John Howard made a bad choice when he picked Archbishop Peter Hollingworth in 2001 as Governor-General. His second attempt, Major-General (retired) Michael Jeffrey, is not so much the wrong choice as culturally the wrong direction.
Howard proudly announced Major-General Jeffrey, who was Governor of Western Australia from 1993 to 2000, as the first Australian-born military man to be appointed as Governor-General. A former director of the SAS, and a winner of the Military Cross in the Vietnam War, he departs from the practice over the past four decades of appointing distinguished judges (Zelman Cowen, Ninian Stephen, Bill Deane - arguably the finest Governor-General this country has ever seen) or political nearly-men (Dick Casey, Paul Hasluck, Bill Hayden).
But of all the directions that Howard could have taken the position, he has taken the military line... in fact, an Australian-born parallel to the British-born G-G of his own teenage years, Bill Slim. There are so many directions that Howard could have taken and enhanced the diversity of the nation: academics, sportspeople, businesspersons. Instead, we've gone down the army line.
Jeffrey seems a nice enough bloke with fine personal qualities. His background does seem to be highly conservative and WASP-ish. He caused a slight furore in 1995 while Governor of WA when he appeared to support the long-discredited policy of "assimilation" for Aboriginals. He quickly retracted and, it is fair to say, that was probably the major gaffe of his gubernatorial term.
But what is there to make of his role immediately before becoming G-G, as Chairman of Future Directions International? Formerly known as the Centre for International Strategic Analysis, FDI is a supposedly apolitical not-for-profit consultancy group, a "strategic think-tank". Their website, www.futuredirections.org.au, doesn't give a lot away. I don't see a lot of humanitarianism coming to the fore, put it that way.
The Governor-General should be a ceremonial role. When (not if) the Republic comes, the President will probably be very similar in function to the G-G, except that he will be elected - whether by a popular vote or by a joint sitting of parliament is something that was hotly disputed before the last referendum. As it stands now, the Prime Minister can make his choice without consulting anyone and send it off to the Queen for rubber-stamping. In Hollingworth and Jeffrey, John Howard has come up with two Governors-General true to his own narrow sense of vision - a father figure from Howard's Anglican church, and a symbol of military might.
A quick look around the states shows some comparatively enlightened choices of Governor, including three women (Maree Bashir in NSW, Quentin Bryce in Queensland, and Marjorie Jackson in South Australia), and John Landy in Victoria who, like Jackson, was a champion athlete and national sporting hero of his day. Some other great possibilties for Governor-General have gone begging: Lowitja O'Donohue, former chairwoman of ATSIC, and Tim Fischer, former National Party leader and deputy prime minister to Howard being two of the most outstanding. Sadly, they, like many others, fall outside the narrow and anachronistic scope of Howard's Menzian vision.