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Keep Government House Open

September 26, 2011

I was at Government House, Sydney, last night reading great slabs of American history to the accompaniment of the New Sydney Wind Quintet playing music composed by Lyle Chan. The piece is called Rendezous with Destiny and it was our second concert performance.

Government House hosted this event, with a 160 guests. The performance was part of a concert series, House Music 2011. It is possible because in 1996 I opened up Government House to the people.

Not living in the neo-Gothic castle has been perfectly satisfactory to our fondly-regarded Governor Marie Bashir who also serves as Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Professor Bashir has been Governor since I appointed her in 2001.

Government House in Sydney is the only Government House in Australia that operates as a house museum, open to the people, administered by the state’s Historic Houses Trust and available to host functions like that concert series as well as a wide range of charitable, educational and community events for the public to enjoy. 150,000 people visit Government House each year because it is a public resource, not a home for one family.

Premier Barry O’Farrell is coming under pressure from monarchists to reverse my reform and lock Government House up to be used only as a Vice Regal residence. The locks will go on the entrance gates and, in terms of public access, the Botanic Gardens will lose a quarter of their size. You can’t continue concerts like that on Sunday night if Government House is a residence. What are the Vice Regal couple to do? Enter and leave by back stairs? Tiptoe upstairs behind bolted doors? No, it is all one thing or the other: if the reform is reversed and the next Governor resides in Government House then public access must end.

Alan Jones is a persuasive advocate and in the state election campaign mounted the case for an end to public use of Government House. The pressure is really on Premier O’Farrell. Up till now as Premier he’s been a centrist and he’s made it somewhat hard for the Labor opposition to close their sights on him. But if he takes this unabashedly royalist stand he’ll be seen as a defiant hard-line conservative reversing what is now a popular initiative.

10 Comments
  1. Conor Butler permalink
    September 26, 2011 5:09 pm

    If the Governor herself is perfectly happy to keep Government House public, why change the policy? This should only be debated by parliamentarians / commentators if Marie Bashir actually wanted to move there… why change the policy if she doesn’t care? Is it not profitable in terms of tourism and image to leave it open? Does the government not derive some income from holding functions there? Not having heard this debate before, I can’t imagine what the arguments for it might be…

  2. September 26, 2011 5:32 pm

    the outcome will be interesting considering Boff’s stance on public service wages & jobs. I wonder what the cost to the state will be to re-employ Gov. house staff; lets see from memory, Head Butler, footmen on constant call, a Cook, kitchen staff, the re-location of the Governor’s staff from the Chief Sec’s building; beefed up 24 hr. security, plus the increase in costs for gas, electricity etc.
    If the truth be known, why would any Gov. now or into the future want to give up the comfort of their own home to live in a museum? Gordon Samuels didn’t, (we’ve all forgotten him) and bless her, Gov. Marie prefers her home on the North side..

  3. emily's nephew permalink
    September 26, 2011 5:45 pm

    Good to make this public, Bob. If Barry puts the locks on he’s also acting as a reactionary and following along the rut well-worn by his party colleagues in Canberra: ‘Labor did it, therefore let’s reverse it!’

  4. Nickmof permalink
    September 26, 2011 7:07 pm

    I think it would be a total shame to close the house and gardens. It is a beautiful house that the people of NSW and Australia deserve to visit and enjoy.

  5. Lynda Newnam permalink
    September 26, 2011 7:51 pm

    In 1996 when the citizens of NSW were invited to make suggestions on alternative uses for Government House, I wrote to suggest it become an Aboriginal cultural centre with artists-in-residence programs and bush tucker and bush medicine plants featuring in the accompanying grounds – those grounds also available as performance spaces. I argued there was no site in Australia more strongly associated with the beginning of dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal cultures and that it would be fitting that this colonial building which once housed representatives of the conquering nation become the principal collection and celebration place for the peoples and elements of their cultures that survived. The building was handed over to the Historic Houses Trust and is now open for inspection three days a week as well as occasional receptions. While I like the current arrangement I do think it could be put to better use and engage a broader audience. On the front page of the Herald there is mention again of an Aboriginal Gallery at Barangaroo. But this is an inferior site compared to what Government House and its surrounds have to offer. Far more tourists visit the Opera House precinct. There could be an argument for maintaining the ballroom in its current state for small chamber performances as well. The blend of colonial with first cultures might provide an even richer experience. But regardless, I don’t think there is much chance of returning it to its former use.

