Vivat Samantha: My hopes for the new Governor General

Apr 5, 2024
Incoming governor general Sam Mostyn at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas

Samantha Mostyn will become the next Governor General in July, taking over from outgoing former General David Hurley. I am greatly cheered by this news, not simply because she is only the second woman to hold this office but because I believe she has the capacity to heal this nation at a time of its greatest need.

Technically, the governor general manages official duties and administers the honours system, with the help of his or her staff, numbering several dozen. This is no easy task. There is a large property asset to maintain and official travel to be undertaken both in country and overseas for ceremonial and community reasons. These official duties should be undertaken in measured proportion according to their benefit to the nation, and not assumed as prerogatives of the office.

In just the first half of 2023, Governor General David Hurley’s air travel cost taxpayers more than $626,000. Samantha Mostyn, a former director of Virgin Australia, should be well aware of the need to make modest use of official transport. She might note that the Danish King Frederik and Australian-born Princess Mary frequently travel across Copenhagen on foot or by bicycle.

Before the end of 2024 the incoming Governor General may well have to host a visit by King Charles and Queen Camilla. That is a delicate relationship and the personal contact could be developed to the good of future relations between Britain, the Commonwealth and Australia.

Some time ago, discussing the relationship between the governor general and the monarch, constitutional law expert Anne Twomey told Crikey, “There is definitely an obligation to write (during crises). If exercising reserved power, the governor-general is obliged to report to justify why.”

Secret royal letters released to the public in 2022 after a long campaign led by Jenny Hocking show that in 1975 then Governor General Sir John Kerr conducted an extensive correspondence with the Palace concerning the Whitlam government that drew the Queen into his plan to remove Gough Whitlam from office.

If Charles and Camilla stay overnight with Samantha and husband Simeon Beckett at Government House, they might recall this episode over a rich Barossa shiraz, and discuss how they would handle any future real or perceived crises so as to preserve the unity and social fabric of the nation. Legal niceties no doubt would also come to mind, and it is not irrelevant to note that Samantha once worked as an associate to Michael Kirby in the NSW Court of Appeal. That gives me some confidence in her judgment.

Even the most casual of observers would have noticed that in recent decades, Australian governors general have been mainly elderly white men with military backgrounds. Not surprisingly, they have focussed on process and procedure, and again, not surprisingly, they have seemed remote from us average citizens and particularly from anyone from an Indigenous or multicultural background.

One outstanding exception was Sir William Deane (1996-2001), the former High Court judge. As Governor General, Deane brought the nation together in mourning for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre, the deadliest massacre in modern Australian history and united us in sorrow not in recriminations. He was also deeply committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Australians and acknowledged the “injustices of the past.”

William Deane’s speech in Switzerland at a memorial service for young Australians who died in a flash flood will long be remembered:

“It is still winter at home. But the golden wattles are coming into bloom. Just as these young men and women were in the flower of their youth. And when we are back in Australia, we will remember how the flowers and the perfume and the pollen of their and our homeland were carried down the river where they died to Lake Brienz in this beautiful country on the far side of the world. May they all rest with God.”

On Deane’s last day in office, his guests at lunch were from the charity Youth Off The Streets, and he said:

“My final word is… the principle that I’ve been trying to get over to the people of Australia for the whole of my time as Governor-General. That is that the ultimate test of our worth as a nation is how we treat the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of our people.”

As communities drift apart, as wealth disparity increases, as racism resurfaces and tribes band together to peddle extremist views, it has never been more urgent to have a national leader who hopefully will be above politics and who can bring us together again as a nation.

Over to you, Governor General Samantha.

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