While Canadianisation of the Crown became formal government policy under the Trudeau government, Australianisation has been a piecemeal process. Indeed the Australian Constitution had, from its adoption, and almost unnoticed, made a significant step towards Australianisation. This was done by a measure unprecedented in the Empire – the placing of the exercise of the executive power of the Commonwealth in the hands of the governor-general. Another unprecedented measure was to grant to the new Commonwealth of Australia the power to change its own Constitution.
In any event the trend over the years has been to move further down the path of Australianising the Crown, vesting more authority and status in the governor-general, but still as representative of the Crown. An important measure has been to declare to foreign governments and international organizations that the governor- general is the head of state, and should be accorded that dignity.
If Australianisation means that the governor-general may do things in Australia and beyond the seas which are consistent with his or her role of representing and exercising the powers of the Australian Crown, there can surely be no objection. This is after all consistent with the formula in the Balfour Declaration made in the early part of the twentieth century that:
“…it is an essential consequence of the equality of status existing among the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations that the Governor-General of a Dominion is the representative of the Crown, holding in all essential respects the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominion as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain, and that he is not the representative or agent of His Majesty’s Government in Great Britain or of any Department of that Government.”
But this does not mean that the office should take on a character different from and inconsistent with the Crown in a constitutional monarchy. We are becoming accustomed to hearing on the announcement of an appointment to a vice-regal office that the incumbent will, once in office, concentrate on some or other worthy cause. Too often this is dangerously close to a political agenda, however worthy. This is not an appropriate vice-regal vocation: that vocation is to represent the Crown, to provide leadership beyond politics. How can they provide this if their agenda is even tangentially political? The vice regal- elect should first acquaint themselves with the office before announcing some or other agenda.
A former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, devoted much of his term to the advancement of the interests of Australia’s indigenous people. At most times it was possible to conclude that this interest had not become political, that he was in no way challenging government policy but that he was engaged in taking a well intended interest in the indigenous people. On one occasion he was criticised by a national newspaper for arranging direct access to The Queen without referring the request to the government. But after he left office, Sir William became openly critical of government policy, sometimes harshly so. The unfortunate result was that retrospectively, he confirmed in the minds of many that he had crossed the line while in office. This experience justifies the proposition that even after he or she leaves office, a governor- general should be careful never to compromise the office. Speaking in favour of a republic, or even opining that it is inevitable, seems inappropriate for one who has represented the Crown. But to do so in office is at the very least, a most inappropriate entry into politics, apart from being an act of disloyalty to the Sovereign to whom the viceroy has sworn allegiance.
In Canada, in order to overcome what he saw as public indifference to the office of governor-general, a former incumbent suggested that the governor-general henceforth have greater freedom to express his personal ideas and even that he be made chairman of a new senate. Another suggestion was that the governor-general, outside of the extraordinary circumstances referred to above, should be able to refuse assent to legislation.
Apart from a governor-general being free to speak on matters clearly not on the political agenda, all of these proposals are inconsistent with the concept of constitutional monarchy. They may well flow from the mistake of seeing, consciously or subconsciously, the office as separate and autonomous from the Crown. This is not so-the office can have no existence apart from and independent of the Crown.
A viceroy is the representative of the Crown, nothing less – and nothing more. As Walter Bagehot observed: “We must not bring The Queen into the combat of politics or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.” Obviously, this advice applies equally to a viceroy.