Royal Historical Society of Queensland Queensland Day Dinner 2021
Member of Bonney, Mr Sam O’Connor MP; former member of the Executive Council of Queensland, and our President, Dr Denver Beanland and fellow members of the Society Council and Committees; Cr Vicki Howard; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.
I at once acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and extend respectful greetings to Elders and emerging leaders.
Kaye and I are delighted to join you on the eve of Queensland Day. And what better way to begin my remarks this evening than with Queensland’s first Governor, 161 years, 364 days after his appointment in 1859.
When Sir George Bowen arrived in Moreton Bay in December of that year, he and Diamantina, Lady Bowen were whisked into Brisbane by boat and carriage.
As Sir George was driven through the modest and unfamiliar – by our standards, extremely primitive – municipality, he would soon have lost his bearings. But in another more important sense Sir George knew exactly where he was going.
Just two days after his swearing-in, he told the welcoming crowds in the City Botanic Gardens that, at the earliest opportunity, the destiny of the colony would be placed in the hands of its own people, acting through their representatives in Parliament.
By May of the following year, Queensland had conducted its first elections, albeit on the basis of limited suffrage; elections which, incidentally, later proved problematic: Westminster had to pass legislation retrospectively validating the election.
The establishment of representative and responsible government in the new colony was mandated by Sir George’s instructions from Queen Victoria –
part of which was transferred during my term from Government House to State Archives – but the energy, speed and determination with which our first Governor acted were all his own.
It is true that for parts of his tenure the forceful Sir George could and sometimes did act as a benevolent dictator.
But he succeeded admirably in laying the foundations of Queensland’s democratic structures, to the long-term benefit of all of us.
I can claim to be one of the undoubtedly few living people who have read all his dispatches, thanks to a two-volume record generously presented to me by the Supreme Court Judges on my departure from that Court in 2014!
Of course, if anyone had to read all those 917 pages, it was me! Were I a prisoner, I would thereby have attracted many points towards parole!
When Sir George Bowen left Queensland for New Zealand in 1868, after 9 arduous years of amazing service, he was approaching the age of but 47 and yet had a substantial career ahead of him.
For myself, I am closing in on a different combination of four and seven, but also with a substantial career to look back on – with humble satisfaction and pride – including seven years as Governor and 29 years as a Judge of the Supreme Court, 16 of them as Chief Justice of Queensland – appointed to the role at the instigation of your very own President.
Naturally, I have been reflecting lately on my time in Vice-Regal office from a privileged position living and working ‘inside’ the role, an extraordinary experience shared only by the 25 Governors before me over the course of more than 160 years.
Those reflections have been provoked by the frequent current inquiries – ‘when does your term end?’ ‘What is your plan for after Government House?’
And the priceless question from a boy in the West – ‘when you stop being Governor, will you be an ordinary person again?’
I have commented on the community aspects of the Vice-Regal role in recent public remarks, and through the excellent, recently-launched book by Madonna King and David Fagan, The Governors of Modern Queensland, copies of which I presented to Society members at a Government House reception last month.
Tonight, may I briefly comment on aspects of the constitutional role of Governors, which remains their most important function.
In that respect, I am pleased and relieved to report that there have been no confrontations in the constitutional sphere during my tenure.
The hung Parliament following the 2015 State election did not result in confrontation.
An outcome was patiently reached according to principle and precedent, and through the acceptance by all parties of the decisions of the Governor – if they were required – as independent arbiter.
That concept of Vice-Regal independence is not a lone phenomenon, but one of many, and is subject to a number of interpretations across our community.
One view derives from an overly literal reading of the Queensland Constitution and holds that the Governor is at the pinnacle and pivot of executive government and therefore has unbridled power to intervene in the political process.
This results from time to time in requests to the Governor to dictate an outcome different from that determined by the government of the day.
Indeed, in Townsville just last month, I publicly resisted calls of concerned citizens to remove members of the government over perceptions of inaction on youth justice.
Certainly, the Governor heads the executive branch of the government of the State.
But, just as certainly, the powers of Queensland Governors are substantially restrained by convention.
The fundamental premise on which this set of conventions rests is that democratic government depends on the will of the people, expressed through their elected representatives in parliament. And if a particular government policy or action is not supported by the people, they can express this disapproval at elections.
