Elect the G-G

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!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

I’m a very very lukewarm republican. I rather fancy the idea of a Monty Python show as the symbolic head of government. And the British have obliged in supplying one – one which will continue on for at least another generation. (I’m semi serious about this, because I don’t really go for the pomposity of this symbol which is supposed to be above politics.)

On the other hand . . . I think you have laid out a nice solution to all the relevant problems.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“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.”

Presumably it would be too undignified for the shortlisted candidates to campaign in their own interests – I would fervently hope so anyway. But then, on what basis would the electors assess the candidates? Good looks? Popularity? An outstanding cricket career? Do you think that the electors would be swayed by the constitutional insight of an eminent jurist like Ninian Stephen or Zelman Cowan? Compared to, say, Steve Waugh?

Can I make a really radical proposal? Before we decide whether or not we want to elect the HoS, let’s decide on what it is we want the HoS to do. It seems to me that once the parameters of the role are agreed, the rest pretty much follows.

The direct election model emerged from utter ignorance of what the role entails and a visceral distrust of politicians – which Howard played like a violin.

My preference is to simply translate the current arrangements into a Republican model with Parliament rather than the PM appointing. I’m not even convinced that
we need to refer to the office as the President.

Pavlov's Cat
13 years ago

Please tell me the Prime Minister of this country didn’t really say ‘The reason being is’.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

The direct electionists never address that question, Geoff Honnor, about the grounds for electing. But it’s academic: there is no plausible scenario for direct election to ever get to referendum. The pollies just won’t have it. They’d like to resubmit the 1999 model – but the people just won’t have it. The pollies will probably try it on again in a generation or so.

Why is the choice so stark: appointment by parliament OR election by the people?

Why not consider election by parliament? They do that in Germany and Italy. It works.

Why not consider appointment by the people? No one actually does that for a head of state but it is the method of choosing supreme court judges in about half the states of the US and in Japan. It works. It would also be an accurate republicanisation: precisely replacing the Queen with the people.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Ken, do you have any reason for favouring a popular election apart from the opinion polls you mentioned?

I thought the Turnbull proposal was perfectly fine. We trust parliaments to decide on profound legislative changes, so I don’t see why they can’t be trusted to pick a suitable person to cut ribbons and deliver eulogies. And a two-thirds majority seems a reasonable guarantee that the President won’t be a partisan of any political party.

And why do we have to wait 20 years (if Elizabeth lives as long as her mother) for the Republic that two-thirds of us wanted in 1998, and which most likely three quarters would prefer now? John Howard, Bronwyn Bishop, Sophie Panopoulos and David Flint got their way only because Republicans were confronted by a specific system whose derails they couldn’t agree on. The lesson from all that was that was not that we need an elected Presidents, nor that it’s too soon for a Republic, but that we need a staged referendum, starting with a general in-principle proposal, and then refining the details later.

I won’t countenance Alan Jones as President, even if fifty-one percent of my fellow citizens adore him!

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
13 years ago

What’s wrong with having a lottery? Or even Steve Waugh?

A bit of shameless self-promotion – accessible to those with access to university libraries.

pablo
pablo
13 years ago

After reading Seamus’s opening par about the Australian of the Year and what to do about a head of state I thought well if an obscure committee, headed by an ex- swimmer favourite of the women’s magazines can come up with Tim Flannery (2007) and Lee Kernaghan (2008) then let their 2009 choice quietly assume the presidential role as well. Of course a popular election can preceed it in early January where a slate of say 3 or 4 names can be submitted.
Fears about a popularly elected (ie uncontrollable) president getting up could be assuaged by the fact that election will come as a complete surprise and it will take them months to learn the ropes. Having only one year in the job (tax free!) will save everyone the bother of fearing a coup. Then when Ms Curry-Kenny in her Gold Coast HQ sits down to work on the next panel of non-pollies, we can all wait with baited breath for our chance to cast a preference on some hot arvo between xmas and new year. In fact the fireworks could be the announcing platform. Problem solved Kevvy…sign here.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“Whats wrong with having a lottery? Or even Steve Waugh?”

Nothing wrong with Waugh, Sinclair. Just wondering how you’d assess his merits in comparison with, say, Kylie, Eddie McGuire or Maria Venuti.

