August 13, 2004 | Jeff Wall

“Compensation” – the Premier of Tasmania has set a bad example.

ONE of the real evils of society today is the demand for “compensation” for just about everything – compensation if you slip over in the supermarket, compensation if Council takes a metre of your land for public use, compensation if you’re accidentally hit by a cricket ball, compensation if you buy some food that gives you a one off minor dose of food poisoning, compensation if you’re sacked when you deserve to be sacked, and, of course, compensation for a work-related injury that’s not really a work related injury.
Various Governments have been quite reasonably imposing legislative restrictions on compensation claims – especially vexatious and dubious claims that impact on society’s ability to function in a normal and orderly manner.
The Premier of Tasmania, in his haste to rid himself, and his State, of Richard Butler as Governor, has set a very bad example when it comes to paying totally unjustified “compensation” of $650,000 as part of the agreement that led to Butler’s resignation.
The Premier is copping heavy political flack, and he deserves to.
The facts are clear. Richard Butler had NO legal entitlement to any lump sum payment following his resignation after serving less than one fifth of his term. The Premier, when he confronted Butler on Monday night, was armed with legal advice to that effect.
If the Governor demanded a substantial payment to achieve his resignation, then only one course was available to the Premier.
And that was to despatch a messenger to London with a letter to The Queen requesting that Richard Butler’s commission as Governor be withdrawn.
The Queen would have acted on the Premier’s request immediately, and in these days of modern communications, might have even acted on a faxed message!
Buckingham Palace is well practised at these things. I referred some months ago to the case of the Governor General of Papua New Guinea who acted against the advice of the Prime Minister and re-instated a suspended Minister.
As Consultant to the Prime Minister I was closely involved in what followed. The Palace was contacted, and a messenger despatched to London with a letter from the PM. There is absolutely no question the Governor General would have been dismissed – but fortunately for all he resigned before the messenger could reach London.
In 1975, Sir John Kerr allegedly believed Gough Whitlam would try and get the Queen sack him first if he had any advance warning of Sir John’s own intentions.
We may never know the answer, because Sir John not only sacked the Prime Minister he swore in his replacement immediately. But I suspect an approach to the Queen from Gough Whitlam on the basis that he retained majority support in the House of Representatives, and that supply had not actually run out, would have elicited a positive response.
But back to Tasmania. The Premier would have won political points, and plenty of them, had he stood his ground against Butler’s demands.
But by giving in, he has put his own political future at risk, and has made the payment, not Butler’s manifold indiscretions, the issue.
He has also set a very bad example at a time when political leaders everywhere need to set t he right example when it comes to outrageous compensation claims – and the corporate sector needs to end the obscene “termination” payment to failed Directors and Executives.
Paul Lennon has actually indicated that Butler was entitled to “compensation” because his term was being cut short. That is not good enough – and sets a bad example for the rest of the community.
He has now sought to deflect Mark Latham’s very direct disowning of the payment by calling on the Opposition Leader to promise to “revoke” Dr Peter Hollingworth’s pension.
There is one big difference – the generous pension being enjoyed by Dr Hollingworth is a legal entitlement, even if it is not a moral one.
Richard Butler was not only entitled to nothing……on the basis of his dreadful performance he should have been given exactly what he was entitled to. At the very most, a two or three month payment of salary as a “settling out allowance” should have been given.
Earlier this week I praised Paul Lennon for acting quickly to remove Richard Butler from a post to which he was clearly not suited.
The manner of his removal has damaged the Premier’s standing, and harmed the wider cause of stamping out outrageous compensation claims.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:11 am | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Australian Politics

1 Comment

  1. The claim that the Queen would have acted “instantly” on advice from the Tasmanian Premier to withdraw her Governor’s commission simply isn’t correct. Under general understandings of Westminister conventions, the Queen’s role in such situations includes to “advise and warn”. It’s generally regarded as including a duty to insist on being fully informed of all circumstance surrounding advice to sack a Governor (or G-G), and to warn the Premier where she regards his advice as imprudent.
    The Queen might well regard it as imprudent to sack a Governor who hasn’t committed an “offence” that would normally be regarded as sackable (nor had Peter Hollingworth, for that matter). The development of such a totally insecure position for governors may well militate against any person of stature ever accepting the office in future. Of course, the Queen would eventually be obliged by convention to accept the Premier’s advice if he insisted on sacking despite her warnings of its inappropriateness. But there’s nothing that requires her to do so “instantly”. She might well insist on extended discussion where she thinks the advice is improper.
    In fact, the Queen’s “advice and warning” role in a potential dismissal situation is one of the key aspects of the Westminister system that makes it (arguably at least) superior to the republican model put up to referendum in 1999. That model made a President an efective hostage to the Prime Minister, meaning that the PM’s power position would have been greatly enhanced (compared with the current system) had the republic referendum succeeded.
    As events transpired in 1975, Sir John Kerr avoided putting himself at any risk of dismissal at all by breaching convention and not even telling Whitlam he was at risk of dismissal. However, had Kerr followed convention and informed both Whitlam and the Queen in advance, it’s almost certain that the Queen would NOT have instantly followed any advice Whitlam might then have given to sack Kerr pre-emptively. Moreover, I’m fairly certain Whitlam has subsequently indicated that he would not have given such advice to the Queen anyway if Kerr had followed convention and warned him first.
    Far better in a situation like the Tasmanian one to avoid putting the Queen in such a difficult position, and avoid undermining the long-term viability of the office of Governor, by making it easy for Butler to agree to resign quietly. Lennon was correct, and the payout is very modest even by comparison with relatively junior executive-level “parachute” payouts in the private sector (and with typical early payouts for senior public servants on contract).

    Comment by Ken Parish — August 13, 2004 @ 1:38 pm

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