This was the question asked by one member of a most interesting seminar over the weekend that had been considering the speeches of the Governors-General of Australia since 1901. Indeed, no one had raised the ‘republic’ issue until that point, and no one did after it. But the questioner forced me to consider, once again, why the issue is not high on my priority list.
It’s not that I am opposed to Australia’s becoming a republic one day. I expect it to happen — one day — but I don’t see it happening soon. And that frees me from having to think about it. We all had a go at it as the Millennium approached, and that was a sobering experience. John Howard, who didn’t want a republic, showed his skill as a politician by conducting the referendum to ensure that it produced a null result.
The issue isn’t, of course, whether or not we want a republic, but what kind of republic we can agree on. As I see it, and saw it, there are broadly two kinds of republic: one in which the President is directly elected by the people, and one where the President is appointed in some way — by the Parliament, or by some kind of electoral college. You might just get a majority in support of our becoming a republic, but I don’t think the same support would be at all forthcoming with respect to the kind of republic we might then choose.
If we have to have a republic, then my preference is for one which represents the most minimal change from the present: remove references to the monarch from the Constitution, make clear that the Governor-General is appointed by the Parliament, and leave it at that. It represents what in fact happens now, though the Parliament is represented by the government of the day — which also appoints justices to the High Court, ambassadors to other countries, and so on. I would keep ‘Governor-General’ as the title of the office, because it has a distinguished history as a title, and we are used to it.
I don’t at all want a popularly-elected President. It’s not that we might elect a footballer or popstar. Anyone who wished to fill the office would need to have a pretty clear sense of what its duties are, and they are onerous as well as glamorous. I think that the role would bring out the best in whoever filled it. The real problem with that mechanism is that it gives the occupant a direct link with the electorate, one which is at odds with that of both MPs and Senators. You can imagine the conflict that could occur with a new and directly-elected President challenging one of the policies or intentions of the government of the day.
We have more than a hundred years of experience with our present system, and it works very well. Even the ‘dismissal’ showed the system working: the Governor-General acted as he did when he saw the politicians unable to deal with what he saw as a critical situation. Kerr had the most difficult task any Governor-General has had and, as one member of the seminar put it, he gets very little credit for showing courage. He certainly paid dearly for his decision. I missed the crisis, having spent 1975 in London, but I commented on it on the BBC. My view was that the correct path for Kerr would have been to tender his resignation after the election of the new government, on the ground that an action like his could not be allowed to affect the role or the office of the Governor-General.
One side issue in the debate is the increasing ‘Presidentialisation’ of the office of the Prime Minister. Our PM is every day on television news, and acts in many ways like a head of state, making visits overseas, attending the funerals of soldiers killed in conflicts and speaking for the nation. I think it was John Howard who really gave this process strong momentum, but both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have followed suit.
In doing so they have all diminished the role of the Governor-General, in my view to our general disadvantage. One thing I don’t want at all is the Prime Minister’s becoming the President! The checks and balances we have in our system seem to me to work well, and I would like to see the present PM and her successors staying out of the limelight a lot more than is true at the moment, giving Ministers much more of an opportunity to display their own wares, and letting the Governor-General do the national representation stuff.
I haven’t said a word about the Queen, and that’s because I don’t think she, and her likely successor, are at all relevant in what happens here. The first Governors-General were an explicit link to the British Government. That’s passed, and they are now links to the monarch. But the importance of that link is passing too. Australia is an independent republic with a historic link with the United Kingdom. The style we use for our highest office is a part of that link, a link that is of little substantive importance. As time passes new events will occur, and those are likely to reinforce the independence of Australia.
It has been argued, after all, that the Brits might choose to become a republic before we and the Canadians do! What then?