Popular appointment: a popular choice for a Republic?

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An Australian republic can only become a reality if the mechanics of the appointment of the Governor-General/president are resolved. The resolution must be satisfactory to the politicians and to both republican factions, says Dr Mike Pepperday, who suggests that the people appoint (not elect) the Governor-General.

Is popular appointment the last piece in the puzzle?

The two guests on Late Night Live on 27 April were the head of the Australian Republican Movement and the head of the Australian Monarchist League.  The discussion was so desultory that Phillip Adams eventually complained about the lack of argument. Why did the guests confine themselves to platitudes and bland generalities? Because they know there is no prospect of anything actually happening. The Q&A on April 28 was equally drab; the three experienced politicians on the panel spent the hour humouring the other panel members and the audience. They know the republic is going nowhere.

The hold-up is disagreement over the method of appointment of the Governor-General (or president). At the close of the February 1998 convention, Kerry O’Brien remarked that the public was stubbornly pro-election and he asked the then ARM chair, Malcolm Turnbull, whether he would be able to convince the public to accept a parliament-appointed president. As we know, he did not convince the public and over the years, through and beyond the failed referendum, anti-election propaganda from politicians (e.g. from Bob Carr on Q&A) has made no impression on the public; the people want to have a say.  On the other hand, the politicians are equally stubborn; irrespective of party, they are adamantly opposed to direct election and since they are the gatekeepers, there the matter rests. For progress to occur there must be a process which is satisfactory to both pollies and public.

The question of the method of appointment overwhelms all else yet it has never been a real debate.  The 1995 Turnbull Report cemented the polarisation of republican supporters into the two extreme options of parliament appointment versus popular election and since then neither faction would answer criticism. If you suggested to either side that their model may have shortcomings you would hear no defence but instead you’d receive a barrage vilifying the enemy. This polarisation remains and if we are ever to get a republic, we have to break out of it. As long as republicans are divided the monarchy is safe. The stand-off has also quite crippled real discussion of what a republic is; for twenty years the republic has been about only one thing: the method of appointment.

The criticisms by both factions are actually quite correct; either model, direct election or parliamentary appointment, would unacceptably affect power balances. A satisfactory compromise must be a plan that does not cause a power shift, that leaves the conventions untouched, that only transfers the Queen’s appointment power and changes nothing else. If we could solve the appointment question and do nothing else, we could then rationally discuss what sort of republic we want to be.

It isn’t all that hard.  My suggestion is “Popular Appointment” (PA) whereby the people would take the place of the Queen and appoint the Governor-General (GG) on the PM’s advice. There would be no election, no campaign and no mandate, so it should be acceptable to the politicians. Since politicians would continue to have nothing to do with the appointment, it should also be acceptable to the people.

It requires two replacements of “Queen” with “People” in section 2 of the constitution:

“A Governor-General appointed by the Queen People shall be Her Majesty’s representative in the Commonwealth, and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen’s People’s pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him.”

This power to appoint and dismiss the GG is the only remnant of power our sovereign has. Replacing those two words would transfer to the people the Queen’s sovereignty concerning the GG’s appointment. The transfer would be quite complete as there are no other provisions in the constitution regarding the appointment.

The present convention is that the Prime Minister consults informally with the UK government then writes to the Queen proposing a candidate and the Queen writes back appointing the person as GG. If we switched those two words in Section 2, instead of the PM writing a letter to the Queen, the PM would write to the people and they would write back―a postal vote. The media would ensure there was plenty of informal consultation.

The definition of a republic is where the people are sovereign. Is this true or is it an empty sentiment?  If it is true then for a monarchy to become a republic the people should replace the monarch. At the very least, the idea of having the people replace the Queen should be the starting point of any discussion of becoming a republic. There are about two dozen mentions of the monarch in the Constitution so the first stab at becoming a republic would be to simply replace them all with “the people.” If there are reasons why, in an Australian republic, the people should not be sovereign, then surely they ought to be openly stated. The reports of the two major public enquiries, the 1995 Turnbull enquiry and the 2004 Senate enquiry, gave none at all.

Taking one step at a time, as far as appointment of the GG is concerned, only those two replacements to section 2 apply. By changing them we would still be a monarchy and if for some reason PA proved unsatisfactory, we could modify it, in theory even so as to give the appointment power back to the Queen. If it was satisfactory, the states could adopt the same procedure for their governors. With the distraction of appointment out of the way we would be free to figure out what sort of republic we wanted. PA would have no effect on our ability, or inability, to adopt any of the “models” that have been discussed for the last two decades. All republic options would remain open.

