Since the failure of the republic referendum in 1999, a number of attempts have been made, without much success, to rekindle public debate on the constitution. Mark Latham recently flagged holding a plebiscite before 2007 on whether Australians want a republic in principle. This has followed a Senate Committee’s taking of submissions for possible models. While many republicans comfort themselves with the thought that only our "recalcitrant" Prime Minister is holding us back, the reality is that the republican movement is as divided as ever. Innovative thinking is therefore required. Yet another Senate Committee hearing is not innovative unless innovative models are submitted to it. Nor is the expensive and ultimately impotent indicative plebiscite suggested by Latham.
Opinion polls continue to show that the vast majority of Australians want a vote on who becomes president. We know that already. The Australian Republican Movement and the major political parties believe that a popular vote for the president would alter our system of responsible government. There doesn’t seem much room to move between these two positions. Despite the endless lectures about the impracticality of electing a president, the people still want a vote.
While a number of comprehensive models for parliamentary appointment of the president have been put forward, no-one appears to have taken seriously the challenge of incorporating the public demand for a vote on the president into a workable republic model – until now.
Mike Pepperday, a political scientist at the Australian National University, has developed a popular-appointment model with breathtaking simplicity. He recently submitted it to the Senate Select Committee referred to above. Instead of the Queen appointing the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister, the people would do the job. The Prime Minister would put forward a single candidate for president, and the people would approve (or reject) the choice. This proposal represents an elegant compromise between popular sovereignty and parliamentary government.
Popular appointment would require few changes to the constitution, since the process of appointment and dismissal, and the powers of the heads of state and government, would stay as they are. Changing the constitution would be, quite literally, a matter of crossing out “the Queen” and replacing her with “the people,” and swapping “Governor-General” for “president.” This simplicity should attract those concerned that a switch to a republic would alter our system of government.
And yet, the popular-appointment model would represent a statement of republicanism more profound than anything else yet put forward. The problem with earlier models, whether parliamentary appointment or the ultra-minimalist McGarvie model of appointment by three wise souls, is that they ran a mile from any notion of popular sovereignty. That is not republicanism.
A referendum by postal vote (perhaps non-compulsory) on the Prime Minister’s choice of president would constrain the Prime Minister’s freedom (no more politicians as head of state) without changing the basic structure of the constitution. There would be no controversial choices for president. The Prime Minister simply couldn’t afford to lose the referendum. Nominees for president would be dignified servants of the public, the kind of people that we have looked up to in the past as governors-general, and who would not submit themselves to a competitive election. Popular fears of Paul Keating becoming the first president of an Australian republic would be no more.
The fact that the president would be appointed, rather than elected in a divisive contest, would remove any thought of a popular mandate, thereby maintaining the principle of responsible government. Yet, the Prime Minister must choose a candidate who would survive public scrutiny, a requirement that would have flushed out objections to Peter Hollingworth before he was appointed.
Of course, the fact that dismissal of the president would be more difficult than is currently the case with the Governor-General will generate fears of possible constitutional deadlocks. But that is something that is common to most republic models, and the status quo is hardly ideal in this respect. The ghosts of 1975 should not be allowed to stop a move to a republic.
Popular appointment represents the only realistic chance of a republic in the foreseeable future. Mike Pepperday has proposed a simple and easy way to unite the majority of Australians that support a republic in principle behind a common model. Over to you Senate Select Committee.
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