Republic debate: Our system of government isn't broken - we don't need to fix it

In constructing model for a republican political system, we need to focus on stability, not popularity.

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It is all very well for the Australian Republican Movement to promote the popularity of an Australian head of state, but its spokespeople seem to be taking the same unconvincing, flawed pathway that saw the 1999 referendum fail. 

To flamboyantly declare that a very high proportion of people, or premiers, or voters want an Australian as a head of state is just not good enough. It has always been popular, for very good reasons – it makes good sense, but only if shifting from the current system is to one as good as the one we've got. 

It is support for a safe and democratic model that is essential for success, not a populist, emotional, anti-monarchist cry.

In the lead-up to the unsuccessful 1999 referendum, my late father, the former governor of Victoria Richard McGarvie, proposed the McGarvie model, also known as the Australian Democracy Model. 

He dismissed arguments about how popular the new republic might be and instead concentrated on how safe it might be. He argued that the sensible voters of Australia won't and shouldn't support a model that creates a head of state who might be a populist, powerful, political rival, capable of trumping a prime minister or a state premier. 

Both the dangerous direct election model and now the ARM's parliamentary appointment or parliamentary election model all do just that: they risk producing a presidential-style candidate who is an exciting, rich, outspoken populist who would weaken our exceptionally stable democratic institutions. 


Australia's system of government is one in which the appointed head of state holds the ultimate power to dissolve parliament for an election, but where all of the business of governing, debating and influencing for good executive functions is done by the prime minister, cabinet and parliament.

The ARM's model relies on the goodwill of every parliament and every opposition leader to assist the prime minister in ensuring the smooth, uncontroversial, ordered appointment of a head of state. It represents one of the best opportunities for an opposition to show the government and its prime minister up as bad judges of character, ineffective, and partisan in their selection of a governor-general.

Just think of the opportunities for an opposition leader like Kevin Rudd dealing with John Howard, or Tony Abbott dealing with Julia Gillard. When consulted by the prime minister to agree to one or two of a group of potential candidates, an opposition leader is in a wonderful position to leak names, ridicule the prime minister for a bad selection, and delay or refuse to commit to a name unless the opposition's preferred persons are added to the list. 

Can you imagine reputable persons of substance and worth being willing to be part of the carnival of false accusations and confected drama around the selection of candidates? If a truly mercenary opposition leader, like some we have all seen in our lifetimes, was able to cause doubt, chaos and indecision around ordered, good government, they will do just that.

The McGarvie model preserves every aspect of our current system but one. It follows the principle: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The one shift involved would substitute the Queen for a constitutional committee of recently retired Australian governors general, governors or federal judges who, like the British monarch, are expected to appoint the head of state on the recommendation of the prime minister. 

In all other respects this safe model ensures the democratically elected prime minister appoints the head of state. 

This is an important feature of our current system: prime ministers have largely done extremely well in selecting fine people for head of state. 

The current system of selecting Australian heads of state is done without controversy, in an atmosphere of confidentiality and respect, and without the intrusion of a media campaign operating in the background. They are there to unify, to proclaim the government's laws, and appoint ministers or senior public servants – all on the advice of the prime minister or cabinet. 

Once in a lifetime they are called upon to resolve a constitutional crisis in a careful, wise, thoughtful way. 

The McGarvie model also suggests the current familiar name "governor-general" should be continued. The person chosen cannot be a populist rival to the government. The penalty for speaking out or destabilising a government would be dismissal by the prime minister, through advice to the constitutional committee, and, as with the Queen in the current system, would be bound to act on that advice, but not instantly. 

It means the Australian person appointed as head of state would be a respected citizen operating above partisan politics and would be a unifying influence. 

Finally, this safe model would still enable the head of state to apply discretionary reserve powers to appoint or dismiss a government and dissolve parliament so as to refer an exceptional constitutional malfunction to the parliament or to the people. 

A celebrity or partisan president, with allegiances to the groups or parties or media outlets that got them into the president's chair, would not be a safe pair of hands in a constitutional crisis. The Australian Republican Movement ignored this in 1999, and it appears again to be making the same mistake. 

The voters won't buy it. We deserve a more detailed discussion of the safe model for a republic, not an exited, hectoring campaign that ridicules caution and care.

Michael McGarvie is commissioner of Victorian Legal Services.