Kevin Rudd’s announcement of Queensland Governor Quentin Bryce’s appointment to replace Major General Michael Jeffery was perfectly timed on Sunday afternoon to make that night’s TV news and to allow journos to file copy for Monday’s headlines in the press.
Yesterday, the media were on the hunt for reaction quotes. Interestingly, I received a few phone calls from Southern media asking me if I could suggest people to comment about Bryce’s ascension to the top job. I was a tad surprised to be contacted, so I asked one producer why. "Oh, we don’t really know anyone in Queensland," was the reply.
And therein lies a tale.
Speculation about Jeffery’s replacement had barely begun. Sure, there was a brief flurry of Beazley-for-GG stories back in January, but Jeffery doesn’t leave office until September. Because of the symbolism of the job, there had been a fair bit of discussion about whether Rudd would appoint the first woman to hold the office. NSW Governor Marie Bashir had been mentioned in dispatches, but as far as I can tell, Bryce was completely off the radar.
Indeed, although Bryce had earlier held several national appointments – including a high profile stint as Sex Discrimination Commissioner – and had been Principal of Sydney University’s Women’s College, journos set off on an obvious scramble to find out exactly who this woman from Queensland was and what she’d done with her career to date. Rudd had obviously picked the fact that a key theme would be her State of origin, and was at pains to pour water on a possible claim that Bryce was part of some Queensland mafia, along with himself and Wayne Swan, noting that he didn’t know her well.
Such questions would not have been raised had she been one of the numerous appointments to government positions from NSW or Victoria, and had (as most frequently happens) the PM and Treasurer hailed from NSW and/or Victoria.
Lest I be thought to be taking a parochial banana bender angle on Bryce’s elevation, let me observe that there are several layers of symbolism inherent in this appointment – all undoubtedly intended by Kevin Rudd.
As with the 2020 Summit’s call for the best and brightest across the land to descend on Canberra, Rudd is demonstrating by deed as well as word that in modern Australia, careers should be open to "all the talents". Regardless of whether journos and commentators from the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle have Bryce – or any other prominent Queenslanders – in their mental card indexes, people of talent and resolve, he’s suggesting, should be able to ascend from rural Queensland to the highest offices in the land. Sound familiar?
That Bryce will be the first female Governor-General only reinforces this symbolism. And the fact that Bryce’s career – unlike those of other potential female appointees – has had as a key theme the promotion of women’s rights, feminism and equal opportunity for all Australians won’t have escaped the Prime Minister’s sharp eye.
We often hear, apropos of Kevin Rudd’s governing style, that symbolism somehow excludes substance. That’s always been a false dichotomy, and Rudd has demonstrated – through showing that anyone from any part of Australia can achieve the peaks of public and professional life – that the power of example is truly significant. He’s seized the moment not just to smash a glass ceiling, but also to make a subtler point about equality of opportunity and the sort of meritocratic land he sees a modern social democratic Australia as being. It’s an important appointment, and one that says much about both Kevin Rudd’s personal and political values and the values he sees as being fundamentally Australian.
Bryce is, in fact, very highly regarded in Queensland, and won’t put a foot wrong in the top job. But along with all the usual qualifications for a "safe pair of hands" in a sometimes controversial position (legal and Gubernatorial experience, for example), Bryce’s nomination sends an important message to all of us – no matter where in Australia we live, or where we hail from.
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