Governor-General Amendment (Salary) Bill 2019

House of Representatives Bill   

Watch Matt's speech here

Sometimes in the life of a parliamentarian you see the list of legislation coming before this House and you do start to scratch your head at some of the truly remarkable things that we have to turn our attention to! It's remarkable that today, as we get ever closer to the next federal election, and as we think about the dying minutes of this parliament's capacity to debate important legislation, we bring ourselves now to debate the Governor-General Amendment (Salary) Bill 2019. This is a piece of legislation that reminds us deeply of the anachronism that is the constitutional monarchy that we exist within today.

It is an important piece of legislation for a number of reasons, though. It's important because, under the terms of our Constitution, the salary of the Governor-General cannot be amended during the term of that Governor-General. So it is absolutely vital that we as a parliament turn our minds to that salary before the term of a new incoming Governor-General commences—in this case, the Hon. David Hurley AC, who will be sworn in in June. It is important that this legislation passes the parliament properly so that his salary can be set in accordance with section 3 of the Constitution.

But in doing that, it does remind us all that what we're doing here is not in terms of setting the salary of the person who is our head of state and we're not setting the salary of the person who is actually the head of our government. What we're doing is setting the salary of a person who is, effectively, the viceroy of Australia—the person who comes into this place when we convene for the first time as the nation's parliament after an election to commence the parliament in the place of a person who is our monarch; in the place of the person who very rarely ever visits this great country of ours. This is a person whose opportunity to hold that office as our head of state is dictated by who their parents were.

Now, I don't cast any aspersion on the individual person who is currently our head of state, our monarch, because people who have done that previously in this parliament have been found ejected from their seats and by-elections called. What I do draw to the House's attention is that in having to have this discussion and this debate, and in having to deal with this legislation, I think it is worthwhile remembering and thinking about who the representative of the monarch in Australia, the holder of the office of Governor-General, is and what it is that that office represents.

As I said before, that is the office, effectively, of viceroy—an office that has been overthrown in so many other parts of the world where they have recognise the importance of having one of their own as their own head of state. They have recognised the deep discrimination that exists in the concept of monarchy. I say that particularly as someone who comes from a long line of Irish Catholic stock. It is not just the fact that I'm not a member of the royal family that would prevent me from ever becoming the head of state of Australia but it is my religious faith that would prevent me from ever becoming the head of state of this nation under our current constitutional arrangements.

This brings me to the very interesting fact, I think, that the first Australian-born Governor-General—the first Australian-born to hold that office—was also the first Jewish person to hold that office. Interestingly enough, there is no prohibition on a Jew becoming the head of state. They would have to be head of the Church of England, but there is no expressed prohibition, as exists for Catholics, to become the head of state. As such, I think that highlights just one part that the anachronism that is our constitutional arrangements.

I'd also like to draw the attention of the House to the point that when it comes to the very specifics of this bill: it's setting the salary. Rightly, the salary is determined by reference to the head of another arm of government, the Chief Justice of Australia. In this particular case, the salary of the incoming Governor-General will be slightly reduced to account for the fact that the incoming Governor-General is already receiving, rightly, a military pension. Usually the amount of money that will be paid to a Governor-General is much more than the holder of that office may have ever earnt in their entire life. For the person who holds the office of Chief Justice of Australia, usually their salary amounts to about 10 per cent of what they earned before they became a judge in our judicial system. There's quite a difference in the nature of the work performed.

In saying that, the role of Governor-General is not to be diminished; it's incredibly important. It's incredibly important in two ways. It's incredibly important because it holds the very serious role of attesting to bills that come through this parliament. It holds the very important role of providing some advice back to the executive. It performs the very important role of signing off matters that come through the federal executive council, largely in the forms of regulation and other forms of lower legislation that are handed over to the responsibility of the Governor-General in council. Those are very important roles. They performs a very important function. But, at the end of the day, that function is effectively one done only ever at the advice of, and because of the advice of, the democratically elected executive that comes from our parliaments, which shows the distinction that exists there in the functional role.

This is why the symbolism of the role is so important. It also provides an important function in representing our nation because, as I said before, our actual head of state never actually comes here. So we do need to have someone who is able to perform that role as the head of our nation that is above politics, that is not partisan, that is able to perform the role of bringing people together in many different ways and at different times—often at times of great national tragedy. Other speakers have spoken about the works of governors-general that have visited communities that have suffered from bushfire, have suffered from flood or are suffering from drought. That is an important role. It is important for those communities. My own community suffered devastating bushfire only a few years ago, and I know how important it is to have someone that is seen as the head of our nation visiting those communities, consoling those communities and letting them understand that the nation mourns and suffers with them. That is an important role that the Governor-General performs.

