In 1996, Peter Collins, then NSW Opposition Leader, pledged to restore the Governor to Government House. But Labor stayed in office until 2011 and Bob Carr’s legacy has remained. Will Barry O’Farrell redeem his party’s promise?
In January 1996, when New South Wales was dozing in the sun, Premier Carr announced he was shutting down Government House as the State Governor’s home and office, sacking most of the staff, and appointing a part-time Governor who would live in his own home.
There was no public consultation or Parliamentary debate and neither the Labor caucus nor cabinet were consulted. Carr was shredding the constitution on his own terms.
In a swift and brutal coup, and with monumental contempt for democratic principles, Premier Carr announced that the incoming Governor, Justice Gordon Samuels, would not live and work at Government House, and although keeping a full time salary, would actually be a part-time Governor as he was already Chairman of the Law Reform Commission. But he’d keep that salary, too. It was unclear which office would get which “part” of the time but Carr assured us he had legislation pending to validate the situation anyway.
As the Governor appoints the Law Reform Chairman (due for renewal in April) Samuels would effectively be appointing himself. He appeared blind to this conflict of interests and strenuously denied it.
As reason for his action, Carr tried to hoodwink us into believing a breathtaking untruth: that he was restoring ownership of Government House to the people. Government House has always belonged to the people of New South Wales. Carr thought we’d believe his outrageous deception.
Continuing to justify his action, Carr claimed that the Governor living in his own home would save money. This further deception has been proved another falsehood. It costs $600,000 more annually to maintain and provide security for not one, but three establishments: the Governor’s own home, the office and Government House itself, as well as security for the Governor’s constant, and probably most inconvenient shuttling between these establishments.
Carr claimed that by getting rid of the “pomp and ceremony” and “anachronistic protocol” he would be modernising a “colonial relic” which could become an art gallery or some other cultural beacon – casting about he wasn’t quite sure what. But nothing could be finalised until the “evacuation (an insulting description of Governor Sinclair’s departure) “had been effected”
So newspaper photos of the newly appointed Governor and his wife were not taken at Government House, but in the kitchen of their Bronte home, with box of tissues and toaster as backdrop and against the kitchen sink with tea towels at the ready. Mrs Samuels suggested that the Queen would be welcome to say at Bronte as they had “a very nice spare room across the backyard”. In this Gilbert and Sullivan scenario, she might have been serious.
Justified public outrage erupted. People in New South Wales, until then in sleepy holiday mood, suddenly realised they’d been ambushed – and they hugely resented it. They saw Government house as a symbol of our heritage, tradition and constitutional stability that are part of a civilised society. Many had appreciated being invited to the Governor’s prestigious, historic home; the idea of replacing it with by an impersonal, public function venue was an unprecedented insult.
They asked how a part-time Governor could undertake the country visits and attend the numerous community and ceremonial functions that, quite apart from the constitutional duties, a Governor is expected to fulfil. (Our present distinguished Governor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, gives unstintingly of her time as patron of over 300 charities and volunteer organisations.)
A few weeks later, 20,000 people packed Macquarie Street to protest against Carr’s clandestine attack on democracy. Addressing the crowd, Peter Collins then Opposition Leader, pledged to restore the Governor to Government House. But Labor stayed in office for 16 years and Carr’s legacy has remained.
While Carr claimed that the change would be more “egalitarian” his decree means that no-one from rural or regional Australia, however deserving or distinguished, can be appointed Governor of New South Wales. You can’t commute from Orange. None of our current VC winners could be considered: none live in inner Sydney. Country people, particularly, were up-in-arms. It is Labor’s continuing insult.
Carr, wily as ever, knew that the next election was 3 years away, but even so, Labor was unnerved by the unexpected public backlash – exactly as Gillard’s troops are today over reaction to her carbon dioxide tax. So Carr changed tack: talk of turning Government House into an art gallery or music schools went out the window and previous ominous noises about “renting out” parts of the building went the same way. Government House would be preserved, not as the Governor’s official residence and functioning, lived-in home and office, but as an historic house museum, with all the cheerless and impersonal connotations that word can imply.
Anxious to be seen as “bringing Government House to the people” as promised, six weeks later Carr was photographed celebrating Seniors Week at Government House surrounded by The Golden Girls from Bankstown, wearing epaulettes and helmets. Samuels was the first non-military Governor ever appointed, so was Carr pretending that the armed services were not really excluded from Government House, while restoring his version of the “pomp and ceremony” he’d previously ridiculed? The Sydney Morning Herald reported, breathlessly, that “many senior citizens … seemed happy with the gracious old building’s new role”.
Despite Samuels being at pains to deny he was a semi, part-time Governor, the idea of his reappointment as Chairman of the Law Reform Commissioner was quietly buried and with it the legislation to validate his part time status.
To republican Carr, the role of Governor must eventually go entirely, but step one was to diminish and downgrade the Governor’s dignity, authority and standing in the public’s mind by cutting him adrift from the historic, traditional, outward symbol of authority and leadership that is Government House.
Carr’s claim of cost cutting and opening up Government House to the people camouflaged his real reason for “evicting” the Governor: he resented the Governor’s ultimate power over him ; he was haunted by the spectre of Sir Philip Game’s dismissal of Labor Premier Jack Lang in 1932 – an entirely proper action given the illegality of Lang’s actions. Carr wanted power in his hands alone.
He resented the Governor’s right and duty to give guidance, question and, if necessary, reject legislation. As former Premier, John Fahey, himself a republican said: “The Governor is anything but a rubber stamp … Many a decision was deferred until the Governor was satisfied … That’s as it should be”. Governor Sinclair revealed there were five occasions when his constitutional reserve powers had been “critical” in preventing “excessive conduct” by politicians and bureaucrats.
By-passing the will of the people and striking a blow for republicanism, Carr’s clandestine coup was the action of a petulant schoolboy grown into a cunning and vengeful politician.
As Hugh Mackay wrote at the time : “ Every tribe needs its elders. Every community needs its rituals. Every society needs ceremony. Civic symbols are the things that reassure ourselves about our heritage, our identity and our distinctive place in the world.”
The Governor lives in Government House in all States except New South Wales. He is the host for the State, the “elder” who is the only check on the unlimited power of Government .
Isn’t the decision of one man, fixated on ideology, now ready for reappraisal?