Governor-General Peter Cosgrove should be Australia's man, not the Queen's

Peter Cosgrove's appointment as Governor-General, to be formalised on Friday, highlights once again the question of whether or not our head of state meets Australia's core values. At the same time, the Prime Minister's reintroduction of knights and dames underlines the importance of getting national symbolism right.

Cosgrove has had a decorated career of military and civil service. He is eminently credentialled and I am sure he will continue to serve the country with distinction as Governor-General. He will also, by virtue of this appointment, be the first Knight of the Order of Australia in 30 years.

So, on Friday, Cosgrove will go to the Senate chamber to be sworn in. With that we will have Sir Peter: our new constitutional officer.

For that is the situation we are in: despite significant confusion over the question, the governor-general is not Australia's head of state. It is true that governors-general perform important ceremonial functions and roles in the community, but the governor-general's simple raison d'etre is to ensure, on behalf of our actual head of state, that Australia is operating according to the constitution.

A head of state is the highest position in a country. He or she is a nation personified. A representative of all, the head of state should embody the identity and values of the land - the country's soul. It is symbolism at its core, but it is important. Japan has its emperor, Ireland its president, Qatar its emir, and we have … the British royal family.

Today is a good time to contemplate how well our system reflects Australian values.


In 2013, the Australian Republican Movement asked thousands of people the question: ''What does it mean to be Australian?''

The response was overwhelming. Some of the most common answers were the values of freedom, multiculturalism, egalitarianism (along with "a fair go"), independence, diversity and identity. This is a picture of Australia we can all get behind: a culture of fairness and equality of opportunity, where everyone has something to offer and we take pride in our accomplishments and community.

Contrast this with our current system of constitutional leadership. Our country's identity is tied up in an overseas institution that is aristocratic, culturally homogeneous and strictly religious. The head of state is a foreign national. Our current arrangements fall down at the first hurdle: how can Australia's identity ever be properly expressed through a citizen of another country? Our constitution also denies us any input into who actually holds the position. The selection of our sovereign is not based on a person's achievements or merit, but by their draw in the lottery of birth. What's more, the head of the royal family - and by extension, of Australia - must be a baptised and confirmed member of the Anglican Church. So much for separating church and state!

Imagine if we were to design a new mechanism for appointing our head of state - what would our Australian values tell us? Our values of celebrating diversity and multiculturalism suggest a nation in which an indigenous person could be our head of state, or the daughter of a migrant who came to Australia and fell in love with the land.

The ideals of freedom, independence and a strong identity suggest a country where the head of state is solely committed to the Australian people. They also suggest a place where the citizenry has free choice, rather than an obligation to accept the mechanics of family hierarchy.

Lastly, the belief in a fair go lends itself to a constitution whereby any Australian could be our head of state, unconstrained by race, profession, class, family or religion.

Our values suggest we should have a system whereby an outstanding Australian such as General Cosgrove could fully represent our nation, rather than just play a role on behalf of a foreign monarch.

Some would argue the governor-general does represent the people as a de facto head of state and that we are only a monarchy on paper. Even if we ignore the fact the job description is to represent the palace (not the people), that position implicitly accepts a monarchy does not best represent our values. I don't want a de facto head of state, I want a real one!

Indeed, the knighthood announcement demonstrates that our nation is still grappling with an imperial, post-colonial identity. For our country to fully reflect our ideals we need to express them at the highest symbolic levels. We need to entrust our absolute leadership to the Australian people, with no recourse to, or rubberstamp from, Buckingham Palace.

Toby Phillips is the convener of the ACT branch of the Australian Republican Movement