Scott Morrison as Governor-General

Jun 7, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tries to be everywhere and everything to all people, immersed in the minutiae of politics while trying to convey the impression that he stands above it. This offers a parallel with the Governor-General of Australia who must be seen to be apolitical and a symbol of both unity and stability. The present Governor-General seems to have withdrawn from the limelight, to be replaced by our marketing PM.

David Hurley became the Governor-General of Australia on 1 July 2019, a few months before the Morrison Government’s unexpected election win. Since then he has opened conferences and fetes, greeted visiting dignitaries, sworn in new ministers and has become the patron of 240 charities. These would seem to be onerous tasks, but what other function does he serve? How many people would know the identity of the present Governor-General? More would surely have known of the previous two, Quentin Bryce and Peter Cosgrove, who seemed to be much more active in their roles.

The role of the Australian Governor-General has become more than a ceremonial and mediatory one since 1975 when St John Kerr gave it real political clout. In theory, this potential clout still remains, although it has not been tested since 1975. As the Queen’s representative in Canberra and Australia’s representative to the Queen, the Governor-General’s role ties Australia strongly into the Commonwealth as an international institution.

For many quiet Australians and commentators, the connection to the Queen is a link to a source of historical stability considered to have lasted for centuries. For Stephanie Peatling, writing on the day of his investiture, ”The role of the Governor-General is, for most people, to be a calm and reassuring presence in the background of their lives.” She further cites Scott Morrison as saying, “The Governor-General finds the good in this country and shines a light on it. In a global age of fragmentation and tribalism, we have in our system a constitutional office beyond politics that enables us all to come together.”

The need to maintain a distinction between the elected head of state and the queen’s representative who is beyond and outside of the political sphere – although appointed by the government of the day – has always been regarded as a symbolic sign of ultimate stability and a lack of partiality. Scott Morrison has attempted to project himself as functioning in a similar manner. One of his common tactics, when he receives any kind of criticism, is to say that he is working for the good of the Australian people, not to win political points. In this sense, he places himself beyond the cut and thrust of politics.

An example is this response to a question from Karl Stefanovic on August 19, 2020:

“My job is to keep focused on the challenge that I have to protect Australians every single day, and I am a very singular-minded, focused person as you know when it comes to dealing with challenges, and that’s where Australians need my focus, not on politics.” 

That is, his concern is with the welfare of the country as a whole. This in effect places Morrison beyond the sectional interests of politics and in that sense offers a parallel with the constituted role of the Governor-General. The ALP and other LNP politicians can involve themselves in politics, but not him.

What is important is what this tells us about Scott Morrison as PM. He is much more consciously the face of his Government than any previous PM I can think of, except perhaps for Kevin Rudd. Apart from Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt, the latter largely the face of Australia’s response to the COVID pandemic, he has substantially marketed the government and himself; the friend of everybody, the good bloke.

For Morrison, everything is a potential marketing opportunity and for creating photographic images that keep him firmly in the public eye. His constant avowal that he works for the Australian people as a whole overlaps with the role of the Governor-General, but it also enables Morrison to avoid having to confront single issues, even if behind the scenes it is he who substantially drives the government’s approach to such issues.

In all of the positions the PM has previously held, he has put himself right in the front line in a manner that can only be called extravagant. This is so for the two jobs he had fronting the tourism industry and when he was the federal treasurer. Morrison throughout his tenure as PM and even before this emerges as an extremely self-centred man who is never wrong. In addition, he has demonstrated zero interest in helping those at the bottom of the society rise or in taking seriously the fate of the next generations in the face of climate change and continuing economic inequity.

On the contrary, the present Governor-General seems to be concerned about the most vulnerable in society and in preserving the differences attendant upon multi-culturalism, in contrast to the LNP’s efforts to encourage a form of tribalism between the different sectors of society. For instance, General Hurley says, “I have seen this richness of spirit at work in the people and the organisations assisting our veterans, our rural communities under stress, asylum seekers who we have welcomed into our country and our Indigenous brothers and sisters.”

And in quoting David Malouf he said at his investiture, “Australia is still revealing itself to us. We ought not close off possibilities by declaring too early what we have already become. Australia is not a finished product.” In his published statements it is clear that Hurley is not single-minded in the manner of the PM, perhaps because of his experience in dealing with the more depressed sectors of society, in spite of his high position in the army and Governor of New South Wales. He is also a Christian, but apparently not of the Pentecostal variety.

In 2021 he seems to have kept a low profile, judging from any appearances in the media, though he did give the address on Anzac Day and presented National Emergency Medals for those working in the 2019-20 bushfires on 13 May, and made an appropriate statement on the death of Prince Philip. And, according to the PM himself, he endorsed the slight alteration in the words of the national anthem.

A press release of 1 January 2021 declared, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the change was made for all Australians. During the past year we have showed once again the indomitable spirit of Australians and the united effort that has always enabled us to prevail as a nation. It is time to ensure this great unity is reflected more fully in our national anthem”. Once more marketing the theme that he represents Australia as a unity, not as a set of individual groups.

If the Governor-General continued to speak out in a manner reflecting the sentiments he gave when he was invested into his position, it would be easy to discern a sharp contrast with how Morrison has actually conducted himself as PM, especially in his attempts to demonize China and refugees coming into Australia. But who would really pick this up, especially since the governor-general would be required to observe the traditional limits on his role of not criticizing the government of the day, on whose gift his appointment depends?

In the final analysis, the seeming withdrawal of the governor-general arguably has occurred in parallel with the domination of the government by the marketing PM par excellence. Of deep concern is that this process of centralizing everything into his own persona could easily morph into the model of the semi-autocratic leader which has emerged so forcefully over the past few decades. It is no coincidence that this has occurred when neo-liberalism in all its different manifestations has been so ascendant throughout the world.

If the present PM does move still more forcefully into this role–driven by his desire to do his god’s will, conceivably–then who would speak out against it. Certainly, the ALP has shown no willingness to do this and the Greens and groups like Get Up tend to be too marginalised for their messages to go beyond a very small circle.

Would the governor-general actually stand up as representing a large body of Australian society concerned about the increased power of the government, and, through the government, of the PM?  It would be very difficult for him to do so even if he wanted to, perhaps the only avenue open to him is to attempt to get wider publicity for the kind of message he advanced in his maiden speech, and to discourage the PM from taking on the governor-general’s role.

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