Governors, on the other hand, are not accountable at the ballot box. It is therefore not the role of a Governor to usurp that fundamental democratic arrangement save in exceptional circumstances involving, for instance, where a Government is unable to obtain supply in the Legislative Assembly – meaning financial support for its programme – or potentially where a Government contemplates egregiously criminal conduct.
Governors must otherwise accept that they should act on the advice of the Ministry, and chiefly the Premier.
While I claim to be a constitutional lawyer, I will not delve further into the question of the Governor’s reserve powers save to say that their existence is the distinguishing feature of the Vice-Regal constitutional role. I am sorry my restraint may disappoint Professor Anne Twomey and her colleagues!
Another related facet of Vice-Regal independence is the concept of impartiality. This is well understood and readily demonstrable.
There are multiple examples, set out in the ‘Modern Governors’ book, of Vice-Regal representatives appointed by one political party in Queensland continuing to exercise their constitutional duties without fear or favour during the tenure of a different political party.
I add, to emphasise the point, that the party which I invited to form government after the close-run 2015 elections was not the party that appointed me, and it was the current government which supported the extension of my initial five-year term.
This is exactly as it should be. ‘Impartiality’ puts the Governor above politics.
With remarkably few exceptions, and most of those in the first half century of Queensland’s existence, impartiality has been an unshakable hallmark of the words, actions and decisions of our State’s Governors. Vice-Regal impartiality has long served Queensland well in constitutional terms by instilling trust in the Governor’s role as arbiter, and maintaining the conditions for continuity of stable government.
As I have previously remarked, Governors are not mere constitutional bystanders; they are an integral part of the regular machinery of government, particularly through the Executive Council and in granting Royal Assent to bills passed by the Parliament.
A Governor’s frequent public appearances at community and ceremonial occasions engenders trust they will discharge these constitutional functions impartially.
Importantly, the book on ‘Modern Governors’ cites again and again the words of ordinary Queenslanders who understand that the status of the Governor differs from that of elected representatives, and who value this feature of the role.
A further and less prominent, less well known, aspect of ‘independence’ relates to the Office of the Governor, the administrative structure that supports Vice-Regal representatives.
The Office does not sit within the Queensland Government bureaucracy. It does not report, in the public administration sense, to a Minister of State or Director-General. The Office receives a budget allocation but deploys these resources at the careful discretion of the Official Secretary. This provides a level of independence for the Office that supports the independence of the Governor. Indeed, in a curious sense, the Office is even more independent than the Governor! Any moves to upset this balance must be carefully scrutinised, to ensure Government House does not become merely an extension of the Ministry.
There is yet another aspect of ‘independence’ worthy of note, though it relates as much to the ‘self’ in Queensland’s ‘self-government’ as it does to the role of the Governor.
It is the reason that the book I have mentioned has the word ‘modern’ in its title, referring to all surviving Governors of Queensland, all of whom served after 1986, when the Australia Acts came into force – those Governors span two decades before the turn of the millennium and 2 decades after.
That aside, this 1986 legislation removed any lingering real or implied power on the part of the British government or Westminster to involve itself in the affairs of the Australian States.
For Queensland, it meant that The Queen and her successors could appoint a State Governor only on the direct recommendation of an elected head of government in Queensland.
In this sense, the office of Governor is a uniquely Queensland institution, now with its own rich body of tradition which reflects and draws on the vibrancy of the Queensland people. This should be enough to dismiss the sometimes uncharitable claim the office is a mere sop to colonialism.
During the almost 130 years between our first Governor Sir George Bowen’s arrival and the Australia Acts, this thread of increasing independence was also woven through our State’s constitutional history, becoming more evident following Federation in 1901.
At times this was expressed through requests from Queensland governments for more consultation on the appointment of Governors (the dialogue was sometimes robust!) and for the appointment of Australian-born Governors – we finally crossed that rubicon in 1946, with the appointment of decorated war hero, Sir John Lavarack!
These earlier Governors were in an interesting position, expected to handle any contentious local constitutional issues with consummate skill while reporting to a bureaucracy in London that could and did offer criticism. Lord Chelmsford’s decision to grant Robert Philp a dissolution, after refusing one to William Kidston shortly after being appointed Premier in 1907, immediately comes to mind.
Yet Governors almost always respected the principle that Queensland’s constitutional destiny should – must – be resolved locally.
