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Easy as ... we can be republic with stroke of the pen

Date

Crispin Hull

Gough Whitlam listens to David Smith read the proclamation dissolving Parliament in 1975.

Gough Whitlam listens to David Smith read the proclamation dissolving Parliament in 1975.

"Well may we say 'God save the Queen' for nothing will save the Governor-General.''

These words, spoken by just-sacked prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 and broadcast again earlier this week in the ABC's mini-series on Whitlam, carry some hidden truths - truths worth looking at in the same week that Treasurer Wayne Swan and opposition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull raised again the question of Australia becoming a republic.

The prime minister of the day can without any process choose whomever he or she wants as governor-general. 

In that debate all attention has been on the monarchy and the new head of state. Little mention is made of the existing position of the governor-general.

No government appointment in Australia has so little formal requirement or procedure in its making or so little requirement or procedure in its undoing.

Very simply, the prime minister of the day can without any process choose whomever he or she wants as governor-general. No qualifications are required. The prime minister just makes a phone call to the Queen and it happens.

Similarly, the prime minister can sack a governor-general with just one call to the Queen.

The Queen is different. God saves the Queen. The Queen holds her position through divine right. In the English system, it is presumed that God ordains the next monarch through the hereditary system.

Parliament, of course, has asserted itself over the monarchy, but the fundamental of birthright, or divine right, remains.

This English monarch technically appoints our governor-general, but always on the say-so of the Australian prime minister.

Swan, quite rightly, thinks that it is time Australia cuts the ties and that an Australian, not a hereditary monarch, should be at the apex of our system of government.

But he has wrung his hands and bemoaned the difficulty of the referendum process when his government could and should do something about it. Just as Paul Keating's government could have.

Both just assumed nothing could be done without a referendum to change the constitution. But something could be done, even now.

This government could at least change the system of the selection and dismissal of the governor-general. Parliament would pass a law saying the prime minister shall not put a name to the monarch for appointment as governor-general, unless that person has been approved by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of Parliament. Similarly, the prime minister could not recommend the removal of a governor-general without a similar vote. No referendum needed.

It would be a great first step to the democratisation of the position of governor-general.

The legislation would make it a criminal offence punishable by a year's jail to put the name to the Queen without approval. That would mean the prime minister would lose his or her seat in Parliament if convicted.

All the precedents are there. Lots of legislation lays down what a minister or prime minister can and cannot do. An appointment being approved by a joint sitting is the process for replacing dying or resigning territory senators. Dismissal by Parliament is provided for in the case of judges.

If only Keating had legislated for the appointment of the governor-general in 1992 and William Deane had been elected as governor-general by that method. People would then have seen there was no danger in the system but an improvement on a system under which, for example, a newly elected Tony Abbott could choose his cycling trainer as the next governor-general, or in the case of John Howard his favourite archbishop.

With that legislative change in place, who would need the Queen to approve what a two-thirds majority of the Parliament had approved?

Does it matter if the head of state is still called governor-general? From today, the governor-general could be referred to by his or her other role as ''president of the executive council'', or just ''president'' for short.

Moreover, if the governor-general or president has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting, you can bet your life that the Labor Party and the Liberal Party would prevent a political opponent getting the job. But if the position were directly elected, you can bet your life that there would be a Labor candidate and a Liberal candidate and one or other would be elected.

That aside, if the government were so minded, it could through legislation - without a referendum - provide for the direct election of the governor-general.

It is demeaning enough for us to tug the forelock to someone as dutiful as Queen Elizabeth to get our governor-general approved, but to Charles III? Can't we grow up?

■ ■ ■

On perhaps half a dozen occasions recently I have Googled some critical household or yachting question.

''How do I remove this ugly blue stain that leached from my new blue T-shirt to my wife's new white garment without ending in the Family Court?'' ''Why does my three-way phone which has worked faultlessly for three years suddenly say: 'Unable to connect, please wait'?'' ''How can I use a blue cable to extend my wireless network ?'' ''I am putting a TV in the study, how can I link it to the existing aerial?'' And so on.

''How do I service an electric winch?'' - well, here is a video to show you.

Every time, someone has posted an answer, and access is free.

You can look at a gadget's serial number and Google it and get an answer as to what sort of battery it takes and how to service it.

You can get reviews of things you might buy. ''Don't buy this unmitigated sludge.'' Or ''Fantastic gadget.''

Nearly all of it is from people's personal experience and not some commercial mush and puffery.

These are the blood donors of the internet. They pass on what Richard Dawkins would call ''memes'' - smarter, better and more successful ways of doing things. And these ''fit'' memes survive because they get passed on, making our lives better.

And with the internet the ''memes'' travel faster and to more people and the best ones get passed on and the bad ones get trashed.

We no longer have to ring and rely on Great Uncle Fester who may or may not know what he is talking about.

Life gets better.

www.crispinhull.com.au

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