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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reflecting on the Republic - How to Elect a Mate as Head of State

The Australian Republican Movement made a brave attempt earlier this year to put the issue of an Australian republic back on the agenda, with their `Mate For Head of State' campaign. We often forget not only how close we came to becoming a republic, but also what a big issue this once was. Head to the political section of any university library and there will be shelves of twelve year old books about it, with chapters written by some unlikely candidates (I remember reading a very persuasive argument by Amanda Vanstone, for example). We also forget that, once upon a time, Malcolm Turnbull was better known for his passion for this cause rather than as Prime Minister in waiting.

From what I can find, relatively little in-depth research has been done about the aftermath of the Republic debate. The participants of the much mooted Constitutional Convention occasionally mutter darkly about what a debacle it was (Labor raconteur Mungo MacCallum once commented that the only thing everyone could agree upon is how much they hated Malcolm Turnbull). There seems to be common consensus on two things. Firstly, that because the change was largely symbolic, it was difficult to frame it in a way with which the ordinary person could engage. Secondly, it was divisions within the pro-Republic camp rather than the Monarchists that eventually brought it down. Chief amongst these was, of course, the model - whether a head of state would be directly elected by the people or, as the Conventional eventually decided, by a panel of government appointed representatives.

We all remember the infamous Electoral College that we heard so much about during the 2000 US elections, and none of us understood it much. What happens is similar to the way representatives are chosen for a State or National conference in Australia. Roughly, in addition to the regular popular vote, each state elects a number of representatives based on its representation in Parliament. This group then go on to vote on who should be President.

The flaws in such a system are evident in the fact that a president can win on Electoral College votes despite losing on the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000. However, a similar model may be valuable to consider in the context of an Australian Head of State, who does not have same the executive powers as in the US. In electing representatives to go on and elect a Head of State, Australians would be allowed a certain amount of direct democratic participation, but without the danger of the position being overtly politicised. This would certainly be a preferable method to the one settled on in the Constitutional Convention - a situation which could (and let's face it, would) allow a stacked panel to choose a politically preferred candidate. It also reduces the problems inherent in direct election - that is, to potentially invest the candidate with a sense of political mandate that would threaten to destablise regular Parliament, as occurred in 1975.

Many would argue that Australians would want another election like a hole in the head, but if we consider how infrequently Governors General are changed (scandals of recent years notwithstanding), it would be a rare burden. Monarchists use the well worn line `if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. And certainly, Constitutional change should not be taken lightly. However, when a Head of State has recently been utilised by the same government that chose him (in the overturning of the ACT Civil Unions legislation), it looks like time for fixing to me.


At 9:09 am, Blogger QuietStorm said...

The bit that digusts me the most?

Not only did the G-G exercise his reserve powers in such a way as to effectively strip the ACT of any self-determination, he did it in a way that's completely inconsistent both with the wishes of the constituents in the ACT *AND* with the policies of the UK, which has passed its own Civil Unions legislation!

So either he's representing Great Britain (in which case he should reflect their poitical position on the matter) or he's representing Australia (in which case he should bloody well reflect the position of the Australian people). Apparently, he's choosing to represent the Prime Miniature instead.

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