Seamus C’s post proposing popular elections for Australian of the Year raises the intriguing possibility of a similar mechanism for appointment of a rather more important official Australian role, namely that of Governor-General. There was speculation only a week or so ago that the Rudd government might appoint former Labor leader Kim Beazley as the next G-G, but it was quickly scotched by Rudd himself:
“The next Governor-General of Australia will not be a former or serving politician – conservative or Labor,” he said. “The reason being is, I believe it’s an office which is often best discharged by someone from the broader community.”
Few will disagree, but such an approach does nothing to prepare the ground for a future Australian republic, which is a relevant issue for those of us who still think it’s a goal worth pursuing.
The current consensus seems to be that there’s little point broaching the republican issue again until the current Queen dies and is replaced by King Charles and Queen Camilla. What that view ignores is that, even in that situation, the republican cause will get precisely nowhere until we achieve at least an informal resolution of the dilemma about how to appoint and dismiss a President to replace the present constitutional combination of Queen and Governor-General, especially in relation to the key constitutional function of the President/G-G’s function of dismissing an elected government. Should a President be popularly elected, or appointed by (or on the recommendation of) the Prime Minister or government of the day as at present?
The problem is that opinion polling tends to indicate that a strong majority of the Australian public favours a directly elected President, while by contrast many political actors on both sides fear that an elected President would receive a popular mandate that might result in his/her developing a real (rather than just symbolic) executive role, which could destabilise our current tried-and-true Westminster-based system. A President with a popular national mandate might embarrass the government of the day by speaking out on controversial issues (as Sir William Deane did even without a popular mandate) or even be tempted to breach convention in a more serious way e.g. by refusing or threatening to refuse to sign controversial bills into law.
These sorts of fears are exaggerated. Whether a President could effectively hold an executive government to ransom in a substantive way would depend largely on the applicable dismissal mechanism. If the PM can dismiss the president (as was the case with the 1999 referendum model) or, preferably, if we duplicate as closely as possible the current system (where the PM merely advises the Queen to dismiss and she must ultimately but not necessarily instantly do so in accordance with convention), then there can be no problem. A President who exceeded his/her constitutional role would be sacked in fairly short order and the elected government would prevail.
As for the possibility that an elected President might feel greater freedom than an appointed one to speak out on controversial issues, no doubt it’s a peril some politicians would prefer to avoid but it’s hardly a compelling argument in a free liberal democracy like Australia where the executive government already arguably has too much power. If the Rudd government had any interest at all in moving incrementally towards a republic, it would immediately introduce a new system for appointment of the Governor-General whereby all parties in Federal Parliament meet and agree on a short list of (say) 3 candidates for Governor-General, with a national popular election then being held to settle on a final recommendation for appointment. I don’t think any new legislation would even be needed to implement such a system; in a constitutional sense the appointment would still be by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, but it would be extraordinary for the PM to do anything but recommend the candidate who had received the most votes at the election.
By adopting such a system informally now, it will have become the status quo by the time the republic debate rears its head again after QEII dies. Most skeptics will have accepted that the sky hasn’t fallen and isn’t likely to do so, the population at large will be much less susceptible to the sort of unprincipled and dishonest fear campaign the monarchists ran last time, and we will have had a chance to fine-tune the system before putting it to referendum and entrenching it in the Constitution. It’s time! Elect the G-G!