Richard Butler was always going to be a controversial choice of Governor but now we have a full-blown crisis engulfing the vice-regal office and a media feeding frenzy is developing.

From the first August 6 sealed section

The Mercury’s campaign against Tasmanian governor Richard Butler is cranking up by the day. It all started with those leaked details of his honeymoon flights shortly after he was appointed by Jim Bacon last year.

This week we’ve had Thursday’s stories – Butler future in fine focus and Governor making a scene.

Not satisfied with highlighting his pay package, job-sharing with the missus and claiming he was not doing the job promised, The Mercury is really cranking up the pressure as The Butler performs on stage in Sydney.

Ellen Whinnett, the reporter who came up with the original Singapore Airlines flight yarn, has produced today’s splash – Top Butler aides quit.

ABC radio political reporter Andrew Probyn also had the story last night and gave it a big rev this morning, prompting interest from AM which ran this story and updated version of which also ran on The World Today. By the time PM came along, we also had the audio from the altercation between Butler, his wife and Channel Ten reporter John Hill in Sydney.

Maybe Iron Mark should make him the next GG as he’s getting a regular roasting in Tassie. And what about these claims about Jim Bacon saying on his death bed that the Butler appointment was his biggest regret.

Did his will request The Mercury’s editor Gary Bailey try to force him out early?

The Mercury vs the Butler

From the second August 6 sealed section

The Richard Butler story is just amazing. Crikey today publishes one pro and one anti-Butler piece as the debate rages.

A Tasmanian vice-regal expert writes:

Dear Crikey, you are right, The Mercury does have it in for Richard Butler, but the only question to ask is why? What has the Governor done that is so wrong?

It appears that News Ltd has an agenda to have him removed, and seem to be very poorly informed. For example in today’s Mercury, they are on the case again saying that the three top aides have resigned because the place is a shambles. Well, that is not true.

First, one person was removed by the Premier’s office, because that person was responsible for most of the false stories emanating from Government house, the residents of the house were not even involved in that decision.

Another resigned, because they could not take the pressure from The Mercury, and the third person’s contract was up, and wanted a change.

Other fallacies: Butler got into trouble for not attending a Vietnam veterans day, again it was not his choice, as he does not make his
appointments – think about it.

The pay – be does not set his pay, it is set by pre existing legislation, proportioned on the pay of the Chief Justice, so if people are complaining that he is getting payed too much, who’s fault is that?

The flight upgrade – the Gov did not demand, he was offered the upgrade, when booking the trip.

The Missus – she got into trouble for hosting a state function when the Gov was away, given that when told of the function, she asked the permanent secretary what the protocol was (ie should the Lt Gov or Deputy Gov do it?), she was told by those who know, that NO, she should do it – so what would you do?

And on it goes.

What is The Mercury’s agenda, and what exactly is its motivation, that would make a good story. Ask about the get Butler memo doing the rounds in News Ltd, and ask where did it originate, the answer could be surprising.

The downside of Richard Butler

By a Tasmanian subscriber

The embarrassment that was Richard Butler’s appointment as Tasmania’s governor has just turned into a crisis with the walkout of the two most senior Government House staffers, official secretary John Chilcott and senior advisor Anne Parker.

The yarn went Australia-wide this morning on the ABC’s AM program, but The Mercury’s Ellen Whinnett was the only local newspaper political journo to get the scoop in time and her editor duly splashed the yarn across the front page here.

Crikey’s use of the term “crisis” is not a throw-away line; revered political commentator Dr Richard Herr from the University of Tasmania has labelled it so.

And why? Sure, Butler is a rude and arrogant bore, not able to get on with his staff, let alone his constituents. But that, on its own, does not make a crisis: half the politicians and company leaders in Australia fit that bill. To be a crisis, Butler needs to actually do something wrong, something that could call into question his capacity to do the job. A mere clash of personalities is not enough.