Waugh would be good actually. Sotto voce sledging of new OAM’s at the Award Ceremonies – “call that community service? You fat prick.” A refreshing change from the ghastly, totally misguided clamour for the social worker on steroids vision that some deluded souls imagine an ideal GG should be. If I want some device to reflect me back to myself I look in the bloody mirror. And spare me from ex tax lawyers like Bill Deane with a Yarralumla Damascene conversion.

observa
observa
13 years ago

Elect the lower house by party proportional representation and let the upper house be a seat based ‘keep the bastards honest’ lot. It is they that could then appoint and sack the GG who would hold much the same powers as now. He might have the emergency parliamentary speakers chair in case of the blocking of supply and presiding over a joint sitting, to ascertain whether a double dissolution is called for in the longer run. The little bloke would go for their local Harradines, Xenophons, etc electing the GG.

observa
observa
13 years ago

Apart from the one vote one value in the lower house (the Greens earned 11.4 seats on their national vote performance recently)and the fostering of national parties picking(parachuting in?) and protecting their best talent, rather than hacks kissing babies, etc, no marginal seat pork barrelling, yada, yada, a certin size petition of electors(CIR) could be acted upon by upper house members to thwart any obnoxious govt laws. Then if the govt of the day buck, the GG could act as temp speaker to resolve it in a joint sitting, minimising double dissolutions.

observa
observa
13 years ago

We urgently need a reversal of the way in which we elect our 2 houses now in order to foster some decent form of opposition, rather than wait until wall to wall Labor become so on the nose with power, ordinary businessmen are driven out of their businesses to remedy the problem. Just look at the States now.

Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing
13 years ago

David Solomon wrote an excellent book ‘Elect the Governor-General’ back in the 1970s. Suggest you read it. It’s quite a ‘cautionary tale’. The elected GG (no need to change title, by the way) would, under our Constitution, have black letter powers nearly equivalent to those of the President of France. There would be nothing to prevent an elected GG exercising those powers — past monarchical ‘conventions’ being no longer applicable.

Be careful what you wish for, folks

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

No, parliamnet shouldn’t get within a bull roar of electing the prez. We will do that thanks.

As for electing a GG? There is a risk it may not turn out well and cause problems down the road in terms of moving toward a Republic/ popularly elected prez..

I think we shoud keep it the same until we settle this Repub issue once and for all.

Vee
Vee
13 years ago

Besides sign a few scraps of paper, and being a tall poppy of the aristocratic variety and all the pomp that goes with it, what does the GG do? Why not just scrap it altogether?

In theory the GG is CIC but never in practice. I’m all for a Republic, mainly for symbolic purposes as we’re no longer beholden to mummy dearest. Or on the other hand we can actually let him or her have the powers proscribed to the position.

Or isn’t there a way we could rewrite the Commonwealth Constitution under the nose of the Federal Government and then have all the States agree to it thus replacing the current Constitution?

PS. If he was to be CIC in truth shouldn’t it be General-Governor?

Kevin Rennie
13 years ago

The “let’s wait for QE2 to depart” approach of Malcolm Turnbull has brought a sharp rebuke from his old friends at the Australian Republican Movement. Deservedly so. Malcolm doesn’t have a great track record on judging the voters’ mood on this issue.
Electing the Governor General is a bizarre idea. Why would we waste all that energy on the debate much less the election itself. The GG represents the monarch, not the people. It wouldn’t be cricket!

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
13 years ago

Geoff – I’m not going to cheat by googling “Maria Venuti” – the problem as I see it is that many people don’t trust (a) the electorate to get things right, or (b) the democratic system to self-correct if the electorate gets it wrong. It is not clear to me why the electorate are responsible enough to elect a government, yet not responsible enough to elect a Governor-General or President. Until Republicans can answer that question I can see no reason to change from the current situation. In 1999 the electorate was faced with the irony that elected representative were effectivily telling the electorate “we don’t trust you”.

ps – Eddie McGuire would be a good choice too (despite being a Collingwood supporter).

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

“It is not clear to me why the electorate are responsible enough to elect a government, yet not responsible enough to elect a Governor-General or President.”

No. No one really impugns the public’s sense of responsibility. Face the issue, not a straw man. There is no basis for the electorate to vote on – see #2 above. If you know some grounds upon which the prez could be elected from a field of candidates, please tell us what they might be. (“Elect me – I am very good at cutting ribbons and giving innocuous speeches.”)

