Australia A governor’s role: listening and learning — and then fighting for regional Australians
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Within minutes of Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young being given the plum job of state governor, the inevitable question arose: monarchist or republican?
“I think that is irrelevant in this situation,’’ she said. “I’m here to provide a role that’s really important and I think that our process of government in Queensland and in Australia is to be envied around the world.’’
I’d read that as republican — but who cares?
The position of governor is crucial in Australian states, and irrespective of whether the nation eventually declares itself a republic is a role that must remain embedded in our system.
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The reason for that is twofold. First, governors provide a check on executive power. And while it is a common view that they rubberstamp each piece of legislation, that is not true.
Recently I co-wrote the book The Governors of Modern Queensland, and in the process interviewed the past five governors, most premiers of that time, and dozens of other people. And overwhelmingly — despite the public view that our governors live in posh, publicly funded houses and sip tea from china cups — they are regularly active, behind the scenes, questioning legislative plans put in front of them.
One of Queensland’s most senior public servants and now agent-general in London Dave Stewart said: “The government will brief the governor regularly on significant issues and the governor will sometimes ask to be briefed. Until [the governor] has signed off, a decision doesn’t have legitimacy.”
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Former governor Penelope Wensley used that role, more than most, to ask for more information — and to challenge decisions.
Part of the role includes soft diplomacy or lobbying for change. And after travelling through Queensland in recent decades governors have picked up the phone and influenced decisions on issue including Indigenous communities, western roads, and child protection.
When Peter Arnison was governor he made approaches to the then-government over Indigenous communities, for example. Yarrabah, near Cairns, had a problem with its residents’ right to build their own houses in a community built exclusively from public housing.
He found the government receptive to his representations: “There’s no use going out and seeing all that and then not doing anything about it. People understand the limits of what you can do but I used to say that you really have to understand that I don’t have a chequebook. The premier has the chequebook, but I can bring your messages up to [the premier].”
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However there’s a second, perhaps bigger, reason to keep the role of governor — no matter if and when Harry and Meghan and the rest of them turn us into a republic.
In expansive states like Queensland, where the city often steals the limelight and the funding, people in rural and remote regions feel unheard. And if you ask a mayor — republican or monarchist — whether the job of state governor should remain the answer is a resounding yes.
That’s because travelling politicians wander through rural areas — usually during an election campaign — to build their image and garner votes. Governors come to listen.
Take Cairns Mayor Bob Manning. He’s a republican, but says the role of state governor should be bottled.
“It gives people a sense of worthiness, of belief in themselves, a sense that other people are aware of us and care about us … that we’re playing a part in this state,’’ he said.
In recent years, the outgoing governor Paul de Jersey has staged regional government house — in the way some governments hold rural cabinets. In 2018 it was in Cairns, and the itinerary included 15 flights over 5870km, visits to seven council areas and three Indigenous communities. There were 43 community events, six school visits, six community receptions, six media interviews, about 15 speeches and a flower show opening.
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John Ferguson, the mayor of Bulloo, in western Queensland, goes by the name of “Tractor”. He says the merit of any governor is them being seen as apolitical, and that provided a genuine boost to country people fighting natural disaster and hard times.
De Jersey visited the town of Hungerford — which only nine people call home — in Ferguson’s patch. “On the day the governor visited I think about 700 people turned up to see him. I saw people in Hungerford from way out near Charleville … They all came to see the governor.’’
Strong republican and director of Foodbank Queensland David Muir says his support for Government House is directly related to the huge boost it provides hundreds and hundreds of charities each year.
From homelessness to foster children, poverty and the Country Women’s Association, the patronage of a governor can open people’s pockets as well as their hearts. That’s why it’s irrelevant whether Young is a monarchist or a republican.
Disclaimer: Madonna King and David Fagan wrote The Governors of Modern Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 2021.
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