According to Herr, Butler has headed into territory where his ability to fill the role can be questioned. To paraphrase Herr from ABC radio this morning, the reasons are:

  1. The Liberal opposition has raised the prospect of withdrawing its support for the Governor. Not necessarily enough in itself, but Herr points out it was Simon Crean’s decision to withdraw support for Hollingworth that finally tipped him to resign.
  2. There are some real legal and constitution queries over the things Butler is doing. Herr believes that changes to the office instigated by the Butlers may amount to conventional and constitutional impropriety. The newly created position of executive assistant, to replace the aide-de-camp, and apparent “job sharing” of the role of governor with his wife Jennifer were causes for legal concern.
  3. The reserve powers of the governor in Tasmania, because of the likelihood of minority governments (there have been two in the past decade, and are more likely than not under Hare-Clark) means that the role is much more that tea parties and ribbon cutting. It is imperative that the Governor of the day has the confidence not only of the parliament but also of the people if and when called upon to exercise those powers after an election.

The ball is now in Premier Paul Lennon’s court. Labor might be promoting the Jim Bacon vision for all it is worth, but this is one Bacon legacy you can bet they wish they never had. Opposition leader Rene Hidding is gleefully putting the pressure on Lennon to act, and will continue to pour on the bile. His next step will be to officially draw support. Hidding knows he has overwhelming public support behind him so will not back down, and nor should he.

Lennon has been off work all week in bed with the flu. When he got the call late yesterday of the staff walkout it would be no surprise that he headed back under the covers and called for some more vapour rub.

But he can’t stay there for ever. But what do do? If he takes the line that this is an internal Government House matter, then the animosity to Butler will continue to grow, the Liberals will withdraw support, and a kind of stand-off will develop: the public, cheered on by the Libs, versus the Governor. And the mud will continue to stick on Lennon.

He could have a quiet word with Butler and convince him to resign. Politically, this would be the best result for Lennon but what are the chances of Butler doing that? About zero. Lennon queered his patch with Butler earlier this year when he issued an extraordinary public rebuke of Butler for commenting on the Bush administration in a speech. Since then the two have only spoken on official occasions.

Lennon’s only real option is to sack him. He can’t do this directly, but he can inform the Queen that his government has lost confidence in the Governor and ask that he be replaced. An enormous step to take but what are his alternatives? It will only get worse so he may as well cut his losses. The Liberals will claim a victory, which is fair enough, but Lennon will be doing something that most Tasmanians would support, and he would be showing leadership.

Butler deserves all he gets. He has failed to realise that the position he took required him to be a servant to the people. He failed to realise that, above all other personal qualities, he needed to show restraint, empathy, dignity and humility. What did we get? Commoners done good; tacky “nouveau riche”.

A final word on departing official secretary John Chilcott, a senior public servant with an unimpeachable reputation. After more than a decade as a clerk at Parliament House he moved to senior positions as advisor to various ministers, both Liberal and Labor (including a stint with “mouth from the south” Michael Hodgman). His undoubted ability, plus his reputation for impartiality, earned him the position of official secretary to the previous Governor, Sir Guy Green. Green has been perhaps Tasmania’s most popular Governor and Chilcott thrived under his patronage. Tasmanians will say that dealing with Government House was a pleasure while occupied by Green and Chilcott.

Chilcott lasted nearly a year with Butler. Never a gossip, Chilcott would only confide to friends that his new master was “different” to Sir Guy, but those close to him new it would be only a matter of time before his personal integrity would lead him to walk. The fact that Anne Parker, also well regarded, chose to walk with him says volumes about the morale at Government House.

The Mercury
has got its teeth into Richard Butler, but is it a campaign to force him from office? Not really. The Mercury is the most tabloid of the daily newspapers in Tasmania (although they would deny this) and has just sniffed the public mood and run with it.

Butler has an image problem, but he has brought it on himself. If he was the right man for the job, he would have made a more intelligent assessment of how he would be perceived when he first took office. He should have realised that he would come under intense scrutiny, not only because he is a declared republican but also because he had a hard act to follow in Sir Guy Green.

A sensible, thoughtful, sensitive person would have realised that he could not, particularly in his opening few months, be a revolutionary governor – the public just would not accept such an approach. An astute, caring, respectful person would have realised that the primary attributes for the position centred on interpersonal skills – with his staff, with the government and with the people.

There is no conspiracy to oust Richard Butler. Sure, The Mercury is pouring petrol on the flames, but it is Butler’s own incapacity to grasp the requirements of his position that first ignited the fire, and keeps it burning.