The pollies are convinced a popularly elected president would have political power. So they are simply not going to do it. It will never get through a party-room let alone get bipartisan support. The direct election proposal will never ever be put to the people – except in cloud-cuckoo land.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
13 years ago

Jacques – you may well be right. But then it is a framing problem – the republicans have failed to explain why they don’t want a popularly elected president. Is it the ‘mandate problem’ – as some suggest? or the ‘idiots might get elected problem’ – as others suggest? Both? I’m not convinced that either of these is a real problem. As best I can work out, our constitution does not mandate the Westminster system – so an evolution way from that is not inconsistent with the constitution.

Mike – I understand your point – that’s real politics. The basis for election would depend on (a) the role (as suggested above), (b) the candidates themselves and (c) the wishes of the electorate.

Vee
Vee
13 years ago

Couldn’t the Constitution be rewritten by agreement of the States rather than holding a Referendum?

observa
observa
13 years ago

“Moreover, the events surrounding the Whitlam dismissal indicate that the current system should now be regarded as broken and in need of repair”
Not on that score it’s not. Whitlam could always have broken the impasse by going to the polls. Despite all the hooha, that’s exactly where Kerr sent him and the problem was resolved. There was an overall problem that the two majors always want control of both houses which is why I’d like to see a non-party house of review and one vote one value in the house of govt, despite my view the Greens are a bunch of whackos currently. Nevertheless, the possibility of forming a coalition govt would force them to pull up their socks, just like the Dems did with the GST.

jen
jen
13 years ago

On the subject of circuit breakers.
Would that include Territory Administrators?

Mark
Mark
13 years ago

“David Solomon wrote an excellent book Elect the Governor-General back in the 1970s. Suggest you read it. Its quite a cautionary tale.”

In fact the book wasn’t a cautionary tale but advocated an elected G-G. Australia, at the time (late 70’s) was in the doldrums and Solomon saw a move to a more US style of leadership as a way to break the lethargy of the Westminster system. The powers such a person would have to accept and reject and initiate legislation would be substantial and somewhat greater then that of the US president.

Rather than being wary about what I wish for, I long for such a change.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

I dont see any way we will ever be able to move to a republic except by an elected G-G/Presidency/HoS model.

At 45% the 1999 parliamentary appointment model didnt miss by all that much. Given bipartisan support, it would surely fall over the line. (Any model needs bipartisan support.) It will be very wrong for it will make a fundamental change to our polity by an angry campaign culminating in having half the citizens celebrate victory over the other half.

the seemingly insoluble stand-off between those favouring respectively elective and appointed models for the HoS..

Well, why such extremes? Parliament appoints vs people elect. Why the extremes of both the who and the how? Parliament could elect; the people could appoint see #6. The latter is simpler: just go through the constitution and strike out Queen and write in People. But both are middle of the road proposals. No elections, no campaigns, no mandates.

The solution that I think will be adopted is just to wait another ten or twenty years and make sure the parliamentary appointment model has bipartisan support. This is what the pollies want. They would try to ensure it was a safe bet but if they misjudged and it failed, theyd just wait another ten or twenty years and try again. They would explain how it was vastly different from the 1999 model and the public would eventually go along with it.

The politicians are utterly thick-skinned. They have three times put to us referendums to de-power the Senate and three times we have declined but if they thought there was a chance the two major parties would put it up again. In WA they held three referendums over 20 years or so for daylight saving and three times the public got it wrong so the present premier simply introduced it by fiat this summer. The republic is higher stakes of course.

I thought the Turnbull proposal was perfectly fine. We trust parliaments to decide on profound legislative changes, so I dont see why they cant be trusted to pick a suitable person to cut ribbons and deliver eulogies. And a two-thirds majority seems a reasonable guarantee that the President wont be a partisan of any political party.

I expect that general sentiment will eventually carry the day. The fact that of some six to ten political science papers on the 1999 model, none supported it and one or two positively ridiculed it, will cut no ice.

It is true that the ARM repudiated Turnbulls wait for the Queen to die comment. Yes, you may rest assured, the ARM is not waiting for the Queen to die. Its not! Its not! Its not!

Incidentally, the idea that the GG should not be a pollie because the office is best discharged by someone from the wider community is hardly supported by the evidence. A politician in 1975 might have knocked heads together for a solution but lawyer Kerr took the adversarial course. Sir Philip Game was also no politician. He later regretted his sacking of Lang. I am also pretty sure (but cant track it down at the moment) that there was a case in Victoria where the governor sacked the premier, had the new premier advise him to call an election and then reinstated the old premier (which is what Kerr should have done too). There was also an incident in Tasmania where the premier was thinking of calling an election and the governor heard and sent a message saying that he shouldnt ask for it would be refused. It seems these characters do have a role.

