As Australia moves towards a referendum on becoming a republic, the Queen yesterday appointed a liberal High Court judge with republican sympathies to be the country's next, and possibly last, Governor-General.
Sir William Deane, 64, is to take over in February from Bill Hayden, a former Labor minister, as the Queen's constitutional representative in Australia.
Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, who recommended the appointment, plans in the event of a successful referendum for Australia to become a republic in 2001, the centenary of the country's federation. Indicating that he sees Sir William as the last representative of the monarchy, Mr Keating said: "Although the appointment is at the Queen's pleasure, Sir William has agreed that it would be appropriate for it to terminate on 31 December in the year 2000." This is the first time that any Australian government has placed a time limit short of the usual five-year viceregal term.
Sir William's appointment took commentators by surprise. Many had predicted that Mr Keating would make a symbolic appointment of a prominent woman, an Aborigine or an Aboriginal woman. Lois O'Donoghue, chairwoman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the most powerful public body in Aboriginal affairs, and Betty Churcher, director of the National Gallery in Canberra, were the widely touted names.
In choosing a male High Court judge, Mr Keating has made a conservative decision which may yet turn out to be radical as well. Sir William (he was knighted before Australia ditched the British, or Imperial, honours system) has been an intellectual driving-force on the High Court, the final appeal court, since 1982.
In the court's 1992 decision which gave native land title to Aborigines for the first time, Sir William wrote one of the most passionate judgments in favour of Aboriginal rights. When it made another landmark judgment last year on freedom of speech, effectively revolutionising Australia's strict defamation laws, Sir William argued that politicians should have no right at all to sue for defamation. He also holds progressive views on Australia's written constitution, first drafted 100 years ago with the monarch as the central figure of power and authority, and initially passed as an Act of the British Parliament.
Sir William made it clear yesterday that he regards such a constitutional configuration as dated. "On my swearing-in as a justice of the High Court more than 13 years ago, I pointed out that the source of all government authority and legitimacy in a true democracy such as Australia is the people," he said. Legal experts said that the underlying philosophy of Sir William's views on constitutional reform and free speech was a republican one.
Privately, he is a shy, retiring, diffident man whose friends expressed surprise yesterday that he had agreed to take on a job with such a high public profile. In some respects, at least, he should find common ground with the Queen. His interests are said to be horse-breeding, theology and history.