While Howard begins his defense of the Cole report in parliament today, he’s also fending off an increasingly renegade governor general. Michael Jeffery, the man Howard appointed after the Peter Hollingworth debacle three years ago, is tired of being “Mr Nobody”.

The rift between the two won’t be healed while Howard continues to perform many of the jobs traditionally associated with the Queen’s representative. The problem for Howard is that Michael Jeffery still thinks the G-G has an important part to play in the life of the nation.

“Ironic isn’t it?” Greg Barns, former head of the Australian republican movement and author of the recently published An Australian Republic told Crikey. “Howard is the bloke who indicated in 1999 that if we were to change the constitution it would affect the stability of the country. Yet he is now usurping that role. Howard is essentially behaving like an elected president. He’s morphing his role into the office of an elected president, but he was so adamant in 1999 that we maintain those offices.”

According to Barns, the G-G’s image problem, as detailed in The Australian over the weekend, is largely of the PM’s creation. Major General Michael Jeffery was a good fit: politically conservative and dour in temperament, he was ideally suited for diffusing the tensions surrounding the governor general’s role. That was three years ago – now we have a governor general who is tired of being ignored.

Royal watcher Barry Everingham puts it more bluntly: “Jeffery is seeing the dignity of the office being leaked away by a sleazy politician. Jeffery’s main worry is the credibility of the office. What he’s worried about is the public’s lack of recognition. But Howard will deny he has knobbled Jeffery ,” says Everingham. “Jeffery will be told to shut up, but I don’t think he will.”

John Warhurst, Professor of Political Science at the ANU, says he’s not surprised to see tensions between the PM and Jeffery becoming public; in Jeffery, Howard is now getting far more than he bargained for.

“Howard was banking on a G-G who kept well out of the limelight. Jeffery is fighting for the office, which of course goes against the PM’s own agenda, which is to marginalize the office. I don’t think it’s cynical necessarily. And I actually think Howard performs those roles pretty well. But as a consequence, it intrudes in to the area where Michael Jeffery could have played a bigger role.”

Given his opponent, Jeffery’s battle to return some prestige to the governor general’s office may turn out to be just as symbolic as the work he does.

Peter Fray

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