The Doctor
The Doctor
13 years ago

There is no reason why we could not have both PM & G-G being elected reps. What I would do is say that the G-G could get thrown out in 3 ways;
1. 60%+ Senate vote;
2. Criminal conduct (no exemption from criminal law while in office as happens in some countries including US);
3. Dismissal on the PM’s(effectively HoR majority) say so – but to do so would automatically invoke a triple dissolution(HoR,Senate & G-G) election.

G-G could dismiss PM & Government as per usual.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

…if he/she has a real and vital constitutional role (the reserve powers situation) albeit one exercised only infrequently; then it hardly seems unreasonable that the people of Australia rather than just the politicians should select the holder of that important public office.

So why not elect the Board of the RBA or the High Court? This particular argument for popular election implies that the reserve powers are meant to be exercised when the government is on the nose, rather than when certain conditions, specified in the constitution, are met.

of some six to ten political science papers on the 1999 model, none supported it and one or two positively ridiculed it…

And the basis for ridiculing it was…?

Ian Hope
Ian Hope
13 years ago

My suggestion for a process to appoint a person to the position of President of Australia would be to create an Electoral College, specfically for this purpose.
The Electoral College would consist of the following (a) All elected members of the Austalian Parliament (Senate & House of Reps)(b) All elected members of the Lower House of each State and Territory Parliament; and (c) All Mayors of every local authority in Australia.

This would give an electoral College consisting of about 1,000 Australians; all
of whom have been elected by the Australian public through other processes. The College would be as broad and as respresentative group of Australians you could have and at no great expense.

I would see the Australian Electotral Commission would manage the process to appoint the President

The process could be that any Australian could be nominated by 100 electors. The College would meet to consider all nominations and through a ballotting process could reach a situation, where one nomination is appointed.

The College would also hold powere to dismiss a President before completion of the term; subject to a set of procedures.

I have a problem with using the direct election method for the position of President of Australia. One problem is that how would candidates obtain the resources to cover all polling booths. There are only af few individuals which would have this capacity. I could also see how easily it would be for a candidate to seek the support of a political party to provide these resources. Consequently we will be faced wioth a situation where the position becomes beholden to he political system.

Further, how would candidates differientiate themselves from other candidates, unless they started making promises of what they could achieve, whilst president.

What sort of system would Australia need to have ion place, so that these promises could be realised. What level of powers would be provided for this to occur.

Again we are faced with a President who becomes an integral part of the political process.

I don’t think Australians want this level of politicalisation of the position of President.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

To answer James Farrell, the basis for ridiculing the 1999 proposal.

The paper that sticks in my mind was one from Melbourne politics professor Brian Galligan about late 1999. I cant turn it up and the publications on his web page only go back to 2001. I will have it in a cardboard box somewhere. Failing that, here are some problems.

– by substituting the approval of the Opposition leader (OL) for the approval of the Queen, it made the selection of the GG a product of a secret political deal. That selection would not be on the basis of suitability for the job but on the basis of some quid pro quo.

– it delivered the PM up to the OL who, if his demands were not met, would righteously say the PMs proposal was unsatisfactory and the Opposition was doing its constitutional duty in checking that. That is the whole point of requiring the bipartisan majority, yes? The PM of course would say the Opposition was making the presidency a political football. Etc, etc, etc. The identity of the football in question was to remain a deadly secret, with not even the courts being allowed to find out who it was. This is all in the Presidential Nominations Committee Bill that went through parliament. Of course the media would have a field day, the nature of the back-room deals being leaked and published with relish and every feasible name bandied about. The real name would surely be leaked. The Turnbull Report thought this would be more dignified than direct election.

– it delivered the parliament, with its two thirds majority, up to its leaders. The constitution was to recognise the two major parties (pretty much assume they were set in concrete for all time) and require that the two leaders propose and second the nomination at the joint sitting. The MPs, who you and I elected to represent us, could not be allowed to know who it was because that would be to tell the world. The MPs were not allowed to consult their constituents! Normally the parties discuss things in the party room but this was to be ruled out by the constitution! The MPs were expected to obey their proposer and seconder, presumably finding out who they were putting into office on the day of the joint sitting. This, the legislative system behind the Iron Curtain, was to go into our constitution.

