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More than one way to skin a cat, or choose a head of state

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by Ross Garrad


They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat, though it’s safe to assume that most of us haven’t actually tried out many different methods. But when it comes to choosing a Head of State for Australia, saying “there’s more than one way” is an understatement. There’s an almost infinite variety of methods and models to choose from.

It’s surprising, therefore, when people in politics or the media over-simplify the choice by speaking of “the direct-election model” or even “the parliamentary appointment model”, though the latter is more excusable if people are referring to the 1999 referendum proposal. The truth is that there are many ways for a Head of State to be elected by the people, and there are many ways for our elected representatives to do the choosing. For example, we could involve our State and local representatives. There are also possibilities that don’t fit easily into either of these categories.

The Senate Inquiry into the Republic explored the options in detail in 2004. Details of the Inquiry, including an electronic version of the final report “The Road to a Republic” are available on the internet at the Parliamentary House website, or by clicking here.

Out of 730 public submissions, about 185 are available on the Senate website. It would have been nice to have them all available for viewing, but it seems the money ran out. Anyway, this sample provides fascinating reading for the serious republican theorist.

The ARM submission was based on the “Six Models” discussion paper and provided a sample of five of the best-known possibilities, ranging across the spectrum from appointment by the Prime Minister (as at present) or the parliament (as in the 1999 proposal), through the electoral college option (where a separately elected body appoints a President) to different forms of direct election. The ARM has since refined it's suggested models to just four.

The crucial difference between the various direct election models comes down to one simple question: where do the names on the ballot paper come from? Should the “shortlisting” be done by Federal Parliament, or by all our representatives including State and local levels, or by public petition involving a required number of signatures, or by randomly-selected “citizen juries”, or by some more innovative method?

Some of the most interesting “alternative” proposals involve dividing up the Head of State’s workload. The “Copernican” models envisage a separate Head of State, probably elected, to serve as a figurehead, while the actual constitutional and governmental work (such as it is) would still be done by the Governor-General. This would give us a system very similar to what we have now, with an “elected Monarch” replacing the Queen and having a similar ceremonial role.

Sir Gerard Brennan, 10th Chief Justice of the High Court


Others have proposed a collective presidency, perhaps to be called the “Constitutional Council”. The terminology can be confusing, though. Professor George Winterton and Sir Gerard Brennan have both proposed a different “Constitutional Council” or “Constitutional Commission”: a group of experts to advise the President and to have some input into any decision on whether the President should use the reserve powers, for example, to sack a Prime Minister.

The Senate Inquiry looked at much more than the method of selection. In a sense, it’s putting the cart before the horse to even talk about a selection method before the role and powers of our Head of State are settled. This is a principal focus of the ARM at the moment: exactly what sort of Head of State do we want? Most of the Senate Inquiry submissions assumed a largely ceremonial role similar to that of the Governor-General, with little real power except in the most exceptional of circumstances. Some of them made a serious attempt to add extra safeguards to these powers, to open the way for a “safe” elected President.

Some more radical suggestions have looked for ways of bypassing or postponing the election versus appointment argument. One serious suggestion is that we shouldn’t have a separate Head of State at all, and the Prime Minister should take over the role. The counter-argument is that this gives us the worst of both worlds: a politicised system that diminishes existing safeguards, but doesn’t compensate by giving the people a greater sense of ownership.

Another possibility is that we could arrange in advance to separate from the monarchy at a future time, most likely at the end of the Queen’s reign over the UK, and put in place uncontroversial transitional arrangements, with a Constitutional Convention to be held following the separation, to work out a more permanent solution.

Although the range of possibilities can be confusing, and our disagreements provide ammunition to the enemies of Australia’s sovereign independence, one central truth needs to be kept in mind: the solution will come from the Australian people, facilitated by activist organizations like the ARM, and it can only be implemented by a democratic vote of the people. We don’t have to copy what has been done in any other country. This basic constitutional reality is the most suitable response to any silly charges of elitism or manipulation.

(Ross Garrad is a legal scholar and Treasurer of the Queensland branch of the Australian Republican Movement. This article was originally published in Armlet in February 2007.)  
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