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The Role of the Governor

Preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 26 March 2017
Alex Chernov, Former Governor of Victoria

Thank you Father Hugh for your very warm welcome.

At the outset, can I mention a couple of matters? First, as always, it is a personal pleasure to be at St Peter's. Just to walk into this historic Church gives one a feeling of calm and peace in contrast to the world outside.

Our association with St Peter's goes back a long way. It started shortly after Elizabeth and I married and I am happy to say that our three children were baptised and confirmed here, and two of them were married here. Moreover, six of our eight grandchildren who live in Melbourne were also baptised here. But while I am in confessions mode, can I admit that since we bought a small farm some distance from Melbourne our attendances here have suffered accordingly.

The second matter that I want to mention is the outstanding feature of tonight's Evensong, namely, the uplifting singing by the University of Melbourne Choir, in which I take a vicarious pride as former Chancellor.

When I sat down to think of what I might say this evening I felt a little like the lost soul. So I consulted Father Hugh who suggested that I reflect on my time as Governor, the challenges and the satisfaction this afforded me, the lessons I learnt from it and the role that faith may play in the discharge of this Office. So I will broadly follow this brief.

It is worth noting at the outset that the role of Governor is not well understood, even by most lawyers. And although I will not bore you with details, can I mention two aspects of it. First, the Governor's responsibilities can be divided into three broad parts: ceremonial, constitutional and community engagement.

The most important, but probably the least well known, are the Governor's constitutional responsibilities. In essence, the task is to facilitate the proper workings of our Parliamentary democracy. In other words, see that the government acts within the boundaries of the Constitution and the Rule of Law. In many ways the Governor is like the boundary umpire who is charged to see that the ball is played within the marked out area. But unless there is a crisis, the Governor is very much in the public background of the governance process. And may that long continue, because that reflects the fact that our Parliamentary democracy is working well.

Another general matter to mention about the Office is that although the Queen is the Head of our State and the Governor is her representative here, it is only the Governor, and not the Queen, who can exercise all the relevant constitutional functions of our Head of State and the Governor performs the role without reference to Her Majesty.

Two exceptions to this are that the Queen appoints the Governor (on the advice of the Premier) and can dismiss him on her (again, on the advice of the Premier) as happened with Jack Lang in New South Wales.

As important and time consuming as the Governor's constitutional and ceremonial duties may be, the bulk of the work, and probably the most enjoyable aspect of the role, is participating in community engagement that takes many forms and in which the Governor's spouse plays an important role. The basic aim of such engagement is to promote a strong, fair and democratic society, and that includes encouraging attainment of personal best and promoting mutual respect in the community.

In this context, Elizabeth and I supported and interacted with a wide range of volunteer and other organisations that are concerned in various ways to make our community a better one. Thus, I was patron of about 160 such bodies and Elizabeth had her own patronage list.

A large number of those whom we supported work to help the disadvantaged who can not adequately help themselves and who were seldom heard or seen — the homeless, the aged, those suffering from a range of illnesses, or family violence, or food inadequacy, drugs, and the list goes on and on. St Peter's for example, would be familiar with many who suffer with such a plight.

Other volunteer bodies with which we were concerned focussed on activities that were aimed at serving the broader community, such as the charities, the CFA, Scouts and Guides and St John Ambulance, just to name some.

Similarly, we supported those in the Regions whose social economic, and community problems were at least as challenging as those in the metropolitan area, although remoteness added another layer of difficulty. We were fortunate to get to know the rich tapestry of Regional Victoria, having visited many communities there. Some had suffered the aftermath of bushfires, floods, economic downturns and other difficulties. We found that their attitude towards their problems was inspirational, and what stood out was their stoicism, care for their own community, self reliance and a "get on with it" attitude. I think we can all learn from this.

Our work in these areas provided us with personal satisfaction, and also gave us an insight into a very positive aspect of the Victorian community — the extraordinary number of volunteers who contribute so much to its wellbeing. Their selfless dedication was truly inspirational and we learned a great deal from seeing first hand the way in which they worked, and the results of their efforts. I think that one cannot overstate the importance of volunteers to the fabric of our society. They effectively form its backbone and without them our community would be significantly poorer.

