Home-page   Back to reading-room   Back to the previous page   To the next page  

Australia's Head of State

Choosing the leadership.

My being Australian, yet having lived abroad for most of my life (since the age of 21), I have much interest in the activities and political developments of that great country. Party politics aside, I am intrigued by the debate concerning the relationship with Great Britain (and Ireland, north and south). This is exemplified mainly by the question whether or not the British monarchy should continue as the constitutional head of government.

I have not been able to keep up with all of the deliberations in Oz over republicanism and it did appear to have retreated from the limelight for some time. With King Charles now having ascended the throne, this question may once again come to the fore. Nevertheless, if some may see little purpose in Australians continuing with the trappings of the monarchy, that is for the resident citizens of Oz to decide and not for the likes of me - ex-pats, clamouring from abroad.

However, I am less than impressed by all the hoo-ha generated by those espousing republicanism, which I believe has been overdone and much passion has been expended to little good effect.

When the previous plebiscite was held, I was dismayed by the low standard and poor content of argument which was produced. Not only was it held in a frenetic atmosphere of yah-boo politics, the politics also seem to be party-led: the old guard of monarchists, mainly the Liberals, against the republicans, being old Labor and the non-Anglo-Saxon settlers (particularly Irish descendants). What a shame.

Were Oz to opt for a form of republic, I would prefer it not to be described as such but simply to re-emphasize that it is the Commonwealth of Australia, which really means much the same thing. It means that we all own the place and it is not the property of the Crown; this is more or less the status quo, isn't it?

Why do many people need to get so hot under the collar over an issue which would make such little difference to the existing establishment? Effectively now the England-based monarchy has little power over Australia's affairs, and indeed it would be reluctant to exercise what power may remain without ensuring this accorded with Oz's wishes (ie those of the government of the day).

All power really lies already with the Federal and State governments, except the one real responsibility of sacking a government - Prime Minister Whitlam and all that. It is a worthwhile restraint to be kept, whatever one thinks of the merits or demerits of that case. Indeed, the reciprocal situation of the Prime Minister or Premier having the power to sack the Governor-General or Governor (as is presently the case de facto) is something which should be dispensed with. Why? Because it draws party politics into a domain which should be above and untainted by the sordid activities and machinations of politicians.

All we need are persons to be figureheads for the Nation/States, persons doing much the same job as they do now. The incumbents need to be good representatives for our country/State, speak and act well on formal occasions, provide a rallying point for us the people, and be of sufficient character to command the respect of us all. In a word: diplomats.

Additionally, they need to have the background and nous to be able to decide if, how and when to step into the political arena and dissolve a parliament, something which should be invoked only in extremis, if ever. A candidate for this role must then have the required panache, poise, education and experience. There would be many persons so qualified, although the least likely may well be any who have had a former career in politics.

To get away from the present nomenclature which many would find inappropriate, let me call them respectively Head of State ("HoS"), instead of Governor-General, and Heads of the States ("HoSS") instead of State Governors.

So, how do we appoint them?

Not as at present by the government of the day; we have seen several times what that has led to.

Almost as bad in my opinion is for an election by popular vote. This would be wasteful in the extreme and it is not just the expense which should be considered but the serious divisive nature of such a course. Any popular vote would inevitably descend into a party political fight, create a furore of inflammatory allegations, reduce argument to extreme black and white terms, and fruitlessly stir public emotions. That in turn would mean that whomsoever may be elected would have the support of those who voted the person in, but more grievously, the opposition of the minority who did not. So, with a tightly fought election, the HoS or HoSS would find some sizeable proportion (albeit less than 50%) of the populace may be antipathetic (or at best apathetic). In my view that would be unsatisfactory.

My suggestion is that the appointment should be by way of an electoral college (I say "my suggestion" but surely it is so obvious that this must have already been considered by others). The electoral college would consist of a specified number of persons, probably not more than around a dozen, who occupy one of certain posts in civic life, such as: Chief Justice, Chief of Police, Head of the Diplomatic Service, President of the Trade Unions, Head of the Armed Services, President of an all-faiths Council (is there one?) and so on. Once the range of offices had been selected, this should be permanent but of course the individual officers would change over time and it would be the individuals, not the institutions which they may lead, who would have sole power within the electoral college.

The rules by which the electoral college conducts itself need not be considered with this general proposal but apart from choosing the HoS and HoSS from whatever procedure is laid down, the electoral college should also have the added responsibility of removing a sitting incumbent for improper conduct etc.

Thus the operation of the HoS and HoSS system would have no political ties (and only one political power: that of sacking a Prime Minister or Premier). The system should be as independent of politics and of the government of the day as is the judiciary. The only way such a system could be overturned, amended or abolished should only be through another plebiscite.

What title should these persons be given? What's in a name? I suppose "President" is the logical, if unoriginal choice but that may rather provide confusion with other nations' presidential systems or indeed be compared with the president of a large business enterprise. Surely an alternative could be found (I like "Commonwealth Chancellor" and "State Chancellor") to encapsulate the roles of the HoS and HoSS.

More than anything, I would prefer that when or if the country changes over, it is done without any expressed ill-feeling against the previous system, the constitutional monarchy. It should be a well-mannered change and not used as an excuse for hot-heads to yell their prejudices to the roof-tops.

Any brickbats: by e-mail E-mail HMT.