But there's a gap. There is a gap in the way the Governor-General can do that because they do that not as a representative of the entire polity of Australia; they do it as a representative of the monarch. Imagine how much more powerful the holder of that role would be in the eyes of the Australian community if they were able to visit those communities, to console, to offer support, to lend strength and to stand for the entire nation if they were able to do that as a truly Australian representative of Australians. That, I think, is something we should continue to strive towards. It's why it is so important that we don't just push the concept of an Australian head of state off to the side, off to the never-never, because we don't see it as the most pressing issue confronting our nation. I don't say that that is an issue more pressing than proper funding of our schools. I don't say that's an issue more pressing than the proper funding of our hospitals. But, unlike the current government, we believe that it is possible to walk and chew gum. It is possible to work on multiple issues confronting the nation at once, and that people want to be engaged in those discussions.

The office, in and of itself, is a historical anachronism. As I started these remarks, I highlighted that point. You pick up the list of legislation for this week and you think: 'We've got to do what? We've got to come in and set the salary for the Queen's representative here in Australia? Again?' Whilst it is an important constitutional requirement that the parliament does it, it does, as I say, continue to highlight this issue that we cannot just leave to the side—that we need to move forward as a nation and leave these shackles behind us. As I say at every citizenship ceremony that I attend, which I so love attending, we are a nation that is made great by our own diversity. We are a nation that continues to improve because of the diversity that we have in our nation, that continues to come here and that adds to the great, complex tapestry of over 60,000 years of Aboriginal history here.

I love going into my schools in my electorate and talking about the fact that, in Perth, we have had continual settlement on the banks of the Swan River, the Derbarl Yerrigan, for over 40,000 years. Everyone knows about the Colosseum, but it has only been there for a few thousand years. There has been continual settlement for 40,000 years on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan. The Aboriginal people of Perth, the Noongar and Whadjuk people, tell a great story of the Swan River and its making via a sea serpent and the path that it travelled to sea. What's fascinating about that story is that, in the story, the path that it takes is a pathway that has not been visible to human eyes for hundreds of years—indeed, thousands of years. We now know the path as Gage Roads, a deep trench off the shore of Western Australia, which our largest ships travel through out of port. It was the extension of the Swan River. During the Ice Age was the last time that it was seen. We need to capture that sort of history, and that is what has made Australia great. It is through adding diversity to that.

The issue that I have with having a constitutional monarchy is that that doesn't reflect Australia today. It doesn't even reflect the Australia that existed before colonisation. Australia has grown in different ways since that time, and all of those things should be celebrated. I am concerned that a constitutional monarchy does not reflect that.

I mentioned Sir Isaac Isaacs a little while ago, Australia's first Australian-born Governor-General. He was an outstanding person for that role and an outstanding leader. Indeed, before being appointed to that role, he was Chief Justice of Australia. He took a very significant pay cut to take up the role of Governor-General and lived that role in a frugal way, but as a representative of Australia. He was the first Governor-General to live full-time in Yarralumla. The people of Australia took it with such great pride and honour that there was a Governor-General actually resident in the Australian capital. The interesting thing about this is, firstly, that he was appointed by a great Australian Prime Minister. That great Australian Prime Minister was cut down because of world financial events and the way in which, again, the British aristocracy decided to dictate terms to Australia's finances.

Most importantly is the way in which that appointment came about. It was an appointment that was opposed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was an appointment that was opposed by the English government. It was an appointment that was opposed by George V. George V, in fact, did not want to take the advice—and I use that term legally—of the democratically elected government of Australia. But Scullin held firm. Prime Minister Scullin made it clear in a personal meeting—I tell you, I would love to know the transcript of that meeting—between George V and Prime Minister Scullion, and George V ceded. He ceded to the democratic sovereignty Australia to nominate and to advise the king as to who should hold the office of Governor-General of Australia. That was the turning point. That is a significant turning point that is not often reflected upon in Australian history or in this House. That was the first point, really, that an Australian Prime Minister literally stood up to an English king and told him how things were going to be in Australia.

It also highlights the problem that I started this contribution to the debate about. Why should an Australian Prime Minister have to travel to London to tell a king how Australia is going to be governed, how Australia wishes to have its affairs managed and who our head of state's representative—merely a representative—should be? No, it's rightfully time that Australia has its own head of state, Australian-born and Australian-selected. With that, of course, I support the bill. It's important that we support this bill for its passage before the end of the financial year and before the swearing in of the Honourable David Hurley AC, who I have absolutely no doubt will be another fine Governor-General for our nation. I merely hope that he's one of the last.