Governor-general is the wrong job for the woman

Jenna Price
Updated April 4 2024 - 12:38pm, first published April 3 2024 - 4:22pm

What good is a governor-general?

I've had my doubts about the good they do since former (now deceased) governor-general John Kerr more-or-less signed off on the dumping of prime minister Gough Whitlam, the most revolutionary prime minister Australia has ever had (OK, Paul Keating was also a revolutionary but he did it in schmick suits). Perhaps Paul Hasluck would possibly have had more skill in leading Whitlam out of the woods.

WATCH: PM announces Samantha Mostyn as new governor general

I ask about the good of governors-general only because when I heard Samantha Joy Mostyn was to be our next one, I didn't share everyone's joy. In fact, it made me depressed.

Here is this extraordinary woman whose contribution is heroic.

She's poured her heart and soul into gender equality since she was a girl.

Yes, she's been the president of Chief Executive Women but she's also applied herself as chair of the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce with vigour.

She applies herself to everything she does, is extremely smart, hilarious, generous and kind. She's also tall but that's just my height-envy speaking.

Australia's next governor-general Sam Mostyn. Picture supplied
Australia's next governor-general Sam Mostyn. Picture supplied

But I had really hoped her next job would be a life-changing job.

It's not that Mostyn is the wrong woman for the job - but that it's the wrong job for the woman.

Minister? Prime Minister? Yes, please. That's more the kind of place I hoped she'd end up. Even co-governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia would be good.

So I took my despair to Anne Twomey, now professor emerita of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

She tried to cheer me up but also gently poked the government along the way.

We should not be reinforcing the monarchy in any way. The appointment of a governor-general does that very thing.

And instead of attempting the kind of model we might have designed if we were a republic, the Albanese government did what every other government has ever done.

"They could have taken the opportunity to take some measures to remove their own powers of patronage and put in place a reasonable mechanism for appointing a new governor-general. Instead, they cling to their own prerogatives," says Twomey.

Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie had the right idea back in 2002 when he said the only possible way to push a republican cause is to see which model would be acceptable to Australians, a kind of constitutional testing ground.

He kind of tried to make that happen in 2003, in a historic debate in Queensland Parliament: "We will be the first parliament in Australia to allow the nomination of the governor designate to be put before the parliament. It is the first time that any Australian parliament - and I want to underline this - has been given a role in the appointment of a governor."

There are so many ways in which Mostyn is perfect. She has gravitas by the wheelbarrow-load. She is so diplomatic, I can only applaud her parents, teachers and her own moral compass.

Her ability to nudge people in the right direction is crucial. You just know that when faced with Mostyn, most prime ministers would have a long hard think before attempting to ignore her advice.

Still I reckon this will be a tough gig for her.

She is so used to making change for good, gets in there, gets her hands dirty and fixes stuff despite having to manage competing egos and the multiple derangements of government.

But as Twomey explains, Mostyn won't be able to do that any more.

"It's not a role for someone who sees something wrong and needs fixing who can then be able to do something about it. There's a lot of self-abnegation, denying your own instinct," Twomey says.

Sure she will be able to pass on concerns.

But that's not the same as gently encouraging two ministers' heads to come together - no banging during her tenure.

Yes, Mostyn's roles have always included advocacy and awareness-raising and there will be room for all that - but that's an extremely contested space.

It's hard to forget the constant criticism of William Deane, former High Court justice, former governor-general, for the way he stood up for those without rights, without privilege. A complete bloody champion.

As Heather Roberts, now an associate professor of law at the Australian National University, wrote in 2011: "When Sir William Deane retired as Governor-General in 2001 he was regarded by many as one of Australia's most prominent public figures, an 'Australian living treasure'."

And that was because he had no hesitation in his commitments to social justice issues, or as Roberts put it, to hold up a mirror to the nation.

"Not surprisingly, this repeated advocacy of the disadvantaged, and the moral overtones of his message, elicited controversy as overstepping the neutral role of the Governor-General," she wrote.

I have absolutely no doubt Mostyn will be as good as William Deane.

I also have no doubt that if, heaven forfend, we faced some shocking constitutional crisis, she would have a level head and a level heart.


She would also fulfil her duties of performing secret good - I had no idea until Anne Twomey told me that governors-general and their office oversee a lot of government administration through the executive council and identify errors along the way.

"Every time I have spoken to a vice-regal officer, they have told me that there have been times they've had to say, stop, seek further advice and correct errors."

The drafters of the documents had got the wrong end of the law and those vice-regals had told them to fix the problem before it became law.

The thing which kills me about the Mostyn appointment is that it's traditionally been a retirement gig - and I say that with no disrespect. It is intense, it performs the act of social cohesion, there are a thousand meetings a month. But after G-G, what next?

I reckon she's too young to be a figurehead.

I have my fingers crossed Mostyn can make it more than that. I mean, she's been a frontrunner before and I know she will bring all that energy, focus and intellect to bear on the next part of the journey.

May there be more jobs after this retirement gig. Lucky us.

  • Jenna Price is a regular columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Jenna Price

Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.