Australia’s Hung Parliament and the Governor General’s Moral Dilemma

Last week questions were raised about whether Quentin Bryce should excuse herself from the Governor-General’s role in the event of a hung parliament because of a conflict of interest. Bryce’s son-in-law, Bill Shorten, is a Labor MP likely to have a senior role in the Gillard government if it retains power.

In response to the outcry, the Governor-General has sought legal advice on “concerns raised about her personal position in the current political circumstances”.

Instances of conflict of interest are recurring ethical and legal issues in societies governed by the rule of law. This can be seen in ancient maxims that warn a man not to “serve two masters” or be a “judge in his own cause.”

Conflicts are inevitable. Public officers have family, friends and colleagues to whom they owe loyalty. Sometimes their duties can conflict, like where their role positions them to make decisions that could materially benefit those to whom they are personally tied.

Where this occurs, public officers must recognise it and act swiftly to address the problem. Failure to do so can undermine trust in the integrity of the decision, the office and the institutions of democratic society generally.

What all this boils down to is a distinct set of propositions. First, that having a conflict of interest isn’t what makes you wrong, it’s the failure to address an actual or perceived one that’s the problem. Second, identification of a potential conflict does not and must not be understood to impugn the office-holder’s personal integrity.

This second point, so misunderstood in the debate so far, is worth emphasising. No one concerned about conflict is saying Bryce lacks integrity. Rather, they want consideration of a more abstract question, which is this: is it in the best interest of Australia that someone in the Governor-General’s role, and with her family ties, excuse herself from making decisions about the formation of Australia’s next government in order to avoid bias or the perception of bias?

The general, rather than personal, nature of this question explains why a person with conflicts cannot effectively redress them by swearing to act in an impartial way. Behaviour need not actually be biased for public trust to be damaged, a perception of bias is enough. This is why public officers are morally obliged to absent themselves from decision where there is a conflict or others could see it that way.

Those who raised concerns at the Governor-General’s family ties were driven by concerns about good governance. They have been disheartened by the seizure of the issue by those with republican and partisan agendas. Such rough handling of a matter of principle also insults the public, which has made clear at this past election that they yearn to be treated like intelligent citizens capable of principled debate.

The advice handed to the Governor-General on Friday suggested that while the legal situation was clear, the moral one was open. The Solicitor-General said that while Bryce was under no legal obligation to disqualify herself, her personal relationships “fall to be managed as a matter of prudence”. Prudence is a moral virtue meaning wisdom or good judgment.

Whether it would be wise for Bryce to make critical calls about power, or whether it would be prudent to delegate this power to someone else, remains a judgment she must make.

Publication history

How some manipulators have hijacked GG's moves  The Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)