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Direct election is safe

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Lewis Holden says that the risks of a directly elected non-executive Australian head of state are overstated.


PREDICTABLY, opponents of an Australian republic been focussing on a couple of paragraphs in Paul Keating's famous speech "The Way Forward", published here at Independent Australia on the 11th anniversary of the 1999 referendum, where Keating contradicts the ARM's current policy. In his speech,
 
Paul Keating: like most politicians, does not support a directly elected head of state.


Keating outlined his reasons for supporting an Australian Head of State elected by a joint sitting of the Federal Parliament:
 

The desire for a popular election stems from the democratic sentiment which all Australians - including all of us in this place - share. However, the Government has come to the view that if a new Australian Head of State were to be elected by popular mandate, he or she would inherit a basis of power that would prove to be fundamentally at odds with our Westminster-style system of government.

 

It should be recognised that a Head of State, whose powers derived from a general election, would be the only person in the political system so elected. His or her powers would be nominally much greater than those of all other Commonwealth office holders, including the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, who are, without exception, indirectly elected via large elected parties. With a popularly elected President, potential would exist for the representative and democratically elected parliamentary chambers, the repositories of the diffuse power of Australian democracy, to be gradually diminished, while the embodiment of the nation and great powers were vested in one person. That would constitute a very dramatic - and undesirable change to a system which all of us agree has served us well.


There's nothing incredible or new about Keating's views. Indeed, I would expect in the future opponents of an Australian republic will be gleefully quoting Keating in any referendum campaign as a way to undermine any proposal. However, I think Keating is wrong. Now I'm not neccessarily a supporter of direct election, but I find Keating's criticisms as being fairly week.

First, let's look at the mandate issue. In general, when they speak of an elected head of state having a "mandate" they really mean:

  • That the head of state will be a current or former member of Parliament (the “President Paul Keating” argument);

  • That the head of state will interfere with the day-to-day running of the government, in a partisan way (for example, a head of state associated with the Labor Party might somehow frustrate a Coalition Government’s legislative program).

  • That the head of state will have a policy agenda.

  •  
Supporters of the status quo claim the office of Governor-General is ‘non-political’. What they actually mean is that the Governor-General is ‘non-partisan’. The Governor-General is a non-partisan political role. The office is part of the political and constitutional structure of a country and is therefore ‘political’. It is ‘non-partisan’ in that it cannot show favour to any one political party or group. The only reason put forward that an Australian head of state would act any differently is that an elected head of state has a ‘mandate’.
Bill Hayden, was appointed by the Labor Party Australia's 21st Governor General in 1989. In 1983, he was the Federal Labor Opposition Leader.


Governors-General are appointed by the Government of the day, and so their appointment is always a political decision. As outlined in the previous chapter, appointees often have links to the Prime Minister of the day. Despite these political appointments no-one has ever argued that the appointments were failures. The appointees all upheld the neutrality of the office.

De facto, the Governor-General represents the state above and beyond changes in Government. The person who fulfils the role will be expected to act with great gravitas and dignity.

The mandate argument is based on the view that an elected head of state would be elected on some sort of policy platform, with moral authority to act. This mandate would therefore cause instability. As Keating notes, there is a balance of power between the Prime Minister and Governor-General and that an elected Head of State would be a potential rival of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This argument assumes that an elected position would mean politicking along the lines of Members of Parliament or the Prime Minister. It ignores the reality that in a parliamentary republic the head of state does not have the ability to direct policy, make laws or interpret them. Their powers are limited as the Governor-Generals are. They can only appoint and dismiss Governments on the basis of the number of members each party has in parliament after elections, not whether they disagree with them or not.

In a parliamentary republic the head of state would be better able to prevent constitutional crises. There would not be the sort of meltdown in relations which causes such rivalry in the first place. There will not be an upsetting of the fine constitutional balance between the Prime Minister and the head of state because the head of state could hold the Prime Minister to account.  The Governor-General is at the moment a potential rival to the Government and couldcause instability by using the reserve powers.

Aside from the obvious political implications of conflict between the Prime Minister and the head of state (which the 1975 example shows has occurred with a Governor-General), the nature of the office in a republic means that no Prime Minister would desire a situation where they came into open conflict with the elected head of state. The head of state, by virtue of being elected, would win. In contrast, the Prime Minister and the Governor-General currently have the power to dismiss one another. The potential for conflict between a Prime Minister and an elected head of state would be less than it is under the status quo.

Some have questioned whether an elected head of state would be able to function if the reserve powers remain undefined. But this is easily rectified by restating that the prior constitutional conventions applying to the Governor-General applies to the new president. There is also a precedent within the Commonwealth for codifying the Governor-General’s powers. In Jamaica the reserve powers of the Governor-General are set out in their constitution. In Trinidad and Tobago, a republic within the Commonwealth, the President’s powers are similarly defined. New Zealand voters may choose to codify and define the head of states reserve powers in order to clearly prescribe how much power they exert over parliament on behalf of voters.

A directly elected head of state is probably the most attractive option for the general public as it upholds the fundamental principle of direct democracy. The most common reluctance people have with direct election is the potential for politicisation of the head of state’s office. This is particularly true if the candidates come from, or are sponsored by, a political party. This is often where the “President John Howard / Paul Keating” argument is heard. Whether this happens or not will depend on the expectations attached to the role. It's ironic that the opponents of a republic wax lyrical about the unpopularity of politicians and the likelihood Australians would elect a politician as their head of state. The reality is the probability of electing a partisan politician is low because of our generally low regard for politicians.

The evidence from overseas experience shows that many of the fears of politicisation of the head of state are unfounded. In Germany, any winning candidate who belongs to a political party must give up their membership as a sign of their neutrality. In contrast, the President of Ireland, whilst elected from a political party, manages to maintain a high level of neutrality. It is also very likely that prominent Australians without any party affiliation, will be nominated, and run for the office. The head of state will not have an overtly political role so the elections will probably be very low key, as they are in Ireland and Austria.

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