Putting a general in charge

In case anyone missed it, Australia’s next effective head of state has been announced. General Peter Cosgrove, former head of the Australian defence force, will take up the post of governor-general in March. In selecting Cosgrove, prime minister Tony Abbott has met expectations and lived up to his own comment, made last year, that former judges and military personnel make the most suitable governors-general.

In that broad family of countries known as Westminster systems, or parliamentary democracies, there are two common types of head of state. One sort is a hereditary monarch, stripped of all but a small remnant of the powers that their ancestors once exercised; the other is a president, exercising a defined set of formal and ceremonial powers, occasionally elected but more often appointed by some indirect method, such as a joint sitting of parliament.

Australia in theory is in the first camp, with Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state. But for most practical purposes, the head of state is the queen’s representative, the governor-general. The queen appoints her viceroy, but she does so only on the advice of the Australian prime minister.

So the person who performs the duties of head of state is chosen neither by the capricious yet non-political lottery of hereditary succession, nor by the sort of transparent constitutional process used in parliamentary republics. To his credit, the current prime minister has at least given us fair warning of the sort of person he would look for, but the criteria are nonetheless mysterious.

Retired judges make sense. If a head of state ever needs to exercise their powers in a controversial way, in some type of political or constitutional emergency, the questions they will need to consider will first of all be legal questions. Judges are trained for those questions, and trained to deal with them in a detached, non-partisan way. When the chips are down, that’s what we want a head of state to do.

For the same reason, retired politicians also make sense, provided – and it’s a very important proviso – that they are going to be able to put themselves above party politics. That’s a category that Abbott shied away from, but he did so in the context of a particular hypothetical appointee, John Howard. Since Howard is about the last person one could suspect of nonpartisanship, ruling him out need not say anything about the suitability of politicians as a class.

And as it happens, parliamentary republics tend to choose their heads of state largely from the categories of retired judges and politicians. They have also been well represented among Australia’s recent governors-general.

But a head of state is not just a constitutional umpire. They also perform a symbolic role, personifying in some sense the nation’s identity. This is where monarchs, with the accumulated traditions of centuries behind them, are often held to be particularly suitable – as distinct from retired judges, who, whatever their virtues, may seem rather boring.

So what does it say about Australia as a nation – or at least Abbott’s conception of it – if military personnel should be thought most suitable to perform that symbolic role? Is a soldier really any improvement on a sportsperson, entertainer, entrepreneur or academic?

Greg Craven, in a fulsome tribute to Cosgrove, argues that military leaders are well qualified because they have an “implacable ethic of non-political service,” having “lived lives of initiative and achievement, but in service and without political ambition of their own.”

Well, there are a lot of people in society who have demonstrated initiative and achievement to get to where they are – indeed, “initiative” is commonly regarded as a fairly dangerous commodity in the military. And the experience of a great many countries is there to warn us not to assume too readily that generals lack “political ambition of their own.”

If it’s true that Australia’s military have a thoroughly non-political ethos (and I hope it is), that’s a hard-won achievement, not something to take for granted. Putting a general into a position where he gives orders (even if only formal ones) to politicians, rather than the other way around, is probably not the best way to reinforce the message.

While a degree of legal or political understanding is certainly desirable, perhaps more than anything, a head of state should be a unifying force: a figure of consensus rather than division. I’m not convinced that a profession in which the giving and taking of orders play so central a role is really the best training ground for that.

I’ve never met Peter Cosgrove, and I make no comment on his personal qualities or record. (My colleague Bernard Keane had a few things to say yesterday, as did First Dog on the Moon.) But I worry that the campaign to make Australia a major military power, against all geographic logic and common sense, has now got us to the point where having a general in the top job seems so uncontroversial.


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