Last week, I was reminded of the comparative miracle of Australian democracy. Whereas one of our Commonwealth cousins has had Chief Justices imprisoned of late, the sensible if not arguably overly conservative father-in-law of Eric Bana, Murray Gleeson, departed the bench after years of distinguished service to the people of both New South Wales and Australia. Long may he enjoy his retirement. Gleeson was replaced by a similarly sensible, eminent and well-rounded Western Australian Federal Court Judge, Robert French. Not long in the job, French found himself in the Senate on Friday, swearing in a new Viceroy. Quentin Bryce is indeed a splendid vice-regal choice, for which the PM should be given due credit. A legal academic and pioneering female barrister in conservative Queensland and a former federal sex discrimination commissioner, she comes to the role straight from Government House, Brisneyland. There are few people with a greater ability to acquit the role with the right mix of dignity and alacrity that some might argue has been lacking since Government House in Yarralumla was the Hollingworth Hof. But this is where the happy go lucky, love-in for the ladies ends.
In the salivating, dystopian Emilyâ€™s List-driven fawning over our new GG, I heard a couple of people on radio that were (shock horror) fast and loose with the truth. First and foremost, Quentin Bryce is not our first female head of state, for two reasons. Victoria Regina was the Commonwealthâ€™s first female head of state and the long-held head of state of its colonial forbears. She has of course been followed by her great-granddaughter, the incumbent Elizabeth (they were preceded as female heads of state of England by the Norman/Plantagenet Queen Matilda in the twelfth century, and most famously, Elizabethâ€™s namesake). The second and more obvious point is that the Governor General is merely her Majestyâ€™s representative. While working yourself up into a lather can be fun in certain contexts, it is most unbecoming for perfectly intelligent individuals to let a sectarian or sectional interests cloud their assessment of a situation.
Let me be perfectly clear: Bryce is a fantastic choice to represent HM because of who she is, not what she is. I have no doubt that there is a significant benefit to be obtained for young women in particular in being able to identify with a brilliant female holding such a lofty office, particularly when it comes to aspiring to such an office themselves. Moreover, that Bryce has been able to raise a family amidst the significant demands her long and extensive involvement in the workforce and extensive involvement in public life might give further confidence to those who want to raise a family and engage in noble pursuits such as politics that the two need not be mutually exclusive. But in a perfect world, thatâ€™s where the positives on the basis of her membership of a certain group, community or demographic would end.
Ahead of the wise appointment by the PM and Attorney General (decided at Cabinet level) of French CJ, there was, as there always is, a concerted clamour of interest groups advocating in favour of certain appointees. The NSW establishment continued to peddle the preposterous post hoc line that it is a â€˜centre of excellenceâ€™, which many believe translates as â€˜the Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court and/or the President of the Court of Appeal should be automatically appointed to the High Court by rightâ€™, a moderately offensive form of jurisprudential manifest destiny. However brilliant NSW Chief Justice Jim Spiegelman is, Sydneysider hubris on his behalf be, like, so uncool right now. South Australia, half an hour and twenty years behind as many have opined, was relentless regaled with the Tiserâ€™s insistence that the South Australian Chief Justice be appointed substantially on account of his domicile which has as yet been unrepresented on the highest court of the land, with his fine reputation taking somewhat of a backseat. In a different sort of sectional advocacy, the excellent Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn Warren was mooted as a lead female candidate for the vacancy.
Hereâ€™s the heart of the problem that really isnâ€™t dealt with often enough. When Justice Crennan was appointed to the High Court, her appointment was substantially praised because sheâ€™s a she, rather than on account of her distinguished and widely respected career. Praising a woman because sheâ€™s possessed of certain chromosomes and not possessed of others is decidedly anachronistic and means that dissatisfied males can mouth off and say that even the most brilliant female candidate got the job because of the gender prefix. Similarly, Justice Gaudron, who ideally would been Chief Justice in Murray Gleesonâ€™s stead, would have made a brilliant Chief Justice not because sheâ€™s a woman, but because she was a fine judge.
In this scribeâ€™s humble, if not controversial opinion, Emilyâ€™s List and similar organisations mythologise the smashing of the glass ceiling at their peril. There is nothing wrong with such organisations existing. Groups that advocate and organise around under-represented interests built this country and continue to play an important and valuable role in it to this day. But it is when such organisations harp on about their successes in defiance of fairly widely accepted fact that they can become counter-productive. Emilyâ€™s List is, for instance, an organisation that supports not simply female candidates, but progressive female candidates. Its most obvious champion is that least obvious female political success story, The Hon. Joan Kirner. While it is unfair for Kirner to be blamed for the misdeeds of the Cain, who ably lectures anyone who wants to listen on why the Labor party was better under his tenure, she was nevertheless his Deputy prior to her taking the reins and a senior Cabinet Minister prior to that and needs to take her fair share of the blame for how dark, dreary and Orwellian pre-Kennett Melbourne had become. Yes, itâ€™s fantastic that Victoria had its first female Premier. What wasnâ€™t fantastic is that she performed awfully. Is that sexist? No. Her predecessor tanked, also. Is she the best example of what women in politics can do, thus? Absolutely not. For every successful female leader of the admittedly non-progressive Thatcher type, even of the Helen Clark type- having been re-elected- thereâ€™s a Joan Kirner, or a Jennie Shipley type. Leaders are judged by the populace on their performance, or lack thereof. Hence Kirner and Shipley got the heave-ho. From Carmen Lawrence to Kate Carnell to Clare Martin to Anna Bligh, there plenty of examples of female leaders who I will suspect will not be remembered because of their gender, but because of their records, be they good or bad. I defy anyone who thinks Julia Gillard is Deputy Prime Minister because sheâ€™s female- sheâ€™s deputy Prime Minister because she works hard, is tremendously bright, astute, and tough. On the issue of female deputies, Joan Kirner was predictably wheeled out over the weekend to give her great Tricontinental/State Bank of Victoria seal of approval to Carmel Tebuttâ€™s movement further up the greasy pole. Her words were as uninspiring as ever.