– Do MPs just so blindly obey their leader? Government MPs do but not the others. So when the PM rings up the OL to ask whether the OL would find Sir Joseph Bloggs satisfactory, the OL, who has damn-all power, will put the PM on hold. The OL will go to the machine men, swear them to secrecy, and whisper the name. Hoo-wee, pay-back time. That inquiry into travel rorts should be quashed, and we need a couple of diplomatic postings In short, the selection of the president would be delivered up to the machine men of the Opposition party. This was to be the dignified way we were to choose a replacement for the Queen. If all goes well (!) Bloggsy gets the job and we know nothing about the chicanery.

– A big claim was that it was minimalist, that the powers were not altered (and they werent touched). But what conceivable logic can justify a system where an appointed official has the power to dismiss parliament? What kind of republic is that? There is only one logic: if the official has more prestige. This the representative of the Queen could, at a stretch, claim. Does Bloggsy have any respect? Or is he the object of knowing smirks? With no Queen, the President can only act in the name of the people. How, though? He has no authority from the people. He cannot do his duty. Major change to our constitution.

Really, where does parliament get off, pretending to appoint a replacement for the Queen? And what does parliament have to do with appointing the GG? Nothing. We can see from the above it was by no means minimalist to introduce this. The parliament and the elected pollies have presently nothing whatever to do with appointing the sovereign or the GG and a minimalist change would preserve that.

It was all screwy. The Queen is not elected. The Queen is not appointed. Where did this loopy idea come from? (Answer: Turnbull.) It is impossible to make the GG/President replace the Queen. The Queen is the sovereign. Who is sovereign in a republic? The people and just like the Queen, neither appointed nor elected but just there.

A minimalist republic would ensure that the people replace the Queen and the GG/President continued to be appointed, not elected, by the sovereign and the politicians would have nothing to do with it. That would give the GG/President the authority to dismiss (etc) without a mandate to rule.

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observa
observa
13 years ago

Noone wants the US millionaires type Presidential election but by the same token they don’t want the politicians choosing one either. That leaves Queeny as the best option and our fete opener and ribbon cutter and we, all safe in the knowledge that if the pollies start squabbling too much, our GG will tell them all to bugger off and go back to the polls. Aussies aren’t stupid.

observa
observa
13 years ago

That was the real lesson of Kerr and 1975 for us all and noone can come up with a better way of doing things. That was Kerr’s great legacy.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

“noone can come up with a better way of doing things”

You can write but you can’t read?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

The Queen is the nominal sovereign and has some sovereignty. If not, what is the argument about? The constitution says she appoints the GG.

In 1930 the King rejected the PM’s nominee for GG. That was an act of sovereignty. In 1946 the King refused to appoint the nominated governor of NSW – and stuck to his guns (lots of angry correspondence) and the candidate was not appointed. Certainly, “the King” means the UK government, what else.

Federally our current situation is that there is informal exchange of views and then when the new GG is agreed, the PM writes a formal letter to the Queen requesting his appointment. How do I know this? Because Sir David Smith wrote to me and said so after I had written and asked him. I expect it is the same in the states. It appears the Queen does have input into the appointment. Not that it matters much for present purposes.

We’re a monarchy. We want to become a republic. Where to start? Wouldn’t it be natural, normal, reasonable to START by assuming that a “republic” is where the people are sovereign? And even if the monarch’s sovereignty is a teensy thing, whatever it is, shouldn’t it be passed to the people? If not, why not? (No answer to that in the Turnbull Report which just launches into its plan to usurp the crown.)

But apparently it is not so teensy, given this smidgeon of putative sovereignty is the subject of such a raging “unsolvable” argument.

Wouldn’t it be natural, normal, reasonable, as a first approximation to say that since the constitution says we are a monarchy, to change to a republic you would take the constitution and cross out “Monarch”, “Queen”, etc and put “People”? Now if that is impractical, well so be it. But wouldn’t it be where you start? So what about trying it to see?

It seems very straightforward to me. There are about two dozen mentions. One or two spots just delete “Queen”, otherwise directly replace with “People”. The Republic is created. No change to any powers, explicit or implicit. No change to prestige except that appointment by the people is probably slightly higher than by a Queen. No meddling by politicians. No meddling by lawyers. No change to conventions except the PM has to write a letter to the people instead of the Queen. And of course, the people could refuse. Like the King in 1946, they really could refuse.

“Sovereignty” can be taken to mean “the last word” – who gets the final say. But to go on about sovereignty in general is not germane. The question is over one discrete little hunk of sovereignty. The indivisible little bit the monarch nominally possesses and maybe really has or has power over the gift of. Or maybe it is that Australian subjects, the constitution changers, have power over the gift of it. Whatever: that is the bit of sovereignty that matters here.

