News Where is the Governor-General? And does it matter?

Where is the Governor-General? And does it matter?

Governor-General David Hurley in Jerusalem, Israel, in January but his low profile means he's rarely seen in Australia. Photo: AAP
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It was a simple Saturday night isolation tweet as a commercial TV station’s Anzac Day news rolled on.

Some 1700 ‘likes’ and 158 replies later, it seems many did not know.

And a fair share wondered where he had been during the coronavirus crisis, echoing earlier social media comments about the Governor-General’s low profile during the bushfire emergency.

Sure, it was only an unrepresentative Twitter flutter, but I think it’s fair to say David Hurley has not made much of an impression on the general population during his 10 months as GG, not cast much of a shadow.

He’d be pretty safe walking down the street to grab a coffee without being recognised – if there was anyone on the street at present.

In fairness, his two predecessors were bigger personalities.

Peter Cosgrove had more profile before he started and Quentin Bryce had the bonus of novelty, being the only woman to be given the job, assisted by her endless style.

Both simply had presence and were visible, making them hard acts to follow.

David Hurley doesn’t have novelty value.

Like three of the past four GGs, he’s a former soldier.

Like Quentin Bryce’s predecessor, Michael Jeffery, (if anyone remembers) he had previously played the role “off Broadway” as a state Governor.

Outside Vice Regal and military circles, he might be best known as being the husband of Linda Hurley, who enjoys hula-hooping while reading the Bible.

By all accounts, General Hurley is a fine man and a good bloke who takes representing the Queen very seriously and likes to do it in an unostentatious manner.

“You have shown yourself to be generous, approachable, humble, humane and as someone who looks people straight in the eye, not up and down,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said when his appointment was sworn in.

Certainly a successful GGship is not a matter of achieving publicity.

On that basis, Sir John Kerr would be the most outstanding occupant of Yarralumla, followed by Peter Hollingworth. (It seems to be after the Archbishop that Liberal governments retreated to the safety of appointing generals.)

There are nonetheless two questions raised by the lack of public perception of the current GG, his perceived low profile:

  • Is that the result of General Hurley’s personal style and desire – or is that the preference of the Prime Minister?
  • What do we want and expect of a Governor-General anyway?

The job pays well and comes with excellent fringe benefits – weekends in Admiralty House, Sydney waterfront, the meaning of life.

But, at its essence, it’s also rather silly – a rather meaningless figurehead.

A one-in-119-year dismissal notwithstanding, the core tasks of prescribed formalities – signing this and that, swearing people in – could be done very cheaply by any half-competent adjutant.

(The then-Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, might have had that in mind in 1996 when he appointed the very competent Gordon Samuels as the state’s governor but ditched the official residence. It took 15 years before Barry O’Farrell moved a governor back into the regal pile because “a lot of people believe the governor should live at Government House, that’s what it was built for”.)

The core responsibilities get beefed up by various non-essentials, such as at least nominally overseeing the Australia Day honours list and as many good works and patronships the incumbent chooses to take on.

Which gets to the difficulty of that second question.

The job is pretty much whatever the GG of the time wants to make it, but what should it be?

I blame Sir William Deane for making it hard for Governors-General.

He elevated the role into one of compassionate representation, not of a distant foreign queen, but of Australians.

He had the eloquence and humanity to express us.

Bill Deane changed our expectations of GGs when he was called upon to represent the country in Switzerland in 1999 at a service for 14 Australians who died in a canyoning tragedy.

He and his wife had taken 14 sprigs of wattle from Canberra to release in the Saxeten River.

“It is still winter at home,” he said and that is the name that has been given to his speech.

“But the golden wattles are coming into bloom. Just as these young men and women were in the flower of their youth.

“And when we are back in Australia we will remember how the flowers and the perfume and the pollen of their and our homeland were carried down the river where they died to Lake Brienz in this beautiful country on the far side of the world. May they all rest with God.”

Few people have Bill Deane’s gifts and intelligence, but that’s what we’d like in a GG, if we have to have one.

Someone non-political to offer grace and unity in adversity, joy and happiness in celebrations, and not with half an eye on opinion polls.

Maybe we should appoint poets.