Dinner At Government House – Continued.

By   /   November 14, 2013  /   5 Comments

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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.)

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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.

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5 Comments

  1. John Armstrong says:

    Chris – The comment piece I wrote was based solely on the content of the speech as published on Scoop and elsewhere. The GG stuck to that text. There were no off-the-record chats or secret briefings. It is correct that the speech was very much in line with the Hardie-Boys’ interpretation of the GG’s role. But I had not heard a GG talk about abstentions on confidence votes, the possibility that the party with the most seats might not be in Government, and, the public’s supposed expectation that any governing arrangement last the full three years.
    The question is why the GG made those points. I was not the only journalist present who was left wondering. Three of us discussed it afterwards and concluded there was a message in it. The GG chose his words very carefully. And, although on one level the speech was pretty dull, a lot of thought had obviously gone into the wording. It is entirely possible that I have read too much into it — but instinct and experience tell me otherwise. I thought I should write something (a) because it was interesting and (b) people like your good self should be made aware of it. By the way, the dinner was for all journalists accredited to the press gallery, not a select few.

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  2. Alan Ivory says:

    Thank you to both Chris Trotter and John Armstrong for their mutually civil discussion of this important issue. The really important questions raised by the speech set out in John Armstrong’s comment above were perhaps a little too coded in his Herald article.

    I read Chris Trotter’s first blog, the Herald article and the text of the speech in that order and missed the points made by John Armstrong’s comment above.

    Like Dean Knight (see his comment to Chris Trotter’s first blog) who is a very capable lawyer, I thought the speech merely uttered the well established rules. It appears Chris Trotter may be on to something after all.

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  3. MPH says:

    What a bunch of nonsense.

    It is a well-established role of the GG to explain to the public (inc journalists) how the GG will exercise his/her powers in various contexts. This is to ensure an orderly and straight-forward transition to a new government, and a situation where everyone knows the rules. I’d suggest that the reason political journalists are targeted is that they are prone to whipping up hysteria about “constitutional crisis!” at every available opportunity, and so need the rules explained to them… slowly.

    Like it or not – the GG does have decisions to make – and it’s incumbent on him to make sure he is very clear about how he’ll exercise his powers. It’s a “no surprises” constitution.

    In that context, it would make sense for the current GG to point out some of the things which might be novel for the next election. One of those, is that the party with the most votes might not form a government. Trotter’s point about some people in Canada misunderstanding this (and indeed he might have pointed out that some political journalists in NZ seem to misunderstand this) only strengthens the cause for the GG to make it clear.

    It’s also very appropriate to explain, as other GGs have explained, that the a party should make clear and unambiguous indications of their intentions. That is precisely to avoid the GG having to get involved.

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  4. “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.”

    Sorry – this isn’t an accurate reflection of the history of the issue.

    See, e.g., this summary of views of “credible jurists and constitutional experts”: http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?art=1417&param=203

    “Of the scholarship on the Harper-Jean prorogation of 2008, Andrew Heard occupies one extreme in his support for the use of the reserve power in matters of prorogation and the argument that Governor General Michaelle Jean should have rejected Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s advice to prorogue in 2008. In the middle, C.E.S. Franks also acknowledges the applicability of the reserve power to prorogation but reluctantly concludes that “the governor general made the right decision.” Peter Hogg, Adam Dodek and Barbara Messamore accept that the reserve power still applies to prorogation but believe that the governor general wisely accepted the prime minister’s advice for various reasons more emphatic than those of Professor Franks. Professor Hogg, for instance, believes that an imminent vote of confidence suffices to activate the reserve power that allows a governor general to reject a prime minister’s advice. At the other extreme, Henri Brun argues that the governor general possessed no personal discretion because the reserve power does not apply to prorogation; he supports a more narrow interpretation of the power and would sanction it only in the gravest emergency. Guy Tremblay agrees with Professor Brun and believes that “the governor general must accede to a request of prorogation or dissolution.” Finally, based on the writings of the late Professor Robert MacGregor Dawson, the Harper-Jean prorogation of 2008 did not meet the constitutional test on the acceptable use of the reserve power.”

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  5. Ovicula says:

    If a GG were required who would run riot over what’s left of our democracy, this one fits the bill. Ex-military, a great servant of the American Empire in Afghanistan, a spymaster, and a mate of Key’s. The right in their sense of entitlement to rule can justify absolutely anything, so we need to be prepared. And while we’re at it, we should get rid of this useless hangover of colonisation for once and for all.

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