It should be obvious by now that it really matters. So many people want to get their claws into it. It rightfully belongs to the people – or we’re kidding ourselves about a monarchy becoming a republic. The shape of our polity depends on this sovereignty.

Niall
13 years ago

all things come to those who wait, Ken. I doubt Australia will become a republic in our lifetime, but it will happen. It’s inevitable.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

Jacques, you again talk in general terms. The first paragraph of your #42 is devoid of relevant substantive meaning. What would we “have to do all over again”? You make a sweeping assertion but can you back it up? I think not.

“Whereas simply changing the mode of appointment means we get to keep all the other jurisprudence.”

There is no such simple thing. I guess my #35, in which I did actually specify some of the problems, went right past you. All those things have no effect on “jurisprudence”? Really?

I agree – don’t mess too much with constitutions. That’s why I suggested the ultra minimalist exchange of “people” for “Queen”. To become a republic the Queen has to be removed – that’s unavoidable. And to simply strike the word and substitute another is surely unbeatably minimal. I should think no option messes less with the constitution, written and unwritten.

What if the result wasn’t so good? If we didn’t like it we could change it. The people could do that because the sovereignty would still be in their gift. That is unlike the effect of parliamentary appointment which gives the pollies control and would be the end of all further reform.

observa
observa
13 years ago

noone can come up with a better way of doing things
Let me qualify that and also-
“I doubt Australia will become a republic in our lifetime, but it will happen. Its inevitable.”
Basically a republic will only be achieved by national leadership and looking long and hard at the shortcomings of our current constitution, as I and others have pointed out above. We won’t get to tack some independent form of GG onto a republic and call it quits at that. In other words we can’t get a republic on the cheap ie without a whole lot of national introspection and soul searching about an agreed, ideal future constitutional and electoral framework to take us forward. At present we have a quite serviceable framework, but to make a major shift to a republic means taking on the whole box and dice. That’s the real challenge facing republicans. The hard yards of convincing a skeptical and conservative electorate, that there’s something really positive in it for all of us. It’s no good being negative and pooh poohing Kerr here. He was after all was said and done, the little Aussie battler’s hero by sending all the elites political machinations and skulduggery back into their ultimate clutches again. In fact Kerr, complete with top hat and tails, getting pissed at the races was their quintessential anti-hero, something Whitlam and Co never fully understood, but Fraser and Co rode into power on the back of.

That’s why I think you need to seriously consider electing the 2 houses in reverse order, allowing the best brains to lead national direction and policy, without the baggage of dealing with local distractions, but always mindful of a storm cloud of local representatives and their appointed leader, bringing them back down to earth from time to time. It’s not that the battlers can’t comprehend and embrace well argued and timely, even radical change, as any cursory political history attests, it’s that they need their Xenophons and Harradines to keep their elites’ feet on the ground and within their grasp at all times. Understand that and you’re well on your way to a republic in our time.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

Amazing how “the republic” brings out the utopian in us. Even Observa, usually relatively sane, is off constructing a fantasy of political Australia on the back of the republic.

The simpler the plan, the better its chances. To replace the Queen by the people is no “major shift”. It is no shift at all for it would keep the present (tried and tested) system in its entirety.

observa
observa
13 years ago

There may be some truth in what you say Mike, but the republicans discovered the problem with trying to elect the GG. It immediately focussed everyone’s thoughts on how we go about our democracy and how to make it better. It sets the hares running. The trick will be to channel all that energy and focus it on getting an overall outcome. It’s all very well urging Australians to stand on their own two feet, but then its a matter of what shoes we’ll wear. We immediately start looking about at other shoes and comparing brands, comfort, style and longevity.

observa
observa
13 years ago

If I’m fantasising about my ideal shoes here, then perhaps it comes down to asking those who think ‘our’ shoes are worn out, just what characteristics they want in their ideal pair. Perhaps a bit of reverse engineering of the problem is required here.

