Flat White

Is our next Governor-General too safe, too male, too white?

9 January 2019

11:30 AM

9 January 2019

11:30 AM

In my book Winners Don’t Cheat, which is aimed at young Australians but accessible to all ages, I warn against identifying role models who simply look like you.  There’s a straightforward reason for this – it expands one’s horizons and motivates us to find professional examples in some unlikely places.

Another reason is that, for individuals, it delivers some sense of affinity.  Regardless of your station, there is something decent and powerful in knowing others have encountered setbacks, fought off challenges and, in most cases, charted their own version of success.  It allows one to raise their vision and, dare I write in such grandiose terms, look beyond race, gender or social background to find some sense of common humanity.

But you wouldn’t get this from reading a critique of our next governor-general David Hurley, who has been recently labelled as ‘too safe, too male and too white’ for the position by a Sydney-based academic.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison, by appointing the former Army general and current Governor of New South Wales, showed that “only those who look and sound like him deserve the elite positions in our society.”

On the surface it is entirely understandable for someone playing identity politics to allude solely to such characteristics.  After all, it is what people playing identity politics do – point to complexion, privilege or gender – and then stamp out any proper or meaningful discussion.

But central to this way of thinking is also the flawed idea of ‘identity as representation’.  Most concerning for this academic, for example, was asking Australians about “[what] we think and feel about the kind of people we want to represent us, who we want to see elevated and admired.”

Looking briefly to the United States, it is an extension of this thinking that has driven all kinds of identity-focused appointments to various leadership positions, tethered to the vein hope that it will advance minority well-being or heal social and cultural chasms.  But as the economist Thomas Sowell, who has spent half a century researching and writing about ethnic groups has noted, “political activity and political success have been neither necessary nor sufficient for economic advancement.  Nor has eager political participation or outstanding success in politics been translated into faster group achievement.”

The most obvious example Sowell and many others cite is black America.  Manhattan Institute Scholar Jason Riley, author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, notes that an explosion in black political representation over the past five decades – mayors, police chiefs, congressmen, senators and even a black president – has actually “had little beneficial impact on the black community.”  By contrast, it is when black Americans possessed very little political power that they achieved significant progress in the areas of employment, family stability and education, mimicking the same trajectory as other groups that have avoided the ‘identity as representation’ route – American Jews, Italians, Japanese and Chinese Americans.

Here in Australia it is an instructive example of not banking too much on the identity of our leaders – as this critique of Hurley has done – but focusing on the traditional characteristics they epitomise, which are generally required for success – education, hard work and being a strong member of the community.  These traits, as one American author notes, “are immeasurably more important than the colour of your mayor, police chief, representatives, senators and president.”  Hurley’s sacrifice, commitment and safe hands are also ‘immeasurably more important’ than his complexion, gender or what family he comes from.

The other criticisms of Hurley’s appointment are alarming in their simplicity but worth briefly addressing.  Hurley, as a former military man, they write, “was not representative of Australia in any way shape or form and their [sic] knowledge of structural barriers would be theoretical at best.”  But last time I checked the military was, if anything, a place of highly earned privilege, especially for a leadership position on an ultra-competitive hierarchy structure.  Many join the ranks from very underprivileged backgrounds – as Victoria Cross recipient Mark Donaldson’s story shows – and push through barriers and prosper.  On the charge of being “too white” one suspects that perhaps the critic would prefer someone like Adam Goodes – a former Australian of the Year – to be a much more satisfying as “a big, bold choice” for governor-general (although Goodes is still a man, ticking only three of the four boxes).  And as for being “too safe” or “too familiar”, it is not too far a leap to suggest that Hurley’s stability would be a breath of fresh air from our revolving door politics.

It was after serving as governor-general that the former Labor leader and minister Bill Hayden said that our current system, due to the known constraints of the vice-regal office, works well. “If we move away from that and there is no restraint,” he said, “then my apprehension would be that we could go through periods – intense periods sometimes – of quite unstable government.”  To destabilise such an important position in the service of identity politics would not only commit this folly but be a huge disservice to everything Australia stands for.

Sean Jacobs is a member of the Australian Monarchist League and author of Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian.

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