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New way ahead for the republic

Peter Crayson, 28 June 2001

This article was written, upon request, for the "Opinions" page of The Australian but was never published.  Reasons were not provided.

As a new Governor-General assumes office, many will undoubtedly continue to contemplate whether the right person was chosen for the job.  But an equally pertinent question to contemplate is whether the right person chose the Governor-General.

Dr. Hollingworth seems to understand that he is expected to be a constitutional cipher.  One will be tempted to compare his conduct with the compassion, grace, humility and dignity of Paul Keating's choice, Sir William Deane.  But no matter how commendable such choices are, the fact remains that it is the sole prerogative of just one person - the Prime Minister - to choose the Governor-General.  As a mere formality, the choice is invariably rubber stamped by the Sovereign (i.e., the Queen).  This is hardly a democratic method of appointment.

Flyers distributed by monarchists on the day of the republic referendum deceitfully proclaimed, "If you want the people to vote for the President, vote NO", but the same monarchists later triumphantly asserted that this same "no" vote was a strong endorsement of existing arrangements.  Nevertheless, one reason the referendum failed was indeed that the people had no direct say in choosing the President.  The referendum proposed that the PM would put a single name to Parliament, and that the politicians would vote to approve that person.  A nominations committee would have advised the PM, but this was composed of politicians plus others appointed by - yet again - the PM.  Adding insult to injury, the PM was free to completely ignore the committee's advice, and worse, the PM's power to sack the President arguably gave more power to the PM vis-a-vis the President than vis-a-vis the Governor-General.

Prominent direct electionist republicans proposed a President elected by the people, but unlike the US system, this would be a non-executive head of state, comparable to the Irish President.  Although this attracted significant public support, the problem was that people who would make admirable Governors-General would probably not be willing to run for popular election.  More likely, politicians or wealthy individuals would have run, and armed with powers to appoint or dismiss a PM, ugly constitutional confrontations involving competing claims to a mandate could easily be envisaged.

Despite clear popular support for a republic, the failure of the minimalist and direct electionist camps to sedately resolve their disagreements ultimately sank the referendum.

I'm proposing a hybrid model which just might please a majority of republicans - and Australians.  It neatly combines the best elements of the present system and of popular republican models, it's uncomplicated, and it will function reliably - I've dubbed it the Sovereign Council model.  In this model, the office of Governor-General would be retained, but in place of the Sovereign, a five member Sovereign Council (headed by the President of the Sovereign Council) would be directly elected for a term of six years.  With democratic legitimacy not enjoyed by the Sovereign, this body would represent the ultimate sovereignty of the people.  Sovereign Councillors could be neither MPs nor members of political parties, and could be elected by postal ballot in a similar manner to delegates to the 1998 Constitutional Convention.

The Sovereign Council, acting much like an electoral college, would appoint the Governor-General, but whereas an electoral college is transient, the Sovereign Council would continue for its six year term.  Nominations for the office of Governor-General could be submitted by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition or any five MPs, but far from the perfunctory approval of the Sovereign, the Sovereign Council would choose from amongst these nominees entirely at its discretion.  And unlike the Sovereign, it could take an active role in Australian public life, performing ceremonial and symbolic functions as non-partisan representatives of the people.  The Sovereign Council could also dismiss the Governor-General, but only upon a resolution requesting dismissal by the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, the Governor-General, when exercising any discretionary power (including the reserve powers) would be required to advise the Sovereign Council in advance.  At this or any other time, the Sovereign Council could encourage or warn.  And much like a parliamentary committee, it could promote accountability by requiring information, reasons or explanations from the Governor-General, ministers or parliamentary officers (such as the Speaker).

Attractive to direct electionists is that the President of the Sovereign Council and the other Councillors, at the apex of our constitutional system, would be directly elected.  Attractive to minimalists is the non-partisan composition of the Sovereign Council, the method of nomination of the Governor-General (likely to produce impartial incumbents of comparable calibre to recent Governors-General), and that candidates for the office of Governor-General would not tend to be restricted to those willing or able to run for popular election.

Constitutionally, it's not necessary to employ the term "head of state".  The model enables the roles of the Sovereign Council and the Governor-General to evolve, just as those of the Sovereign and the Governor-General have evolved considerably over the last century.  On her web site, the Queen used to describe herself as Australia's head of state (this has now been changed to "Sovereign"), while the Commonwealth Government Directory used to describe the Governor-General as head of state.  Right now, neither is formally designated head of state, but nothing would prevent the Parliament from conferring this title upon the Governor-General or the President of the Sovereign Council without affecting their powers and functions - just as it conferred the title "Queen of Australia" upon the Sovereign.

The republic question will undoubtedly be put to the people again before long. The Sovereign Council model may well be the best way ahead.