Six months ago Michael Jeffery, the then governor general of Australia, stuck for something to say about his female replacement, declared: "Anybody can be the governor general in [Australia] and that's what makes it such a great place" - as if the other 14 Commonwealth realms that pick a stand-in for the Queen were somehow less democratic than Australia.
When it comes to choosing a head of state Australia is the least adventurous of the dominions. The 25 incumbents include one prince, two earls, two viscounts, seven barons and nine knights, plus an archbishop, a politician and a major-general. Hitherto, all have been men; none has been from an ethnic minority. Canada appointed its first woman, a member of the French-speaking minority, a quarter of a century ago: the second, Adrienne Clarkson, was born in China; and the present incumbent, who is female and black, was born in Haiti.
The governor general's job is to represent the Queen. What the Queen would not do, the governor general, whether male or female, must not do either. The governor general needs to know how to talk to visiting monarchs, ambassadors, sportsmen and hoi polloi without actually saying anything, while showing interest in everything and concern about nothing. The governor general has to deliver the speech at the opening of parliament utterly deadpan, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Governors general, like British queens, have to do as prime ministers tell them. The poorest Australian has more rights than the governor general, who may not demonstrate, may not carry a placard, may not write so much as a letter for publication.
The outgoing governor general managed to keep his mouth shut and nose clean until this, his very last week, when he suddenly uttered an opinion. Referring to the Aboriginal population, or as he put it the 520,000 "people with indigenous blood", he said: "I suspect that about ... 400,000 of those are already integrated satisfactorily ... to such an extent that you don't hear about them. They're doing what we would look upon as living normal Australian lives." According to him it was only the 100,000 or so in the remote areas who had been "doing it hard for many years".
All the people struggling in urban areas to reverse the devastation of poverty, displacement, imprisonment, drugs and alcohol were flabbergasted, but the governor general was groping towards a very blunt and rather wobbly point. Many people with "indigenous blood" have never lived as Aborigines. For them indigenous blood can be a passport to all kinds of benefits, including cushy sinecures in the establishment. Time was when these people would have passed for white; these days they tend to pass for black. Where once the black ancestors were hidden, it is now the white ancestors who are never mentioned.
Australia appears to have adopted the invidious one-drop policy that so vitiated assistance given to Canada's First Nations. What is even more confusing is that Torres Strait Islanders, who came to Australia as indentured labour, were lumped in with indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples, though they at no time claimed sovereignty over any part of the continent. If Jeffery had grasped the real stinging nettle, and voiced a suspicion about just how diluted "indigenous blood" has been, the outcry would have been even shriller.
Pat Dodson, descendant of the Yawuru nation, ordained Catholic priest and former chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, thundered from Alice Springs: "We're not living normal lives. We're totally over-represented in the political indicators. We're dying a lot younger. We don't have the educational opportunities." Of non-indigenous Australians, 49% will complete year 12 of their schooling; only 14% of indigenous children in remote areas will get that far, and in the cities the proportion rises only to a third.
What was worse than the governor general's touching innocence about the realities of urban Aboriginal life was his bland assumption that total assimilation was the only satisfactory goal. In Dodson's words, Jeffery's statement "really denies the uniqueness of who the indigenous people are and what their contribution to this country can be in their own right, as if they have nothing to contribute except the absorption of the culture the west has offered us. It's a pretty damnable statement if that's the case." Marcia Langton, professor of indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne and descendant of the Yiman nation, refused to comment as to do so would be "too dangerous".
Among the people tipped to take over Jeffery's $365,000-a-year job was Lowitja O'Donohue, descendant of the Yankunytjatjara people and founder chairman of the now disbanded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It was not to be. The choice of the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, alighted on a fellow Queenslander, Quentin Bryce - a woman who already had the job of state governor. Australian media are now congratulating the country on having matured enough to be ready for a woman governor general. Belize was mature enough in 1981, when Dame Minita Gordon took office. New Zealand, always more mature than Australia, has had two Dames do the job, Catherine Tizard and Sylvia Cartwright. Barbados has had Dame Nita Barrow, and the Bahamas Dame Ivy Dumont. St Lucia currently has Dame Pearlette Louisy as head of state, Antigua and Barbuda Dame Louise Lake-Tack. Only Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu have yet to choose a woman for governor general.
Bryce - who was sworn in yesterday - is now commander-in-chief of Australia's armed forces. The queen wouldn't dream of issuing orders to the troops, so neither does the governor general. The only governor general to have taken the role of commander-in-chief at all seriously was Adrienne Clarkson, who visited Canadian troops in Kosovo and the Gulf. She came to the job after years as a talkshow host and TV presenter, so was used to offering style in lieu of substance; but even so she blundered into one footling controversy after another. On one mortifying occasion she took precedence over the Queen, apparently because some bewildered underling had not grasped that Clarkson was head of state only when the Queen wasn't there.
Bryce is reported to have said under media bombardment that Australia will become a republic when the people decide, so there is a glimmer of hope that the first woman to take this most nugatory of jobs could also be the first republican. If so, she'd better learn pretty quickly to keep it to herself.
Germaine Greer, a professor emeritus of English literature and comparative studies at Warwick University.