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The choice of a clergyman as the next Governor General is radical

By Natasha Stott Despoja - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

The Queen of Australia is also Head of the Church of England. Her representative in Australia, the Governor General, is a position soon to be held by an Anglican Archbishop. We can safely rule out any holy wars but it does raise some interesting questions about the position of Governor General.

Over the last 100 years, the twenty-two Australian Governors General are a list of Earls, Knights, Barons, Dukes, and Viscounts drawn from politics, the law, the military or royalty. As such the Prime Minister's decision to appoint the first clergyman, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, is quite radical.

There are other ‘firsts’ the Prime Minister could have achieved. Many Australians hoped to see the first indigenous Governor General or the first woman. Instead the Prime Minister went for the first clergyman. Australia could have got a Dame, a Lady or a Duchess, a female Judge or some other community leader (although not a female Archbishop because there aren’t any).


Granted there have been church leaders appointed to state Governor positions and in New Zealand, a Governor General, but this is the first appointment of a religious leader to the position of Governor General in Australia. It involves some interesting symbolism, particularly as the Howard Government has pursued a greater role for the churches in the provision of social services.

The origins of the separation of church and state are American where the institutions agreed they would not interfere in each other’s administration. American democracy was distancing itself from the British tradition where at one time one had to be a member of the Church of England to hold public office.

In the Australian Constitution (Chapter V, Section 116) it is clear that the Commonwealth shall not legislate in respect of religion and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. However, the Constitution leaves ample scope for Government to confer upon the church roles and responsibilities the Government itself should assume.

The Howard Government has been 'outsourcing' care of the disadvantaged (the unemployed, refugees, and older Australians) to religious and charitable organisations. The pursuit of ‘faith-based’ solutions to social problems should not be an excuse for government to abandon the needy. We cannot replace the social safety net with a holy philanthropic culture.

From his decade as executive director of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Archbishop Hollingworth would be well aware that religious and community bodies often pick up the pieces resulting from callous government policies towards the disadvantaged.

The Department of Employment (DEWRSB) is busily devising strategies to encourage Job Network agencies to impose more breaches on the unemployed. However, it is organisations – religious and non-denominational – that deal with the human face of welfare recipients and their poverty and frustration at losing payments when they do not successfully jump bureaucratic and activity hurdles.


The Australian Democrats have supported easing the financial and bureaucratic burden on these organisations through the Tax and Charities Inquiry. The Democrats have even been waggishly described as the political arm of the Uniting Church. We certainly respect religious beliefs and we respect the right of people not to have religious beliefs.

The funding of religious organisations to provide employment services for Job Network has raised a number of concerns exacerbated by the then Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott’s intimations that agencies have a right to discriminate in the provision of services to members of the community, such as homosexuals.

Public debate about the provision of public funds to religious organisations to provide government services will continue. Archbishop Hollingworth has commented in the past that church agencies would need to constantly review why they are involved in service delivery and whether it is compatible with the core objectives of the gospel.

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About the Author

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was the Australian Democrats spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Attorney-Generals, Science & Biotechnology, Higher Education and the Status of Women (including Work & Family). She is a former Senator for South Australia.

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