Ensuring greater opportunity, or equality of opportunity, remains crucial. But this should not be done at the expense of ensuring freedom from discrimination. Yes, all Australians should have equality of opportunity, and that is something that should be honoured and celebrated, as part of the egalitarianism weâ€™re all so fond of talking about. Take, for instance, the fine example of our first home grown Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, an inspirational jurist who spurned many of the vice-regal trappings on account of the depression, bringing unprecedented dignity to that high office. What was more important? That Sir Isaac broke the mould as a Jew holding such a role in less diverse, tolerant or progressive times- or that he was a respected jurist who compassionately exercised his high office, who also happened to be Jewish? In view of Sir Isaacâ€™s performance, should affirmative action or a quota system have been introduced for this position for non-Christians, or to put it slightly more accurately, non-Protestants? Should we legislate so that the Catholic Paul Keating be followed by another Catholic soon enough? Would that it were so, but such thought processes run contrary to either the egalitarian or meritocratic principles weâ€™re told we hold dear.
The appointment of the new GG should, if anything, reinvigorate debate over the qualification to be Head of State in this country. You must be baptised in the Church of England, in order to fulfil the bizarre concomitant role of â€˜Defender of the Faithâ€™. As all good fans of Yes, Minister and, more germane to this context, Yes, Prime Minister will know, Her Majestyâ€™s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland retains an established Church- she presides over the Church of England in much the same was as she does the Ministry of Defence. Not only must you be a substantially inbred German living under the name your family assumed amidst the First World War, you have to be an Anglican. Which rules out countless Australians becoming Head of State under the present system who identify themselves members of other big religions in this country, the equally mystical Universal Church and the Jedi.
It is patently absurd that in a mature, Western Liberal democracy, we retain a Head of State who, for all her countless good public, charitable works, is necessarily focussed on a Buckingham-Balmoral axis, with the odd stint at Sandringham of the non-Murray Thompson variety. Yay for us, we have an interested, able and experienced Head of State, who also happens to be female. Sheâ€™s also head of state of other large countries such as Canada, the UK and New Zealand- so she can hardly be expected to do a full-time job. So sheâ€™s got plenty of experience but is always going to be a bit thinly spread. I find it far more offensive that, barring a scenario that conjures up John Goodmanâ€™s King Ralph of blessed bowling memory, no Australian, be they useless or useful, male or female, indigenous or non-indigenous, Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, blue eyed, brown eyed, tall, short, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette, Labor or Liberal (let us presuppose a Constitutional prohibition on Greens), is going to be Head of State under our present system. Time to take out this benign tyrannical trash.
The greatest travesty in our Executive Government is that we cannot at present have an Australian head of state, regardless of their identity. We are a modern, prosperous Liberal democracy with a diverse, predominantly settler society, some 20 hours as the exploding Qantas 747 flies from where our Head of State resides. While it is not a bad thing to quote the PK, I hope Iâ€™m not relying on him too much when I paraphrase his observation(s) that we look odd in region happy to have freed itself from Colonialism, retaining a symbolic but nevertheless important position such as head of state in the person of a monarch resident in the British Isles.
Surely itâ€™s more important to ensure that all young Australians not be bizarrely disqualified from being Australiaâ€™s head of state, in practice on account of their being Australian, than it is, to, say, appoint someone to a job because theyâ€™re a man, theyâ€™re a woman, theyâ€™re a Christian, theyâ€™re brunette. Queen Elizabeth has served as well as our head of state, but there is a time to put someone or something else on the obverse of our coins. I want to live in an Australia where anyone can do anything. Where we honour fine, hard-working Australians with appointments to the bench or other high public office not because of their membership of a certain group, but, because of the quality of their deeds- apologies to Dr. King for any vague paraphrasing. The best sort of society for us to live in is one where even the most moronic misogynist doesnâ€™t blink at the election of a female Prime Minister; where even the most conservative scribe applauds the election of an indigenous Australian as head of state. No amount of affirmative action- or the more insidious and retrograde â€˜positive discriminationâ€™- is going to make our country a better of fairer place. Supporting someone because theyâ€™re a woman, which is the basic premise of Emilyâ€™s List, is up there in the intellectual stakes with supporting one candidate in an election over another because theyâ€™re white and the other isnâ€™t.
Sooner rather than later, we need an Australian head of state chosen because of who they are, as an eminent Australian, not what they are as at present, an eminent, royal Briton. Let other high offices follow the trend of having their vacancies with people identified as talented, first and foremost- and everything else a distant second.