Governor-General Quentin Bryce. Photo: Craig Abraham
The matter has not thus far received much public or media attention but there must now be a number of people, and perhaps not only in Canberra, addressing the question of who is to be recommended for appointment as the next governor-general of Australia. The term of the incumbent, Quentin Bryce, is scheduled to expire in April 2014.
The most recent speculation is that former chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, is favoured for the post. His appointment would be unusually appropriate as the centenary of Gallipoli and, more generally, the Great War, would fall early in his term.
Among Australian-born/Australian citizen occupants of the office, General Cosgrove would be an unusual appointee. Of the 12, only one has had a service background - Major-General Michael Jeffery, a former governor of Western Australia. (Other servicemen who have been seriously considered for the post are General Sir John Monash in 1931 and Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins, who declined appointment in 1965.) Four governors-general have come from the bench; three of these - Sir Isaac Isaacs, Sir Ninian Stephen and Sir William Deane - from the High Court. The other, Sir John Kerr, had been a member of a number of federal courts prior to appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court of NSW.
In addition to Isaacs, a veteran of the Victorian and federal parliaments, another four have come from politics - Sir William McKell left the premiership of NSW for Yarralumla; the other three had been ministers for external/foreign affairs (Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and Bill Hayden). The latter two, like McKell, essentially went straight from political to vice-regal life. In terms of party allegiance, the score is even - two from Labor; two from Liberal ranks (Isaacs was a Deakinite Liberal).
Zelman Cowen and Quentin Bryce were lawyers who had had various academic and administrative posts; Cowen had been a vice-chancellor of two universities (New England and Queensland), while Bryce, a former sex discrimination commissioner, was principal of Women's College at Sydney University prior to appointment as governor of Queensland. The other occupant, Bishop Peter Hollingworth, had previously been archbishop of Brisbane.
Though Brisbane-based at the time of elevation, Hollingworth, like Cowen, had spent much of his career in Melbourne; another three governors-general have essentially had Victorian backgrounds - Isaacs, Casey and Stephen.
Three have come from NSW: McKell, Kerr and Deane. Hasluck and Jeffery were born and raised in Western Australia; Hayden and Bryce both came from Queensland.
South Australia has not yet been represented at Yarralumla (nor in the Prime Minister's Lodge nor on the High Court); likewise, Tasmania, though it has produced a prime minister, has not yet provided a governor-general.
In essence, the governor-general has come from eastern Australia. Seven have had training in the law; three had experience in politics and diplomacy; the other two came from the church and the army.
Isaacs and Casey were in their mid-70s at the time of appointment, serving, respectively, five and four years. The four most recent appointees, like Hasluck, were in their mid-60s when appointed and served half-a-decade or a little more. The remainder have been in their mid-to-late 50s.
Australia's longest-serving governor-general is Lord Gowrie; among Australian-born/citizen occupants, Bill Hayden's term of seven years is the longest.
Several appointments have aroused controversy - Isaacs and McKell were in the vanguard of local appointees and criticised on that basis; McKell was also attacked, in particular by the leader of the opposition, Robert Menzies, on the basis that he not only moved directly from politics to vice-regal office but involved himself in election of his successor before finally departing Macquarie Street. Menzies subsequently recommended an extension of McKell's term.
Though not first choice for the post in 1965, Casey came to office more than half a decade after leaving politics and was widely welcomed by both sides of politics.
Sir Robert Menzies informed Hasluck of reservations about his direct move from the ministry to the governor-generalship in 1969. The first time an Australian without parliamentary or ministerial experience was appointed was Sir John Kerr; his lack of such experience was conspicuously evident in his handling of the budget crisis in 1975. Subsequently, Hayden has been the only appointee with a ministerial background and his appointment aroused partisan political controversy.
During the referendum to replace the Queen with a president, a major line of criticism was the prospect of appointment of politicians. Parliamentary and ministerial experience no longer seems to count as a strength in selection of a governor-general.
Curiously, there has been very little debate about the occasional practice of looking to the High Court bench for a governor-general though it is a very clear and obvious breach of the separation of powers; such lack of debate is paralleled in the states by acquiescence in the extensive practice of appointing chief justices as lieutenant-governors.
By contrast, when Archbishop Hollingworth of Brisbane was selected in 2001, there was much contention about the need to keep church and state separate. In polities where church bodies do not have special standing, there seems no ground for formal exclusion of church people from vice-regal office; it is, however, the case that church people have usually been discomforted by vice-regal office.
The pattern of appointments of governors-general as found in Australia does not entirely reflect practice in other Commonwealth dominions. Canada, for instance, has never appointed a judge; it once chose a former provincial premier who later came to Australia as high commissioner; the only general ever appointed also had extensive experience in diplomacy; until recently it has been inclined to look to people with parliamentary and ministerial experience; three presiding officers have become governors-general, as well as several with a diplomatic background.
The Australian states also provide some guidance to sources of vice-regal recruits. Servicemen continue to be chosen in most jurisdictions. Judges are more frequent in some states (such as Tasmania) than others (rare in NSW). Both Tasmania and Queensland have found a governor in the ranks of the Australian diplomatic service; one such appointment was conspicuously brief. Victoria and South Australia have appointed Olympic athletes and also ministers of religion. Academics are occasionally chosen; public servants and businessmen are less likely choices.
Among state governors, two women stand out as highly successful nationally, Justice Roma Mitchell in South Australia and Marie Bashir in NSW; neither Western Australia, Victoria nor Tasmania has ever appointed a woman; Queensland has had three, one of whom went on to become governor-general.
It would seem that the basic recruiting grounds remain the Defence Force, judges (even if obnoxious on separation of powers grounds) and academics. When Paul Hasluck gave some guidance to Gough Whitlam on the search for a successor, he nominated as places to look: ministerial; judiciary; academic; ''big business and men prominent in public movements''; trade unions. (It is of interest that he did not include the Defence Force.) There cannot be any rules for selections of this kind: some choices which look eminently appropriate fail in practice; others which seem unorthodox turn out to be inspired.
Judgment in high degree obviously has to be brought to bear. There are really only two invaluable pieces of advice.
The first, in Johnsonian vein, is that a wise prime minister will steer well clear of recommending appointment of anyone falling into the category of ''public intellectual''; that would be a recipe for pomposity rather than prudence.
The second is the counsel of Lord Curzon, referring to choice of a viceroy of India but it is applicable to any such post - ''No one should be appointed viceroy to whom it would be an honour''. As for the viceroy, so for the governor-general of Australia.
J.R. Nethercote is adjunct professor, Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University.