NOW THAT THE TEXT of the Governor-General’s speech to the Press Gallery has been made public (many thanks Selwyn) my first question would have to be: “How in God’s name did John Armstrong construct the article that appeared in yesterday’s (13/11/13) NZ Herald out of Sir Jerry Mateparae’s address?”
As Dean Knight from the Victoria University Law School put it in a comment to my original posting:
“The speech itself is entirely orthodox and benign. It repeats the principles governing the exercise of the reserve prerogative power to appoint a government/PM – echoing the principles articulated by all GGs since Hardie-Boys (and since recorded in the Cabinet Manual).”
Having read the speech, that was also my conclusion. The way in which Armstrong interpreted the Governor-General’s remarks was in no way supported by the official text of his remarks. (I do, however, continue to have serious reservations about the Governor-General meeting privately with selected political journalists – even if, according to Sir Jerry’s speech, such meetings have become a traditional feature of each Governor-General’s term.)
So, if Armstrong’s article is to be rendered intelligible, at least two explanations must be considered. The first is that his impressions were formed not by the official text of the Governor-General’s speech, but by its actual delivery – including asides, impromptu anecdotes, and any responses he may have given to questions put to him by the assembled journalists. Armstrong may also have merged his hosts official remarks with the off-the-record conversation that flowed backwards and forwards across the Government House dining table. If Armstrong’s article is an accurate reflection of the Governor-General’s utterances over the course of the entire evening, then the concerns raised in the original posting still stand.
The other explanation is that Armstrong, in an outrageous attempt to gild them with vice-regal authority, is guilty of putting his own thoughts and prejudices (or those of his newspaper) into the mouth of New Zealand’s Head-of-State. I have to say, however, that in the years I have known John Armstrong he has never given me the slightest cause to believe he would behave so unprofessionally.
And so we are left with a conundrum. Either the text of the Governor-General’s speech is a very poor reflection of the ideas he actually espoused to his Press Gallery guests; or, John Armstrong has misrepresented his comments in an utterly unprofessional way.
There were, of course, other journalists present at the dinner-party. Perhaps they can clear up the obvious discrepancy between Sir Jerry’s official text and their colleague’s summary of his views on the likely outcome of the 2014 General Election – and his role in identifying and commissioning the resulting government?
Because it is a very important matter – as the events which took place in Canada five years ago dramatically demonstrate.
In December 2008 Canada was gripped by a constitutional crisis. The Conservative Party government of the day, led by Stephen Harper, had lost the confidence of the Canadian legislature, and was seeking to have Parliament prorogued (sent home) by the Governor-General in order to avoid a Confidence Motion he was bound to lose. The Governor-General, Michaelle Jean, had hurried back from an overseas trip to be present in the capital.
As the debate over whether or not the Governor-General should accede to Harper’s request, his party launched a series of radio attack ads against his parliamentary rivals; calling upon its supporters to flood the Governor-General’s office with letters and e-mails; and even proposing a mass pro-Government demonstration outside her official residence. Canada’s trade union leaders responded by calling protest rallies of their own to condemn the Government’s “unconstitutional” intentions.
What was interesting about Harper’s reaction to the coming together of his parliamentary enemies, and his potential ouster from power, was its extraordinary and reckless aggression. For the Canadian voter it was a real shock to see the hitherto mild-mannered, non-threatening Harper suddenly transformed into someone hell-bent on clinging to power at almost any cost – up to and including undermining the constitutional integrity of the Queen’s representative.
Canada’s right-wing media were unanimous in insisting that Harper’s Conservatives – as the holder of the largest number of seats in the House of Commons – possessed a “moral mandate” to govern. Harper, himself, insisted that there was something constitutionally suspect about the Liberal, NDP and Le Bloc Quebecois decision to support a No-Confidence Motion against his government.
On 5 December 2008, the crisis was resolved when Canada’s Governor-General, acting against the advice of practically every credible jurist and constitutional expert in the land, accepted the advice of her “dead man walking” Prime Minister and prorogued the Canadian Parliament.
In spite of the fact that Canada is a Commonwealth country with a long democratic tradition, its constitutional crisis of December 2008 received virtually no coverage in New Zealand’s mainstream news media. This was – and is – very worrying. Because the dilemma which the relatively new and inexperienced Governor General, Michaelle Jean, was required to resolve is one that could easily be replicated in New Zealand.
Indeed, precisely how to resolve such a dilemma, or one very like it, is a matter to which (if John Armstrong’s article is to be believed) our own Governor-General is devoting considerable thought.
All the more reason for Mr Armstrong’s journalistic colleagues to give New Zealand’s voters a more fulsome account of the dinner at Government House.