In January 1996, NSW was in sleepy holiday mood when 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 house in suburban Bronte.
There was no public discussion or parliamentary debate and neither the Labor Caucus nor Cabinet was consulted. Carr was shredding the Constitution on his own terms in a swift and brutal coup.
Contemptuous of democratic principles, Carr announced that the incoming governor, Justice Gordon Samuels, would keep a full-time salary, although actually being a part-time Governor as he was already chairman of the Law Reform Commission. But he’d keep that salary too.
As Law Reform Commission chairman (soon due for renewal) Samuels would effectively be appointing himself. He appeared blind to this conflict of interests and strenuously denied it.
Taking us for idiots, Carr tried to hoodwink us into believing a breathtaking untruth: that he was restoring ownership of Government House to the people — the house which has always belonged to the people of NSW!
Dishing up another deception, Carr trumpeted that a Governor living at home would save money. It actually costs $600,000 more annually to maintain and provide security for not one, but three establishments: the Governor’s own home, the city office and Government House itself (or “museum”, as it is listed under the Historic Houses Trust), as well as security for the Governor’s constant shuttling between all three.
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 unspecified cultural beacon, but nothing could be finalised until the “evacuation” (an insulting description of outgoing 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 their kitchen, with dishtowels at the ready. Mrs Samuels suggested that the Queen would be welcome to stay as they had “a very nice spare room across the backyard”.
Public outrage erupted. People in New South Wales suddenly realised they’d been ambushed. A few weeks later, 20,000 people packed central Sydney to protest against Carr’s 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.
People saw Government House as a symbol of their heritage, tradition and constitutional stability that are part of a civilised society. They asked how a part-time Governor could undertake the country visits and attend the many community and ceremonial functions that, quite apart from constitutional duties, a Governor is expected to fulfil.
Having to live in their own home, means that no-one from rural or regional Australia, however deserving or distinguished, can be appointed Governor of NSW. You can’t commute from Dubbo. Country people, particularly, were up-in-arms at Labor’s insult.
Carr knew that the next election was three years away; but even so, Labor was unnerved by the unexpected public backlash — exactly as are Gillard’s troops today over her carbon tax. So Carr changed tack: talk of turning Government House into an art gallery was scrapped and Samuel’s part-time position was quietly buried.
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 in NSW, 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?
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 mind by cutting him adrift from the historic, traditional, outward symbol of authority, prestige and leadership that is Government House.
Cost-cutting claims and “giving Government House back to the people” camouflaged his real reason for “evicting” the Governor: Carr 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.
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.”
In 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 he world.”
Government House is a functioning, lived-in home/office in all states except NSW. The Governor, as the “elder”, is host for the state and the only check we have on the unlimited power of government.
Isn’t the decision of one man, fixated on ideology, now ready for reappraisal?
Julia Patrick is a Sydney-based writer on social issues.