Grattan on Friday: Albanese has made a statement in choosing Sam Mostyn as governor-general, but he could have been bolder

Perhaps it was inevitable, given our current ultra-divisive politics, that governor-general designate Sam Mostyn would become the latest punching bag in the culture wars.


  • Michelle Grattan

    Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Warriors on the right have cast the well-qualified Mostyn as an activist from woke central. They’ve reacted variously with outrage, sarcasm, or carefully-pursed lips. The advocacy group Advance described her appointment an “insult to mainstream Australians”; one commentator wrote she reflected “the worst of modern woke Australia”.

Mostyn has progressive political views and, historically and currently, links with Labor governments. She was a staffer to Paul Keating, and has headed Albanese Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce. None of that makes her unsuitable to be governor-general, a post occupied with distinction by former ministers from both sides of politics. Nor will she be the first in the position with known republican leanings.

Mostyn trained as a lawyer, has had extensive business experience, and is unsurpassed as a networker. She ticks a veritable warehouse of community boxes – from being a former AFL commissioner to having served on the board of the Sydney Theatre Company.

Occupants arrive at Yarralumla after long and substantial careers. Apart from those coming post-politics (Bill Hayden, Paul Hasluck), others have included former judges (Bill Deane) and ex-military officers (David Hurley, the outgoing GG).

They don’t automatically shed their views when they cross the threshold. They may use the office to promote certain causes (Deane and Indigenous rights), although this can bring criticism and has to be handled carefully. We don’t know whether Mostyn will see the position as a platform; we can expect she’ll understand well that the governor-general should be restrained, non-partisan, and a force for national unity.

Mostyn’s modern-era predecessors have been a diverse bunch, with their time in office shaped by events, their own personalities and the expectations of the PM of the day.

Richard Hall in his biography of John Kerr wrote that Gough Whitlam “saw a growing role for a Governor-General in representing the country at functions overseas”. Kerr told an acquaintance, “I can’t tell you how important the Governor-General is going to become in the future”. In 1975, the nation found out just how important, when Kerr booted out Whitlam. Kerr used the office’s “reserve powers” to turn spectacularly on the PM who thought he could control him.

When Malcolm Fraser appointed Zelman Cowen to succeed Kerr, it was widely recognised his remit was to be a healing force after the country’s seismic political upheaval.

Mostly, we think of the governor-general as having ceremonial and community roles, as well as formal constitutional duties in granting elections and assenting to bills passed by parliament. Behind the scenes, however, and leaving aside the reserve powers, the job carries significant responsibilities.

The King’s representative can be the final checkpoint – the “watchdog” – in ensuring a government’s executive acts comply with the law and proper processes. Hurley found himself under fire when it was revealed he had signed off on Scott Morrison’s undisclosed multiple ministries, apparently without questioning what was a strange arrangement. Hurley had no discretion to refuse to sign, but critics believed he should have been more inquisitive. A later investigation into the multiple ministries affair found criticism of Hurley unwarranted.

Informally, a governor-general, especially one who is close to the PM of the day, can be a sounding board for, and source of advice to, that leader. Given how many people they meet, the governor-general is a one-person focus group. Hasluck said in a 1972 lecture: “With the Prime Minister the Governor-General can be expected to talk with frankness and friendliness, to question, discuss, suggest and counsel”.

Mostyn’s appointment reflects the two sides of Albanese’s political character – the cautious leader and the leader who wants to make a statement.

The bigger statement would have been to choose the first Indigenous governor-general – a strong positive gesture after the referendum’s loss. It’s beyond time we had a First Nations governor-general.

Prime Minister William McMahon (Right) with Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck at the swearing-in of the McMahon Ministry. Wikimedia Commons

But the “no” vote made it a step too far for Albanese, not least because any candidate would have been on the “yes” side in the referendum and so their appointment would have opened a new political argument. Also, an Indigenous appointee might potentally have come under serious personal pressures, given the differing views among their own people.

If he wasn’t to go the Indigenous route, it was virtually certain Albanese would appoint a woman. His government has placed gender high on the list when considering qualifications for key appointments. Mostyn also had the attraction of extensive commercial experience, bringing something new to the office.

When he appeared with Mostyn at Wednesday’s news conference, Albanese carefully ensured she faced no questions. He said she’d make some comments (which were mainly to “introduce myself to those who do not yet know me”). Then, he said, “as protocol requires” she’d not say anything publicly until after taking up her office on July 1.

So there wasn’t the opportunity for her to be asked about her views on the prospects for an Australian republic. But Albanese took a question and his answer confirmed the extent to which the republic has slipped way down Labor’s priorities, given a massive shove by the referendum vote.

Asked whether it was possible Mostyn might be Australian’s last governor-general, and whether he’d like to see the republic debate come forward, Albanese said: “I made it very clear that I had one referendum in mind. And that took place last year”.

Even in May last year (before the referendum) Albanese told British broadcaster Piers Morgan, “what I don’t want to do is to be a prime minister who presides over just constitutional debates”.

It used to be said that the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign would be the time for the republic to return into the frame. It hasn’t worked out like that. It’s not just the referendum’s defeat. There’s no community appetite to revisit the issue any time soon, and a now risk-averse PM doesn’t want another divisive fight in a second term, especially as history suggests it would be extremely hard to win it.

Certain minimum conditions would have to prevail for Australia to revisit the republic, including a conducive political climate, a pro-republic government with a hefty majority and the prospect of bipartisanship. None of these is on the horizon.

So when there’s a ministerial reshuffle – say in a re-elected Albanese government – will there still be an assistant minister for the republic, a position now held (together with other posts) by NSW MP Matt Thistlethwaite? If so, it will only be to keep faith with Labor’s faithful. Albanese must know that delivering an Australian republic is beyond him.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.