.

If he agreed to the secret appointment of former PM Scott Morrison as a duplicate minister in five portfolios, he was, whether or not unaware, complicit in an undermining of the parliamentary system.

That is how it was described by the Labor Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and his immediate predecessor bar one, Malcolm Turnbull, from the Liberal Party, called it sinister.

Time to ring up the Queen?

If it has not already happened, this would be an appropriate time for Albanese to ring up Queen Elizabeth II — believe it or not, Australia’s Head of State. He would need to tell Hurley in advance and advise him not to try and head him off. He would discuss with the Queen whether Hurley’s role as her deputy is sustainable. Perhaps he might then advise her to sack the Governor-General, with the Australian Government then to recommend a replacement.

After all, the episode has dredged up once more the sore issue of a Queen’s appointee at Yarralumla, Government House in Canberra, colluding with the Leader of the Liberal Party on the manipulation of government affairs.

Kerr again?

In 1975, it was the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, conferring in secret with the Liberals’ Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, ahead of his Dismissal of the Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. As Whitlam, himself a barrister, would say, it was the secrecy and collusion that damned the act as inimical to the system of parliamentary government.

He received no help from the Queen, who let it be known she considered she had no power to intervene. Great efforts were required to find out whether any advance information was provided to Buckingham Palace from Kerr, especially work by the distinguished researcher, Professor Jenny Hocking, who had to go to the High Court to get documents made public.

Results were disquieting: Kerr had been in touch, discussing his ‘constitutional position’ by letter, including contact with Prince Charles, the man who would be King of Australia. Any exchanges with the Prince’s mother appeared to have been through intermediaries.

Fed up with royal shenanigans

You may expect that the Labor side of Australian politics, the government side at this time, while handling the Morrison matter carefully, will be fed up with all these royal shenanigans.

The Government has made public the extent of Scott Morrison’s assumption of other ministers’ portfolios during the period 2019 to 2021, while he was PM. Informed opinion to date goes along the lines that this was a misuse of powers that might be justified only in emergencies; would cause grievous problems if the co-signatory ministers (Morrison and the actual minister in each case) were in disagreement; might make decisions that were taken now open to legal challenge; and paints Morrison as a would-be dictator — as Albanese remarked, running a tinpot regime.

Morrison has replied that he needed to take extraordinary action during the COVID crisis, an explanation that might be marketed to friends, easily enough, in the case of him being secretly appointed as the joint Health Minister — but it gets weak in regard to his other extra jobs: Treasury, Finance, Home Affairs and Resources.

Avid for power

It signified an uncommon will to wield and hold on to personal power, with a clear tinge of arrogance about it. At least he did not aspire to direct control of the armed forces, in that way different from his friend and mentor Donald Trump, the former American President.

But speaking of soldiery, what is the position right now of David Hurley? Over 40 years of service as a recognised good officer and four years also as Governor of New South Wales is the kind of blameless and loyal profile usually thought suitable to carry out the functions of Governor-General. It then becomes one of those roles dignified and embellished with symbols of power and state, an intriguing mix of pompous hoopla and good intentions.

Complicated titles are part of it: as the current office holder, he is called officially, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd.).

Who is legitimate?

The trouble is, how legitimate is that role, against the legitimacy of a government that gets elected and plays by the rules? Elections are not frivolous, to judge by the intensity and the engagement of many serious-minded people in the contest that removed the Morrison Government in May. 

There is a retort, a reserve argument for monarchy that Trump, while highly ambivalent about preserving democracy,  was elected, becoming both the Head of Government with many portfolios under his thumb and also Head of State. Similarly, they say that Hitler was elected, clearing him to set up a reign of terror across Europe — and so on.

The counter-retort posits that a hereditary ruler could not have contained a Trump; that a royal echelon with special links to security services and the armed forces is itself a “deep state” arrangement capable of going really bad; that democracy is both a terribly inadequate system while also the best there is.

Who is Hurley?

David Hurley admits no sign of being a devious-Hurley, saying in defence of his failure to post Morrison’s special appointments on the GG website, that it was not his prerogative:

“The decision whether to publicise appointments to administer additional portfolios is a matter for the government of the day.”

He may be a hapless-Hurley. Military politics is no protected zone and senior officers have to make senior decisions. But it is no automatic preparation for the mean streets, the rubbish and venality, insincerity, deviousness and blood-letting that comes routinely with parliamentary politics.

(In that world, nobody has to salute anybody else, nobody has to do as they are told unless coerced, the enemy is not wearing foreign uniforms, they are immediately in front of you, or at your back.)

In June, he got a taste of what can happen at such a backyard level, literally, after giving an endorsement to the builder who renovated his house, helping out with the gentleman’s advertising — a wee “scandal”.

What next?

In the empty phrase of Boris Yeltsin, the drunken boofhead who assisted Vladimir Putin to succeed him as President of Russia, the “coming times will bring developments”. Whether Scott Morrison escapes “Scott-free” or goes to a parliamentary enquiry, or even gets to feature in a royal commission, a concomitant of the whole process must the recognition that he could not have done it alone.

Unlike Emperor Napoleon who put the crown on his own head, he did not quite appoint himself; he got himself appointed by David Hurley and those appointments were shrouded in secrecy. It would serve the interests of democratic government for both Morrison and Hurley to be called before whatever inquiries are to be conducted.

The government of the day is talking of government by deception and trashing of democracy, of an undermining of parliamentary government by the rabble and chaos of the Morrison Ministry. It reflects just a portion of other criticism from across the political community — right, centre and left. In light of such concerns, a process of inquiry would be a reassuring demonstration of accountability in the Australian system.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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