There were, of course, other aspects of community engagement with which we were concerned and which we also enjoyed, such as supporting and interacting with schools and their students and staff, the arts and other cultural activities and hosting local and world leaders, including members of the British and Danish Royal families, Mr Narandra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi and Dr Kiran Martin who, through Asha, looks after more than 4000,000 slum children in New Delhi.

Hence, you will not be surprised to hear that our participation in community engagement and the ceremonial and constitutional duties meant that our life at Government House was never dull, but in large part was riddled with interest and personal satisfaction.

Hopefully, this gives you some insight into the role of a Victorian Governor, and I now move to consider the hardest part of Father Hugh's brief, namely, the influence that faith may play in the discharge of that Office in a context of the accepted constitutional separation between Church and State

Obviously enough, what impact, if any, a religious background may have in this context must vary from Governor to Governor, so it is not possible to deal with the issue in all embracing terms. But it is possible to make the observation that in fulfilling the role, probably like most people, Governors are not immune from the influence of such faith or religious background as they may possess.

Acting on such influence is not, I think, inconsistent with the proper discharge of the Office. If anything, it has a positive effect, especially in the context of community engagement. The direct impact of this influence on the office, however, is rarely acknowledged in terms and often operates sub-consciously.

One example of how one Governor's religious background operates, albeit subtly, in the fulfilment of the Office, is the experience of one of my predecessors, the late Professor Davis McCaughey. Some of you may recall that he was Master of Ormond College for 20 years, before becoming Victoria's Governor in 1986. His story is told in the wonderful book, "Davis McCaughey; a life", by Sarah Martin.

He was born in Belfast and was brought up in the context of the teachings of the Irish Presbyterian Church. He later attended Pembroke College at Cambridge where he discovered a different and more liberal Christianity and experienced there the strong movement that was taking place to re-evaluate religious orthodoxy, and to interpret the Bible in a more contemporary context.

Ultimately, he was ordained as a Minister of the Presbyterian Church and later secured the position of Professor of New Testament Studies in the Presbyterian Theological Hall in Melbourne. Not long after arriving here, and for the rest of his life, Professor McCaughey was involved in many areas of public life. For example, he played a key role in the establishment of the Uniting Church here, and many various other issues such as the anti-hanging movement that involved Tate and then Ronald Ryan, and the Vietnam War protests.

When he spoke publicly on social issues, Professor McCaughey was largely driven by his view of Christian values but at the same time, as his biographer shows, he was conscious of the growing reluctance of people, especially the young, to accept a Biblical formulation of them, or the claim that the Bible was their sole repository. In the result, he adjusted his language so as express his thoughts on those matters in more popular parlance. And he carried this forward in his role of Governor especially in the context of community engagement.

In my own case, I think that my religious background had a bearing on the development of my values and attitudes and thus, the discharge of my role of Governor, and probably the other public and semi-public roles with which I was involved, such as leader of my profession, a Judge and Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. More specifically it played a part, I think, in the development in me of value judgements that had to be made in the performance of my public work.

I was brought up primarily by my grandmother, and was privileged to be in a home where wide intellectual pursuits were encouraged, including literature and music an aspect of which was the wonderful singing of the Russian Orthodox Liturgy. And that may be one reason why I have an affinity with Church music that is a feature at St Peter's.

Such moral values as were instilled in me were largely based on the essential teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church which, I believe, are not relevantly different from those of the Anglican Church. And I discussed them on occasions with the then vicar of St Peter's, Father John Bayton, whose broad minded and common sense approach to social and religious issues helped me formulate my own views in this regard.

These values combined with others that sprang from the experiences that I had as I progressed in life, including the practise of Yoga, played an important, albeit often sub conscious, part in my approach to discharge my public duties.

So much for confessions! In conclusion, I reiterate that holders of high Office are privileged to have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution, however small that may be in the scheme of things, to improving our society. Without doubt, the taking up of this opportunity brings with it significant personal satisfaction. It is often a steep learning curve for most holders of the Office. But I think that, in general, a religious or spiritual background, even if it is only present in the sub conscious, can assist in the making of demanding value judgements that are called for in the discharge of that role.


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