Parliament to consider bid to strip entitlements of former Australian governors general for serious misconduct

The Guardian [London, England]

February 8, 2023

By Christopher Knaus

Push comes as Peter Hollingworth is expected to appear on final day of tribunal examining his handling of child abuse complaints as Anglican archbishop of Brisbane

Parliament will consider a new push to give the government powers to strip lucrative taxpayer-funded entitlements from former governors general found to have engaged in serious misconduct as the secret hearing against Peter Hollingworth draws to a close.

Hollingworth is expected to face the last day of a professional standards tribunal hearing in Melbourne on Thursday, which has investigated his handling of child abuse complaints against the Anglican church during his 11 years as the archbishop of Brisbane, a role he held immediately prior to his stint as governor general. The professional standards tribunal has so far not made any finding of misconduct against Hollingworth.

The tribunal has the power to defrock Hollingworth, but the evidence put before it has been cloaked in secrecy, even from complainants.

The hearing has refocussed attention on Hollingworth’s continued access to significant perks as a former governor general. Despite serving in office for less than two years, Hollingworth receives a $357,000-a-year pension, plus travel and office expenses.

Freedom of information documents released last year show Hollingworth’s other expenses – including office space, staff, travel and communication expenses – ranged between $286,712 and $315,538 a year from 2016 to 2017 and 2020 to 2021.

There is currently no power in the Governors-General Act 1974 to strip entitlements from former governors general. Last year, Steve Fisher, a survivor advocate and chief executive of Beyond Abuse, wrote to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, urging for reform.

The Greens attempted to address the issue in the last parliament, introducing a bill in 2019 that was not voted on.

Now, after pleas from abuse survivors, senator David Shoebridge is renewing the push for reform. He has given notice of a bill that would create powers to remove entitlement access by former governors general where they are found to have engaged in serious misconduct. Shoebridge said similar powers exist for all other offices – including MPs, judges and senior officials.

“This is about accountability,” Shoebridge said. This is an extraordinarily generous pension and set of entitlements and that must come with some serious accountability.”

“The Anglican church inquiry into former governor general Peter Hollingworth will conclude this week so it’s timely to have this bill ready to close this accountability loophole.”

The child abuse royal commission found that Hollingworth, as archbishop of Brisbane in 1993, failed to act to remove John Linton Elliot, despite Elliot having admitted to him that he had abused two boys. One of the survivors had also told him he had been abused by Elliot and a psychiatrist, tasked with assessing Elliot, told Hollingworth the teacher “was a paedophile and that his personality type was untreatable”.

Despite this, Hollingworth kept him on until he retired five years later, a decision the royal commission found to be a “serious error of judgment”.

Hollingworth has since apologised for his handling of the case. He resigned from the role of governor general after widespread criticism of comments he made to the ABC, interpreted by some as referring to the abuse survivor Beth Heinrich.

“There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that; quite the contrary. My information is it was rather the other way around.”

Hollingworth disputes he was referring to Heinrich and has complained to the ABC about the portrayal and subsequent reporting, according to News Corp.

Chris Goddard, adjunct professor at University of South Australia and expert on child abuse issues who has been closely watching the Hollingworth case, said he is wholly supportive of the Greens’ bill.

“I find it extraordinary that he served for only 23 months … and since then he’s got millions of dollars, in spite of the fact that some of his actions were catastrophic, allowing Elliot to go on preaching for five years,” Goddard said.

“He was forced to resign but he has just continued to receive this massive pension.”

The process currently considering complaints against Hollingworth is run by Kooyoora, the Anglican church’s complaints body. It is being conducted entirely in private, though Heinrich, one of the complainants, was able to attend on Tuesday.

The secrecy has led to criticism. Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of Blue Knot Foundation, said the child abuse royal commission had made clear the dangers of secrecy in such matters.

“The secrecy surrounding the proceedings around Peter Hollingworth is devastating and a parallel process to the secrecy which fuels the perpetuation of abuse,” Kezelman said.

“It sabotages the opportunity for those alleged victims who have spoken out, already despairing after extended delays, to be seen and heard and is profoundly potentially retraumatising.”

Hollingworth was approached for a response.