The simplest pair of democratic shoes we might think of is a single representative body, elected by one vote one value and their decisionmaking is final and binding by their majority vote. Short of having a huge national list of nominating individuals for us to choose from and bearing in mind we know they’ll inevitably form like political groupings, straight away you can see one vote one value requires proportional representation. In its simplest form, it would be scandalous that the Greens grouping, who received around 7% of the national vote, wouldn’t hold 11.4 (at least 11)of the seats in our current parliament. With that settled you’d begin to move on to the desirable mechanics of representative govt, the problem of remoteness and responsiveness of these representatives and how we could provide appropriate checks and balances. I’d suggest when you do that, you quickly come around to my way of thinking, assuming you’re not simply pushing some politically partisan barrow.

observa
observa
13 years ago

Well OK you need to move along a few more logical steps of the way to get there, so I’ll elaborate some more. We know you’ll get political groupings (parties) and they’ll inevitably have a leadership group and a political leader and their pool of talent will drop off from there. With proportional representation they can protect their best talent at the head of their ticket. Despite our political leanings, it’s ludicrous that a Howard had to fight a Bennelong or even a Beasley fight for survival on a gold tax issue in Kalgoorlie. They should be protected at the head of their party’s repective tickets as long as their partys want them. That also provides a simple mechanism for a casual vacancy through retirement or ill health. However you wouldn’t want the Hitler or Mao party to simply sack and replace all their moderate front elected candidates with their real intentions, so a logical safeguard rule would be a casual vacancy can only come from the full party list presented at election time. Still a problem in a 100 seat house with the party that put up their 100 maxm candidates and they got 99.5% of the vote, but not one we’ll lose much sleep over. Proportional representation by party ticket removes the growing problems of branch stacking and marginal seat pork barrelling obviously. We can have a parliament free from Merseyside hospital, Sydney airport, sugar cane farmers, etc concerns that can override parochial interests and fix up national problems like the Murray Darling. To do that the parties need to be able to put the Combets and Turnbulls anywhere on their party tickets to escape the ribbon cutting and baby kissing of seat based representation.

That part broadly and easily settled upon, a ‘keep the bastards honest’ house, with rigorous investigative and review powers is a no-brainer. It’s also logical that it be a place for local gripes and geographical representation, with perhaps a continuation of states rights via state based unequal allocation of voters per seat, although the latter might be for the dustbin of history. The plethora of Xenophons, Harradines, local mayors, ex party politicians or PMs, giving it the grass roots input and experience into the political decision-making process and ultimately bringing down an arrogant, out of touch govt, if they’re incensed enough as a group to band together and do so. They can easily appoint the current GG with reserve powers, free of party input and the ultimate appointment would logically be a non- controversial, consensus one that didn’t rise too much above them. When you bring the subject around to new democratic shoes, the overall consensus specifications would be fairly self selecting, which is not to say the arguments about the colur and the buckles mightn’t get a bit confused and heated at times.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

“the republicans discovered the problem with trying to elect the GG”

Yes, that’s one reason it’s not practical. Keep it simple and it wouldn’t set the hares running. “Elect the GG” is a useful bogey for the politicians who want parliamentary appointment and this keeps the foolish dichotomy going. Blame Turnbull.

You don’t have to talk me into PR. Who still believes in single-member electorates?

The lower house is the creature of the executive and its sittings are superfluous: two warpainted tribes ritually dancing up and down, hollering, beating drums and waving spears – and trying to win a few seconds on the evening TV news. I went to a seminar given by the clerk of the Reps about a year ago. He was bleating about where it was headed.

Federally and in most states the PR upper house amends legislation and the lower house obediently approves it. Apart from the periodic competition for government the lower house is redundant. The clerk should be given a rubber stamp saying PASSED and the chamber turned into a bingo hall.

But I think it’s off-topic. If you don’t know it, you would appreciate Lijphart’s 1999 “Patterns of Democracy”. A fine book from the Dutch-American pol sci professor who spent his career showing that PR was the only reasonable way to go.

observa
observa
13 years ago

“Who still believes in single-member electorates?”
Well I think(and so do the electorate) there’s a role for single member electorates to deal with the lost cat/Centrelink cheque type issues at a grass roots level and also to provide electoral feedback and checks and balances to the more electorally remote PR, party based house. With intimate local knowledge on particular issues and problems, they’d be able to amend and curb much of the sillier and unworkable ivory tower legislation, assuming they can convince their fellow senators of their case. The house of review would therefore need to be quarantined from any political party support or funding ie candidates could not be a member of a registered political party, nor receive political funding from them, albeit they may have been party members and even lower house MPs previously. Why not a Keating or a Howard standing for an upper house seat now, if a certain electorate feels like voting them in? Then these disparate seat based members could easily be charged with appointing and sacking the ceremonial HOS, with basically the powers og the GG now that appeal so much. I reckon the punters would trust them with that role and the political parties would be more comfortable without a US type elected President competing with their leadership for political space.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

“The Queens only real role under Australias Constitution is to appoint and dismiss the G-G ”

Correct.

