Peter Cosgrove is certainly a “safe pair of hands” as Australia’s next governor-general. It’s also an entirely predictable pick from Tony Abbott.
Peter Cosgrove will likely do a reasonable job as governor-general. The main prerequisites for the position are community respect, an unblemished past and a small-p political sensibility — the sort Quentin Bryce, who otherwise filled the role admirably, failed to display with her comments about same-sex marriage late last year. Cosgrove certainly is well-regarded — he was Australian of the Year in 2001 — and his career suggests he has functioning political antennae.
As for an unblemished past, well, we’ll get to that.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he believes former soldiers and judges make the best governors-general. That’s a very Abbott thing to say: it lacks even his mentor John Howard’s daring in appointing a religious figure in Peter Hollingworth (another former Australian of the Year), although perhaps Abbott learnt from that debacle. It also means, based on the cultural composition of our senior judges and military personnel, that there’s little chance Abbott would appoint anyone other than an old white man, which describes every governor-general in history until the current one. But so inured are we to the dominance of that demographic in positions of power that it passes virtually unnoticed in the media.
Why exactly Abbott believes former military men make the best governors-general isn’t clear: there’s only been one since the last British governor-general, and that was Michael Jeffrey, who had the unenviable task of replacing Hollingworth. Jeffrey performed satisfactorily, but was a non-entity in the role, certainly compared to the two best governors-general of recent times: Zelman Cowen, who did so much to repair the damage done to the office by his predecessor, and William Deane.
Perhaps Abbott is, consciously or otherwise, indicating a preference for the post-war years when Yarralumla was a retirement gig for former British military figures bored with the House of Lords.
As for Cosgrove, there are a couple of questions that may, or hopefully may not, turn out to be problems during his tenure. As is well known, Cosgrove is a director of Qantas, and a long-serving one — he joined that board in 2005, and is the second-longest serving director after Garry Hounsell. He thus wears responsibility for the current dire state of Qantas as much as anyone, and won’t escape criticism if worst-case scenarios start to unfold.
Cosgrove was also commandant of Duntroon from 1996-98, an institution notorious for its hazing and bastardisation practices over the course of a century. He’s also a graduate himself of that institution. Nothing has so far emerged from the DLA Piper review of allegations of sexual abuse in Defence to suggest anything untoward happened on Cosgrove’s watch. But few knew of the case that eventually brought Peter Hollingworth down until several months after his appointment.
A final thing: John Howard spoke eminent good sense on Radio National this morning in saying that former senior politicians were too divisive for the role of governor-general. Both sides have poor form in this regard, particularly in using Yarralumla as a dumping ground for former leadership rivals — most recently Labor with the appalling appointment of Bill Hayden as final expiation of Bob Hawke’s guilt over knifing him.
Cosgrove is of course a far safer appointment. Which might be the best thing you can say about him.