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Sack the President at your peril

By Greg Craven - posted Wednesday, 15 September 1999

In the whole of Australia’s history, not one Governor General has ever been dismissed. Indeed, so far as we know, none has even had a green card waved under his vice-regal nostrils.

We might therefore think that whatever the excitement over the mechanism for appointing a republican head of state, issues about dismissal would have been quickly relegated to the category of mogadon and theory.

Not a bit of it. Monarchists are now inveighing fruitily that the proposal that a President might be sacked by the Prime Minister with the approval of the House of Representatives would leave him with a less secure tenure than the presidential cook.


Direct electionists agree, muttering constitutional spells to ward off this black magic against the "sovereignty of the people", whatever this may be taken to mean in the circumstances.

What both ends of this ill-fitted referendum marriage fail to grasp is the reason that the constitutional convention determined upon "simple dismissibility" in the first place.

Here, the Convention was guided by what sometimes was referred to as "the McGarvie principle", for the simple reason that it was most ably propounded by Richard McGarvie, the former Governor of Victoria.

This principle melded high constitutional theory with brutal reality. It held that the ultimate reason that Governors General acted constitutionally and in accordance with the advice proffered to them by their responsible ministers was because if they did not, they would be sacked.

This blunt proposition has the single virtue of obvious truth - a head of state who will be sacked if he runs amok will not run amok.

The Convention was deeply impressed by this reasoning, which gave constitutional conservatives their greatest victory at that event. Even before the Convention began, the Australian Republican Movement had begun to abandon its proposal that a President be dismissed only by a (politically unachievable) two thirds vote at a joint sitting of parliament.


Ironically, therefore, the present proposal that the President be dismissed by the Prime Minister with approval of the House of Representatives embodies not constitutional radicalism, but the high-water mark of constitutional conservativism.

Critical to such an understanding is the appreciation that the dismissal mechanism which will go to referendum certainly is no more permissive than that which operates under the constitutional monarchy.

A Governor-General presently may be dismissed by the simple expedient of a Prime Minister telephoning the Queen. In accordance with the most fundamental principles of the British (and Australian) constitutions, the Queen will act in accordance with the advice of her Prime Minister.

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About the Author

Professor Greg Craven is Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Deputy Chairman, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council, and a constitutional lawyer.

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Australian Republican Movement
Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy
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