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Elect the Governor-General !

June 9th, 2004

Governor-General Michael Jeffrey has been criticised, again, for political comments, this time backing George Bush against Mark Latham. Such criticism, in my view, is obsolete. Although he was more subtle about it, Jeffrey’s predecessor-but-one, William Deane made his disagreement with some of the more brutal policies of the current government pretty clear. The attempt to restore the status of the GG as an impressive nonentity was tried with Peter Hollingworth, and failed miserably. Next time around, not surprisingly, Howard chose to play it safe and appoint a Liberal party loyalist.

The real problem is with the GG position itself. It is now inherently political, but the appointment is entirely in the personal gift of the PM. This is most unsatisfactory, particularly when a change of government produces a situation where the GG and PM are of opposite parties. Under our current system, this will produce increasing pressure for the GG to resign when the government that appointed him/her loses office.

The only adequate remedy is direct election. A directly elected GG (or President) would be free to speak out on public issues from time to time, while maintaining a primarily ceremonial role. The case for direct election would be even stronger if we became a republic, but it’s overwhelming in any case.

Hat tips: The title of this post is from a book by David Solomon and Ken Parish revived the idea a while back.

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  1. wilful
    June 9th, 2004 at 17:27 | #1

    No I very much disagree. Bipartisan support for a suitably eminent non-political but moral GG/President is the method that would provide the desired alternative.

    Direct election would certainly not provide for the person you’re looking for. The only people wiht an interest in exposing themselves to that sort of publicity, and with the machinery to ‘campaign’, are already politicians, or bloody Eddie Mcguire!

  2. Bill Cushing
    June 9th, 2004 at 20:59 | #2

    As I recall, David Solomon points out that an elected Governor-General would be able, in practice, to exercise the black-letter constitutional powers of the position.

    He would, then, have powers similar to those of the President of France.

    I don’t think that this is quite what is wanted here.

    Thus the need to codify the ‘conventions’ governing the exercise of the sovereign’s powers if we want to elect our ‘head of state’.

    And why the minimalist McGarvie constitutional council–to hold the big red rubber stamp for appointing the G-G, in place of its present outsourcing to the Palace–is probably the only workable way to install a local ‘sovereign’, at least as a first step. Nothing wrong with an appointed monarchy. It’s basically what we have now.

    So, let’s get on with ‘patriating’ that rubber stamp!

  3. observa
    June 10th, 2004 at 02:52 | #3

    I have a preference for electing our 2 Houses of Parliament in reverse. The Party/s that proportionally gain the highest no of quotas(a la Senate) in the Reps get to appoint the Cabinet and PM. The Senate is elected on an electorate basis(a la the Reps now) and appoints the GG. This upper House(with the same term as the Reps) has strong review and committee powers, to ‘keep the political bastards honest’. The largely ceremonial GG has reserve powers(a la 1975), while blocking supply by this house forces a double dissolution.

    What are the benefits? Well firstly pork barrelling in marginals is finished. No more election bribes to sugar farmers, etc. The Parties would run on big picture national issues for all. Also they can protect their best talent(PM and Cabinet material) at the top of their ticket. Notice how a Peter Garrett can be brought in at any position on the ticket, rather than some local electorate, Party hack. Parties have an incentive to maximise their overall vote and appeal. Also allowing the Senate to be electorate based, gives a strong local input/feedback into the national govt, by locals on the ground. They can collaborate with other local members, to curb the worst excesses of executive power. The consensus appointed GG, by local members, removes the inevitable power clash between an elected PM and an elected GG. If popularly elected,they may both come to believe they represent the people, with the inevitable clash.

    Minor mechanics can be incorporated easily. A casual vacancy in the Reps can be filled by that Party, from the next nomination on their ticket, while a similar Senate vacancy would require a local byelection. I would be in favour of prospective Senators having to resign from all political Parties in the Reps and not campaigning under a Party banner. This would elicit more independent review candidature.

    I know the objection of Party supporters to diluting the winner takes all, benefits of a 2 Party system, but would suggest this is a myth. You only have to look at the introduction of the GST, to see how multiple Parties can cooperate for obviously needed reforms. Also it gives proper representation to all voters and would force minor Parties to drop their more lunatic policies, in order to gain serious political power.

