David Hurley governor-general
Australia's incoming governor-general David Hurley. (Image: AAP/Sean Davey)

In an announcement conveniently timed to coincide with Labor’s national conference, Scott Morrison announced David Hurley, a former Defence Force chief, as Australia’s next governor-general. For Morrison, who describes himself as a “traditionalist” about such matters, Hurley is a safe pick. Once he takes over from Sir Peter Cosgrove next year, Hurley will be the third of the last four governors-general to come from the military top brass.

While Hurley is, by all accounts, well-respected, inoffensive, and has had a competent four-year run as NSW Governor, the appointment of another white male general has led to calls for the position to better reflect Australia’s diversity. Indeed, when compared with the picks from similar constitutional monarchies like New Zealand and Canada, Australia’s governor-general appointments reflect a real sense of conservatism.

From aristocrats to army men

In the 50-odd years after Federation, the position of governor-general was dominated by a series of Eton and Oxbridge-educated British aristocrats and Conservative Party politicians, many of whom also had military experience. This included seven barons, four viscounts, two earls and a prince.

Sir Isaac Isaacs, a former chief justice of the High Court, broke the mould when he became the first Australian-born governor-general in 1931. Isaacs would also be the first of a series of legal types to hold the position, including fellow High Court judges Sir Ninian Stephen and Sir William Deane. In 2003, Michael Jeffrey became the first Australian military officer to be appointed (although several of his early predecessors held positions in the British army), marking the start of the current trend.

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A missed opportunity?

When announcing Hurley’s appointment, Morrison celebrated the values of “stability, continuity, [and] certainty” that the former army chief brought to the role. Still, it’s unclear why these requisite values for a governor-general can only be carried out by a white army man.

In both New Zealand and Canada, where the governor-general occupies a fairly similar role, recent appointments have deviated from the script. Like Australia, both countries saw a series of B-grade British aristocrats hold the position during the early 20th century, before greater independence from the Crown led to a series of homegrown governors-general. However, both countries have been quicker to diversify the office. Canada made Jeanne Sauvé their first female governor-general in 1984, and New Zealand followed suit with the appointment of Dame Catherine Tizard six years later. Since then, Canada and New Zealand have respectively had three and two female governors-general. Australia’s first and only female governor-general, Dame Quentin Bryce, took office in 2008.

Canada and New Zealand’s recent appointments also better reflect their countries’ racial diversity. Two of Canada’s recent female governors-general come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds — Adrienne Clarkson was born in Hong Kong, while her successor Michaëlle Jean was a Haitian refugee. New Zealand, meanwhile, has had two Maori governors-general, Sir Paul Reeves and Sir Jeffrey Mateparae. Sir Anand Satyanand, who served in the early 2000s, is of Fijian-Indian descent.

Canada, in particular, has also looked beyond traditional high-powered professions like law, politics and the military for its recent picks. Incumbent Governor-General Julie Payette is a former astronaut, and the three women to hold the position before her were journalists with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The impending retirement of Peter Cosgrove presented the government with an opportunity to breathe new life into the role by recommending someone with a fresh and different voice. Instead, that opportunity has been missed, with Morrison’s cautious traditionalism putting Australia further out of step with New Zealand and Canada.

But all this may be for naught — with Bill Shorten promising a plebiscite into becoming a republic if Labor is elected next year, David Hurley could be our last governor-general.

What do you think of David Hurley? Who else would you like to see in the job? Let us know: boss@crikey.com.au.