The Governor-General (GG), David Hurley, is in an increasingly invidious position, and sooner rather than later will feel impelled to resign. He may not yet see it this way and will in any event be preoccupied with the Queen’s funeral and the transition of the King. But the prime minister’s intervention on Wednesday night to kill off a $24 million plus leadership scheme was designed to protect both Hurley and his office from the ignominy of being a subject of debate in both houses of parliament. How long he can, or will avoid this, has to be open to question.
It might make interesting conversation in the aircraft taking Hurley and Albanese to the funeral. But it is unlikely to be the subject of conversations with the palace or the new King.
Anthony Albanese is no monarchist but has been entirely correct in all his dealings with the GG. He has gone out of his way unnecessarily to except him from strong criticism he has made of Scott Morrison out of the multiple ministries’ affair. That may be founded on the opinion of the Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue that Hurley did nothing wrong in the process of following Morrison’s advice to appoint him to the ministries, even though it was subversive of established conventions of responsible government. It also involves adoption of Hurley’s opinion that it is for the prime minister’s department, not the vice-regal establishment, to announce formal appointments made by the GG. Both opinions are contentious, something almost certain to arise during the examination of the affair by retired High Court judge, Virginia Bell.
But that is only indirectly the source of Hurley’s present problem. During the last government, Hurley and the vice-regal office became involved in promoting the idea of an elite leadership scheme, on the model of one established by the late Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip. The idea came from a person who moves in royal circles and is of itself harmless – possibly beneficial. It is just the sort of thing with which an activist GG would want to be associated, not least during a struggle to develop a role while serving alongside a PM, in Morrison, ever ready to push him aside to take the limelight himself.
The GG pushed the idea at Morrison, who liked it and asked his department to work with the vice-regal office to develop it. With or without a formal submission, and without yet a formal structure or any staff, the plan received, after Morrison’s intervention with the Cabinet expenditure committee, an upfront grant of $24 million, and a commitment of at least $4 million a year in ongoing funding. On paper a matter of Vice-regal patronage, and associated with the GG’s office; in fact, a matter of patronage by the PM.
Critics of Morrison’s multi-ministries have implied a linkage between the two events – suggesting the idea that the PM and the GG each owed the other a favour. There’s no actual evidence for this, other than the fact that the appointments and the grant were at about the same time, and the idea that the GG would overlook vital constitutional defects in an appointment is difficult to imagine. In any event Hurley had oral advice – wrong advice – from government people in PM&C and the Attorney-General through Morrison that there was nothing improper in the appointments.
But the very linkage of the two suggests a practical conflict of interest – a linkage which, apparently, some parliamentarians were planning to make during debates in both houses over the disallowance of grants for the leadership scheme. No doubt the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate would be alert for and try to prevent any reflection on the viceroy or his office. The role of the GG’s office in the scheme has already been the subject of embarrassing questions in parliamentary committees.
One can acquit Hurley of any impropriety, attributing the coincidence to naiveté rather than design. But it illustrates the unwisdom of the GG’s allowing his office or his person to be seeking favours from, and the exercise of discretions by the Prime Minister. A cynical observer might well perceive a conflict of interest, or the potential for one. In all the literature about conflict of interest – something politicians on both sides are having a quick refresher course in this weekend – it is stressed that the appearance of a conflict is as serious as the reality of one.
In the short-term one can expect that Albanese will protect the GG. The PM has already cancelled the grant, declaring it unaffordable during a time of pressure on the budget. He has made critical comments about the merits of the proposal, which could be taken as oblique criticism of Hurley. But when push comes to shove, Hurley is on his own – a problem he has created for himself, but one he should never have created for his position as the Queen’s – now the King’s — representative. It’s hardly Labor’s duty to defend Hurley’s dealings, constitutional or otherwise, with Morrison.