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Democracy needed for Governor General appointments

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The Governor General is our most senior domestic official. Should Australians have a say in their appointment? David Donovan considers.

THE QUEEN will appoint the New Zealand Governor General some time this month. The chair of the New Zealand Republican Movement – and regular IA contributor – Lewis Holden has an article in New Zealand's national newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, about the process for making this appointment. It raises similar questions for Australians.

The disgraced John Howard appointee, Peter Hollingsworth


In New Zealand, as in Australia, the monarch's representative is appointed exclusively on the advice of the New Zealand Prime Minister. Just as the choice of head of state (the monarch) is out of their control, the New Zealand and Australian people or Parliament have no say in the appointment of the vice regal representative.

The Governor Generalship is a very important position. In NZ and Australia, this individual is de facto head of state and has significant reserve powers. Troublingly for voters, how the PM decides on the appointee is kept secret. Holden says that the Prime Minister's Department refuses to reveal the framework for how the PM makes up his or her mind even after repeated Freedom of Information requests by the Republican Movement on the issue.

Holden looks around the Commonwealth, making the point that the people are given a say about their top official in many countries, both republics and monarchies:
In the Pacific, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands elect their Governors-General. This is a consequence of both countries gaining independence about the same time in the 1970s.

Since 2007, Samoa has elected its head of state. The first such election took place in 2007, after the death of the last Malietoa who was a king-like figure under the 1962 independence constitution - written by New Zealand legal experts.

Elsewhere within the Commonwealth the republics of India, Malta and Trinidad and Tobago elect their presidencies via parliament with no problems.

Holden does not suggest that New Zealanders directly elect their Governor General, but rather suggests the public come up with a list of nominees and the Parliament make the appointment only by a significant majority.
The Republican Movement believes nominations for the job ought to be made by the general public, instead of the Prime Minister's office sounding potential nominees.

The public's nominee should be subject to approval of three-quarters of MPs and a majority of party leaders in the House of Representatives. It should not be up to the Prime Minister to appoint the officer able to dismiss his or her government from office.

Holden says that a similar system is used for other important New Zealand positions, including Electoral Commissioners, the Ombudsman and the Auditor General.

Former Governor General John Kerr with the man who appointed him and whom he later dismissed, Gough Whitlam

In Australia, where the Governor General has in the past dismissed the Government, it seems especially relevant that the public should have a say in this important appointment. The people surely deserve transparency and accountability in their Government appointments. Leaving a single politician – whose own appointment is outside of their control (ref: Gillard becoming PM from Rudd) – untramelled power to unilaterally and secretively appoint the most important resident official seems almost completely undemocratic. It has also led to disastrous appointments in the relatively recent past, such as the power-hungry John Kerr and the disgraced Peter Hollingsworth .

At the very least, public debate needs to be made about how these appointments are made in Australia. The current Governor General was a good choice, but there is no guarantee that future selections about which we, the people, have absolutely no input or ability to review will meet with the same degree of popular approbation.  
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