And it is instructive to turn for an example to the most dramatic of Queensland’s constitutional shifts, the closing stages of the long political struggle between Queensland’s elected lower house and appointed upper house.
In early 1920, it was under Lieutenant Governor Lennon, erstwhile Speaker of Queensland’s Legislative Assembly, that additional appointments to the Legislative Council finally (and after earlier vice-regal rebuffs) ensured a majority in favour of abolishing the upper house.
But it was the next Governor, Sir Matthew Nathan who – in the face of rear-guard action by opponents of the move – helped shepherd the relevant legislation, passed by both houses of the Queensland Parliament a century ago this year, through to Royal Assent.
Sir Matthew’s advice to the Colonial Secretary in London, then Winston Churchill, the Minister who channelled advice to King George the Fifth, emphasised that, locally, there was ‘… no very strong or widespread feeling … against this assent’.
Churchill subsequently judged that the matter was ‘essentially one for determination locally’.
Royal Assent was granted, re-enforcing the primacy of the principle that we must resolve our constitutional destiny here in Queensland – just as occurred in 2016, by the way, when the Queensland people, in a grand democratic display, entrenched four-year parliamentary terms and constrained the Governor’s power to dissolve parliament.
These actions and decisions of my predecessors – and the Queensland people – generated, over time, the overwhelmingly positive constitutional legacy which modern Governors inherit.
It has been an enormous privilege to honour that legacy by upholding the independence of the Vice-Regal role for the past seven years.
Turning now from constitutional structures to bricks and mortar, I must not miss the opportunity, in this company, to make brief remarks about Queensland’s 156-year-old Government House, that is, 156 years since the Heussler house was completed in 1865, though the Government acquired it as our Government House in 1911.
Governments of all persuasions have been keen to ensure that the Fernberg estate is properly resourced – that its superb heritage and historical values are maintained for the people of Queensland as an important symbol of Statehood.
Invariably, visitors to the House and grounds – around 20,000 per year, including a couple of thousand just today at our Open Day – comment favourably on its condition, upkeep and fascinating history.
They clearly love being able to experience their Government House.
In that respect, I am proud of the important and always considerate additions made to the estate during my tenure.
The relocation of John Dowie’s impressively conceived bronze statue of Her Majesty from George Street to the estate grounds – head gazing back towards the parliamentary, judicial and executive precincts – reinforces the Governor’s central duties as the Sovereign’s representative.
The Governor’s Courtyard restores dignity and prominence to the entrance of Johann Heussler’s original 1865 residence and includes a fountain, included in the plans for the 1890 Stevenson extensions but possibly never built – until now.
The Rainforest Retreat Kaye unveiled in August 2016 is a refuge for peaceful contemplation away from the hectic pace of vice-regal life.
And we finally have elevators on two sides of the house, carefully blended into the external structure, which dramatically improve access for visitors who have mobility challenges.
In this way, Government House remains determined to stay true to its heritage but also to be relevant and responsive.
Kaye and I have pursued our role in Queensland in a similar spirit.
We been assiduous in, and occasionally exhausted by, our determination to get ‘out and about’ in the State.
Our extensive travel, along with initiatives such as transferring the operations of Government House to a regional centre once every year, have allowed us to meet Queenslanders in schools, in Indigenous communities, aged care centres, hospitals, prisons, churches, community organisations, military ceremonies, and at many community celebrations and commemorations.
We have encountered only tremendous warmth and support as we have acknowledged our fellow Queenslanders, comforted them in times of natural disaster, encouraged and praised their achievements, and thanked them for their service to the community.
That is true also of my association, as Patron, with this eminent Society.
I have been delighted to uphold the legacy of Vice-Regal support for the Society’s goals and activities, support which reaches back to Sir William MacGregor in 1913.
Born in Queensland, living all my life here, having served our people in high public office for so many years, I will never cease to proclaim the wonders of this State. And the marvellous ethos of its people, which I continue to assert is subtly different from that of our esteemed and admired fellow states.
Queensland has been very good to us. To the full extent of our powers, both official and personal, Kaye and I have sought to repay that debt, to respond in kind to the generosity and respect that Queenslanders have shown us.
We very much hope that Queenslanders agree, but the debt, any debt, is Kaye’s and mine.