  6. September 27, 2011 11:02 am

    Isn’t it taxpayers’ money that pay for these “vice-regal” residences?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      September 27, 2011 12:11 pm

      Of course, and the case for using them for public purposes is therefore strong.

  7. Irish Brian permalink
    September 27, 2011 6:48 pm

    Totally support you on this Bob. We recently attended one of the tours of the house which was fascinating and educational. it has become a real tourist magnate. It shows the past workings and current arrangements for the state of NSW. Tell BOF to leave it alone and fix other problems – the Libs have no culture !

  8. September 28, 2011 11:38 am

    I sincerely hope that Government House returns to benig a vice-regal residence in the proper, conventional, traditional manner. I note that no other state government has followed your practice as premier in doing this.

    My understanding is that both Prof Bashir and Sir Nick would very much prefer to be resident in the usual fashion.

    The sooner this is corrected, the sooner the office of Governor is restored to its rightful traditional position and the ability to serve in the role is broadened to more than those who live within a convenient drive of the Sydney CBD.

    Bob I enjoy your blog and your thoughtful approach to many issues – but in my view you were wrong on this one in 1996, and you still are in 2011.

  9. Justin permalink
    October 7, 2011 10:13 am

    Great to see commonsense has now prevailed (as of 7th October) and a situation of compromise has been found where we can have both public access to Government House and still offer the Governor the dignity of choosing to live there. As Peter Cleary points out above, I am sure most Governors would prefer their own home – but unfortunately (or fortunately) not all Governors have, nor will all Governors into the future, reside in Sydney. The state of NSW is far greater than just metropolitan Sydney. Hughie makes the good point above that if a deserving Governor is appointed from a rural or regional area, they would need to live in Sydney in order to fulfill their duties. Where would we expect them to reside if we did not provide accommodation?

    I am also of the understanding that Mr. Carr provided an office and staff for the Governor in the beautiful Colonial Secretary’s Building, which will presumably now be closed. If that is the case, surely we will now be saving money? Currently not only do we pay for the Governor’s staff and office and transportation to and from a private residence in the suburbs, but we mostly foot the bill of the state government’s Historic Houses Trust which still provides the upkeep of Government House (with volunteers) and manages it as a museum and occasional vice-regal ceremonial venue. If one looks at the issue dispassionately (i.e. outside of the debate of Constitutional Monarchy vs. Republic) then surely having all this staff and resources under one roof makes more sense and will save money? The HHT and their volunteers have done a sterling job with Government House (and hopefully will continue to be involved), yet as they would acknowledge, the best way to experience history is not in a museum, but to live it.

    While ever we have a Constitutional Monarchy, I believe we should do our best, in good faith, to honour the spirit of the constitution – even if or while one is campaigning for change. With that in mind, Her Excellency Marie Bashir’s decision to return to Government House is a victory for the constitution as it very clearly restores the intended ‘independence’ to the office of Governor. Such independence is not at all clear with the Governor occupying a public servant’s office and with the then Premier telling the Governor where he or she could (or couldn’t) live. The Governor is not a public servant answerable to the premier or the government; the Governor is outside of politics and is supposed to be a protection for the people against bad government by withholding the ‘authority’ of government. Whether in practice this is real or simply perceived, such independence is important to democracy.

    In the interests of disclosure, I will mention that I supported Mr. Carr in office when he was at his best – as a centrist. I grew up admiring the man for his intellectual capability, study of history and his stunning oratorical skills. However, as a fellow study of history, the issue of ‘evicting’ the Governor was one which I always felt was a triumph of personal gratification over good public policy.

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