  4. Observa
    June 10th, 2004 at 19:55 | #4

    When you think about it, another major benefit of this voting regime is, it removes the incentive for branch stacking for House of Reps candidates. The Party ticket now requires national membership approval. Perhaps more John Quiggins in Parliament for their professional expertise, rather than their talents with chook raffles and kissing babies(He,he,suck,suck!)

  5. Mike Pepperday
    June 10th, 2004 at 20:58 | #5

    Wilful’s objection is immovable. Direct election provides legitimacy associated with day to day rule. It would be a whole new system. It’s academic anyway since the parliamentarians know this and will never pass such a bill (should anyone ever design one) so direct election is never going to get to referendum.

    Bill Cushing suggests codifying. The lawyers have been arguing for 60 years over this. It will never happen. The idea of electing a powerless person is ratty anyway. The whole idea of democracy is to elect the powerful people, not the powerless ones. As for the McGarvie model, whatever its virtues the people will never support it and no one seriously thinks they would. It will never be put to parliament.

    Observa’s idea is a bit late. We have spent the last 50 or 60 years arriving at a norm that the lower house is majoritarian and the upper house is PR We have five of those parliaments. Australia is the only parliamentary (ie non-presidential) democracy to have fully elected, powerful upper houses – and we have six of them.

    The only two ideas for the GG/president that most people know about are parliamentary appointment versus direct election. They are two extremes. No one discusses parliamentary election which is done in Italy and Germany (near enough) and no one discusses the other permutation of direct appointment which is how judges are appointed in Japan and in half the states of the US (where the process is called the “Missouri Plan”).

    These two rather obvious options have never had any discussion. Until the full variety of possible models is laid out and discussed, people won’t be able to make a sensible decision.

  6. June 10th, 2004 at 22:01 | #6

    During the republican/direct election debate I always thought that the ray martin/shane warne worts case scenario was a bad scenario.
    But having endured successive dickead GGs,I say go ray,go warnie-it couldn’t be worse.
    Gormless religious/military time servers v pop media stars and legspinning slobs-gimmee the latter!

  7. June 11th, 2004 at 00:43 | #7

    marklatham seems to be quite vehement about his point! Go Latho!

    Observa, the rip it all up and start again option is pretty difficult to compute, given it’s never gonna happen. More generally, and pending my more considered thesis, your basic premise seems to concede the assumptions of public choice theory (pork barrelling etc). Self-interest is of course necessary, etc. But the danger in conceding everything to self-interest as an immutable prevailing norm is that you thereby more deeply entrench the assumption in the culture etc. The challenge is to get the benefits of projecting self-interest and the general interest in the right proportions, not concede the legitimacy and hegemony of the former, and then nobble it, I think, off-hand.

  8. Observa
    June 11th, 2004 at 13:12 | #8

    Chris,
    Rather than entrenching localised self interest, I’d like to see Federal elections fought on big picture terms, as we certainly face some big issues like global warming and dwindling fossil fuel reserves. Any electoral reforms that would overcome the localised pork barrelling to vested interest groups, would IMO be a step in the right direction. Local member issues like Kalgoorlie gold taxes, Sydney Airport noise, or Queensland canegrowers viability, should not become the issues on which national direction hinges.

    As far as tearing it up and starting again, I understand the magnitude of the task. However, I don’t think we will ever move toward a Republic and changing the nature of a GG without a nation seriously addressing, the shortcomings of the current electoral system. The push for a Republic will be the catalyst for a fresh approach. Perhaps if Howard scrapes back in, without a majority of the two party preferred vote, but with a one or two seat majority, the push for electoral reform will gather some serious momentum among some.

    For those who think the current winner takes all approach between the 2 majors is the only safe way to go, I’d point to Peter Garrett’s rapidly changing stance on Pine Gap, nuclear disarmament and logging old growth forests. Also in my own state, a Labor govt rules quite successfully, with the help of an independent Liberal. I am quite comfortable with proportional Lower House representation, which forces the fringe party players to abandon their more loopy ideas, in order to become seriously engaged with policy making.

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