Canberra's diplomatic mistake - 25 years in the making

Canberra's diplomatic mistake - 25 years in the making

After a mistake lasting a quarter of a century, the who's who of Australia's official diplomatic hierarchy will be updated in 2015 to include the office of the ACT chief minister.

Published by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Commonwealth Table of Precedence ranks more than 30 categories of office holders, including ambassadors, judges, politicians, military personnel, religious leaders and public servants.

The ACT's first chief minister, Rosemary Follett.

The ACT's first chief minister, Rosemary Follett.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The list acts as a guide to seniority for everyone from the governor-general and prime minister to state and territory leaders and knights and dames, including at ceremonies and receptions.

Last revised in the Australian Government Gazette in 1982, the protocol has never been updated to include the ACT chief minister after self-government and the first territory elections in 1989.


Despite the inclusion of all state premiers and even the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island chief ministers, the ACT has been overlooked until now.

The change will come after a quiet campaign waged over more than four years by South African migrant and Canberra resident Terence Palmer.

Ahead of his move to Australia in 2010, the self-confessed stickler began studying the nation's political institutions and the monarchy.

"I was involved in politics in South Africa at a local council level and I was reading about Australia to try and learn a bit," Mr Palmer said.

"The Royal family interests me as well and I was eager to see who is in line in Australia and how precedence works, basically who is who in the zoo."

Noticing no mention of the ACT leader in the Table of Precedence published online, Mr Palmer wondered how and where the chief minister could be included in Canberra's many ceremonial events featuring diplomatic and political heavyweights.

In the first of what we become regular letters on the subject, he wrote to former chief minister Jon Stanhope in June 2010.

In a reply, the Labor leader said he had instructed officials to contact the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to seek a correction. With no change forthcoming, in May 2011 Mr Stanhope's successor Katy Gallagher advised that the territory had again raised the issue with their Commonwealth counterparts.

Years later and still without any resolution, Mr Palmer wrote to a series of Labor and Liberal politicians in the Legislative Assembly and federal Parliament.

Finally in December, letters to outgoing ACT Senator Kate Lundy and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saw a bipartisan effort to take up the cause.

Ms Bishop wrote that at no time since the first chief minister, Rosemary Follett, took office in 1989 had the ACT leader "not been accorded the same courtesies and precedence as the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory or Norfolk Island."

The guide includes rankings of lord mayors, opposition leaders, Privy Counsellors, consuls, consuls-general and Commonwealth department secretaries.

In recent weeks, both Ms Bishop and newly elected Chief Minister Andrew Barr wrote to Mr Palmer to confirm arrangements were currently being made and changes are likely to be gazetted this year.

"I just thought I would let somebody know it was wrong," Mr Palmer said after his victory.

"When I picked up on it, it's something people said they would come back to me about. I forgot about it, and remembered every so often and sent another email or letter. I thought hell, I can't get any joy from anyone."

Yet to decide on his next project, Mr Palmer has pledged to watch carefully for an official revision to the Table of Precedence.

"I think my wife would say it's something only I would spend time trying to fix," he said. "Seeing will be believing because when something is wrong, I strongly believe it should be fixed."

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.