“Resign” is the increasingly popular refrain when someone prominent in society is perceived to have committed an error. Often the demand is made irrespective of the seriousness of the mistake or the impact of such an outcome on the alleged offender and his or her family.
I am not calling for the resignation of Kate Warner AM, the governor of Tasmania, following her decision to take part in what turned out to be a political demonstration in Hobart last weekend. However, there is a strong case that Professor Warner should not repeat such an error in the future.
Last Saturday Warner took part in a “Walk Together” event that was organised by a group calling itself Welcome to Australia. The aim of the occasion was to send out a message that all citizens and residents of Australia are welcome. There is no problem with this stance. After all, it represents the position of Australia’s three largest political groupings: the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.
The problem, from the perspective of the Queen’s representative in Tasmania, was that some demonstrators specifically opposed the position of One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson that there should be a cessation of Muslim immigration to Australia. Rather than avoiding being identified with the rally’s criticism of Hanson, Warner consciously walked into a live political debate.
According to reports by The Australian and the ABC, the Governor of Tasmania told the rally: “I think we must call out racism and stand up to intolerance. And, as Governor of Tasmania, I’m very proud to stand up and say welcome to Australia to all asylum-seekers and immigrants, no matter what colour or creed …. She [Pauline Hanson] declared that Australia was being swamped by Muslims and in which she reiterated her call for a ban on Muslim immigration. I think it’s so important for Australians who oppose her views to stand up and be counted.”
If Warner had not made personal comments about Hanson, the Governor’s speech would have made little impact. However, Warner directed political criticism at an elected politician. Irrespective of anyone’s view of the Governor’s sentiments, the expression of this view sets a dangerous precedent.
If it is OK for the Governor of Tasmania to call on Australians to oppose Hanson then, logically, it should be OK for another state governor, or for the Governor-General, to call on Australians to support Hanson’s views. In which case, at least two of the Queen’s representatives in Australia would be in open disagreement.
If Warner wants to be involved in the public debate, she should have remained in her previous occupation of law professor and director of the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute. However, Warner chose to become temporarily apolitical when she took up her position in Hobart’s stately Government House. Or, rather, should have become apolitical for the duration of her term.
Tasmanian Liberal Party premier Will Hodgman said he has discussed the matter with the Governor and added that he retained confidence in her. This is the appropriate response. However, Labor and the Greens in Tasmania have supported Warner’s comments.
Unlike Hodgman, Labor and the Greens seem unaware of the potential problems in a governor taking part in the political debate. An election is due in Tasmania in March 2018 and could be called earlier. The state has a Hare-Clark proportional election system — like that which prevails in Senate elections — which means, in effect, that there is usually only a small difference in the number of elected parliamentarians between the government and opposition.
It’s not impossible that One Nation could win one or more seats in the next state election in Tasmania and could be involved in the formation of a minority government. In such a scenario, the Governor of Tasmania could be called on to decide which party leader could command support in the House of Assembly. It would be embarrassing if, in such a situation, claims were made about the perception of bias with respect to the Governor.
Tasmanian governors with legal backgrounds have developed a propensity in recent times to speak out on political matters. I liked the late Peter Underwood, the former Tasmanian Supreme Court chief justice who was governor of Tasmania from 2008 until his death in office in 2014. However, I thought he grievously breached the convention that governors and governors-general should refrain from engaging too heavily in the political debate. On Anzac Day 2014, Underwood gave a controversial speech at the Cenotaph in Hobart. He criticised what he termed “the sentimental myths that Anzac Day has attracted” along with the commemorations of the centenary of the First World War.
Underwood specifically attacked the decisions of the Anzac Centenary Advisory Board set up to advise the Gillard/Rudd and Abbott governments on the commemorations. Moreover, he urged that the federal government “divert some of the millions of dollars that will be spent on the ‘Anzac festival’ to provide proper support for the University of Sydney’s Centre of Peace and Conflict Studies”. This centre is run by the leftist academic, and avowed critic of Israel, Jake Lynch. If Underwood felt so strongly about such issues he could have stepped down as governor of Tasmania and supported the cause of Lynch’s taxpayer-subsidised outfit. He didn’t do so but chose to use his public status to proclaim his personal views.
From time to time governors-general and governors have got themselves involved in the political debate — most notably, Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson during the time of the First World War as a supporter of conscription for overseas service.
However, few if any of the Queen’s representatives in Australia have involved themselves in a Warner-style public criticism of a party leader. And few if any have made such a political speech as Underwood. It seems that, in recent times, those who live at taxpayers’ expense on the banks of the Derwent River feel the need to lecture-at-large to the rest of us.