2001_06_june_leader28jun deane

by on June 6, 2001

Today it is the last day of the Governor-Generalship of Sir William Deane. He has been, to borrow the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern governor-general. He was like many of his predecessors, a man of law. The law, politics and the military have provided the vast majority of Australia’s Governors-General. Unlike most of his predecessors, he bought a great deal of humanity and spirit to the job.

In it his five-and-a-half years he went well beyond the official and ceremonial tasks that make up the bulk of the job specification of Governor-General. In a many ways he represented the national conscience. He was a champion of the disadvantaged. Without fuss he helped the homeless, the disadvantaged, indigenous people, the poor, sick children and a host of charities. He was at his best as representative of the nation in a time of tragedy. It was at his instigation — not the Government’s – – that the first memorial and grief service for the Port Arthur victims was held it in Canberra. He followed it by assuming the role of national chief mourner after the Black Hawk helicopter crash, the Thredbo landslide, the Childers backpacker hostel fire and in 1999 personally going to Interlaken in Switzerland for a ceremony for the Australians killed in the canyoning disaster. On that occasion he personally picked 14 it sprigs of wattle from his Yarralumla gardens to give it to relatives to throw into the Saxetenbach Gorge. When the two CARE Australia workers were jailed in Yugoslavia he tied yellow and green ribbons to the balustrade at Yarralumla.

He did these things in addition to the usual and diarised ceremonies on Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, a Australia Day and the Queen’s birthday. It was the former additional things that made his Governor-Generalship so unique.

Many would say he sailed close to the wind politically by embracing people and causes that were not exactly flavour of the month of the government in office. Indeed, the government of the day had made it its business to make life more difficult for some of the people Sir William was a championing – particularly the poor and the indigenous.

Sir William was appointed by the previous Labor Government. But he was certainly not one of the Labor fold in a way that his predecessor, Bill Hayden, was. At the time of his appointment he was a High Court to judge and for the vast majority of Australians an unknown quantity.

But it Sir William quickly gained the respect of a great number of Australians because of the quiet diligence with which he went about his task. He was not one for fanfare and ceremony. He did not need these things to make his point. Sir William played the role that probably most Australians would like to see their head of state play — a person aside or above of the ruck of politics yet one who can take on the mantle of the national conscience, pride or celebration as the occasion demands.

Sir William’s tenure illustrates the point that it is the qualities of the human who occupies the office rather than a the formal job description that determines how worthwhile the job is. One suspects that Sir William would have handled the 1975 crisis in a far better way than Sir John Kerr.

The important thing that for Australians now is to ensure that when at the last unnecessary formal constitutional ties to the monarch are severed, that the new position of Australian head of state, whether called Governor-General or President, will attract more people like Sir William Deane. Australia has been well served.

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