“How would the people appoint the G-G? Presumably by election,”

“Appoint” is not “elect”.

“the peoples will would somehow mysteriously manifest itself”

Twaddle. As I said above, this is how the top judges in Japan and in half the US states are appointed. (The “Missouri system”.)

We could continue doing what we have done for the last 100 years: the PM writes a letter to the sovereign saying how wonderful the candidate is; the sovereign replies. I should think the reply would be pre-paid, tick the yes or no box. Set it up like a postal vote, as was done for the election of delegates to the 1998 republic conference.

The GG (or Pres) would be sacked the same way – not that it would ever come to it.

Substitute “People” for “Queen” in the constitution and the only change would be (a) the Queen would be gone and (b) the PM might be nervous when he wrote the letter since the people’s power would be real and a knockback would probably be terminally embarrassing for the PM.

I believe there have been a couple of knockbacks in the US in the sixty or so years it has been going. (None in Japan.)

No pollies, no election, no hoopla, no “mandate”. The GG keeps all dignity and has authorisation to exercise the reserve powers in the sovereign’s name.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

You know, ad hominem is a sign you lack substantive argument.

The difference between appoint and elect is not clear? You Googled Missouri Plan but can’t figure it out? The citizens of the US and Japan don’t seem to have a problem, Ken. Some of those US states used to have their judges elected by the people (I think some states still do) but they changed to appointment by the people. Can you see the difference? About 20 states have adopted it. This went, state by state, two legislatures per state, argued through, then voted for. They all saw a difference.

Does the Queen elect the GG? Or does she appoint him? You really want to insist that a vote yes or no for the PM’s choice is the same as an election from competing candidates? The essential objection to election is the political campaign, is it not?

The silliest proposal you’ve ever seen? The Yanks don’t think so. Yes you are rude, Ken. If you have a substantive argument, put it. I have made the points that it is republican propriety for the power of the monarch to be transferred to the people, and that it would preserve dignity but give authority to the GG. We would just keep doing what we do now – the sovereign appoints the GG. BTW you mentioned s2. Make three swaps of “People” for “Queen” in s2 and s4 to entirely transfer appointment and dismissal. Entirely. Wouldn’t make us a republic, of course, but would remove the stumbling block.

One problem with the 1999 proposal was that it was appointment. If they had let parliament elect the HoS – as is done in Germany and Italy – there would have been some echo of the people having input, ie via their reps. But no, they insisted on appointing (and made that a formality to boot). Big diff between appoint and elect.

Dismissal of GG. Sure I concede. But you think it important and I don’t. How many governors and GGs have we had in 150 years? Couple of hundred? How many were dismissed? None. There’ve been a few who were embarrassing but what premier ran off to the Queen? None. You’re not the only one to go on about it – the pollies at the eleventh hour in Feb 1998 did too and that little spot of hubris was probably the single thing (I mean the PM’s power to instantly dismiss the Pres) that caused the 1999 referendum to go down. Power mad pollies protecting themselves from spectres of their paranoid imaginations.

You said before the GG is presently instantly accountable to the Queen. Really? The Queen jumps when the PM commands? No one has ever tried it. This obsession with the race to the palace! I should think that in theory if the GG is hard to dismiss then the pollies would behave themselves but that is far too crude a picture. The GG is a prominent citizen at the end of a successful career. It is his job to dismiss the govt and it will take guts. (Your “drop of a hat” does not quite capture it.) He has to have the power to do it and the prospect of a race to the palace may have made Kerr act hastily. Surely it would have been better if Kerr had had more confidence in his position.

All this concentration on dismissal presumes the GG is a loose cannon. The whole point is to choose types who are the very opposite. A PM ringing up the palace or threatening to call a referendum to kick out the GG is a soap opera scenario. Hollingworth simply went when asked. The lushes have merely been kept out of view (mostly).

“Tempted to throw his weight around”? To do what? He is not elected, has no political debts, made no promises and has no mandate. We might see a little more of the William Deane type outspokenness. Not so bad. In the end the PM can ask the people to fire him.

Electoral college. Another red herring. It is kept up by the ARM to prop up a pretence of being open to options. It is fundamentally wrong that an official appointed by other officials be empowered to dismiss elected representatives. It’s academic for it will never go to caucus as they know that any attempt to put it to the people would bring ridicule.