ABC journalist Kerry O'Brien: asked Malcolm Turnbull the difficult question in 1998

Not that we need any of those models to become a republic. If becoming a republic just means to make the Queen vanish, it is only necessary to replace the two dozen mentions of the monarch with “People.” Sometimes the form of words needs modification, but it is never complex or controversial.  This would make a republic, with the GG holding the sovereign’s authorisation but no mandate to rule and the politicians with no expanded role. If we also wished to change the name, then “President” would have to replace “Governor-General” wherever it appears.

The well-known options of parliament appoints versus the people elect are extremes. What ever happened to the middle ground? What about parliament elects or people appoint? In Germany and Italy the parliament elects. Their sky has not fallen; it is a viable process. PA is in use in two countries, though not for the head of state.  It is how all judges are appointed to the supreme court of Japan and how the judges in half the states of the US are appointed. In the US, the process was adopted in state after state because of problems with popular election.  (Search “Missouri Plan”.)

Of the two moderate in-between options, parliamentary election of the GG would require some re-writing of the constitution whereas Popular Appointment requires only a switch of two words.  Parliamentary election would also hand power to the politicians, which would end all chance for further reform. PA has no influence on the possibility of reform or of any alternative method being introduced in the future.

The moderate options have never been considered in Australia. Suddenly, in 1999, we faced a referendum by which parliament was supposed to obediently appoint the person cooked up by their leaders. Not only would the people have had no say but even the parliamentarians were to have no say. Most Australians don’t realise that the 1999 referendum would have replaced the Queen with the leader of the federal Opposition. Under the legislation, instead of the Queen’s approval of the candidate, the PM was to seek the Opposition leader’s approval. Instead of a GG appointed by an apolitical monarchy, we were to become a “republic” with a president selected by the power brokers of the two major parties.  At the referendum we were asked if we wanted this political pawn to replace the Queen. Proponents never justified it; instead they waved the bogeyman, i.e. kept pointing out how ghastly it would be if the people were to elect the president. The moderate in-between possibilities were ignored. Though the voters may not have quite known what was going on, they did smell a rat and the referendum failed.

The two extreme “models” continue to loom over the debate, such as it is. The polarisation suits those who hope one day to revive the 1999 parliament appointment model. Popular election is not acceptable to politicians and will never be put to a Labor or a Liberal party-room, let alone to parliament, let alone to referendum. The merits or otherwise of direct election are academic for it cannot get to first base. The politicians and all leading players know this yet never come out and say it. They keep thinking of parliamentary appointment – i.e. a re-run of 1999 – and to bolster support for that (perhaps even in their own minds) they continue to hold up the direct election bogeyman. Serious consideration of moderate options would undermine this dichotomy.

But the leading players also know that another go at parliamentary appointment is dicey. If both parties supported it, it would probably succeed at referendum but it would be seen as a power-grab; it would be bitterly fought and it might even lose. At best, it would only scrape in; opponents would declare it a sham and may campaign against the states relinquishing the monarchy. The politicians, however keen they may be to extend their power, are not sure this is an appropriate way to start our new republic. Becoming a republic is a change of identity and we should do it with a will. When East Timor voted for independence in 1998, everyone said it had to be a clear majority. Their 78% is the sort of consensus we should be looking for. The political leadership sees no hope of this and so they do nothing. PA might solve their problem.

The argument about whether Australia “should” be a republic is more than a century old. Every generation has to think it through, but at this rate they’ll still be thinking after another century.  Opponents of a republic don’t really have to stir themselves. The stocks of the monarchy will rise with royal weddings and fall with royal scandals but it is not in the nature of Australia to become more monarchist and were “the Republic” again to become a live issue, it would revert to polling 70% or more. Whatever the polls say, without a viable republic plan it won’t become a live issue and the monarchists can hold the line forever.

Until the question of the appointment of the GG is resolved there will be no republic. “Popular Appointment” would be a straightforward, moderate way to accurately transfer the Queen’s sovereignty to the people. It would leave the conventions evolved over centuries undisturbed and allow a sovereign people to legitimise their head of state in a dignified way. It should be acceptable to both republicans and to politicians and thus break the stalemate.

(For more information on Popular Appointment, see the list of FAQs.)

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Popular appointment: a popular choice for a Republic?

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