JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Time to give people say in how governor-general is chosen

Date

Professor of Law at the University of NSW

View more articles from George Williams

"The Governor-General has become our de facto head of state".

"The Governor-General has become our de facto head of state". Photo: Luke Fuda

When Prince Charles and Camilla arrived at Longreach on Monday, they were met by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Ms Bryce did so as the Australian representative of Queen Elizabeth II. In time, the governor-general will act on behalf of Prince Charles.

Like other former British colonies, Australia gained a governor-general to play the role of the monarch in our political and legal affairs. The British also wanted someone on hand to keep an eye on their interests.

This is reflected in Australia's constitution. It states that ''a governor-general appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative''.

A governor-general holds office ''during the Queen's pleasure'' and has ''such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him''.

After Federation in 1901, the office was held by a succession of British peers and politicians. A decisive turn came in 1930 when then prime minister James Scullin proposed that the next governor-general be Australian. He wanted the post filled by the High Court chief justice Sir Isaac Isaacs.

King George V refused to make the appointment, but changed his mind in 1931 when Scullin proved implacable. The monarch has since appointed their representative on the advice of the Australian government.

The Governor-General today also represents the people and their government. She acts on our behalf in dealing with other nations and speaks for the community at times of tragedy and division. The Governor-General has become our de facto head of state.

In time, the office of governor-general should evolve into an Australian president. However, this is unlikely to occur soon. Leading republican figures from the government and Coalition have stated that Australians should only vote again on a republic when the Queen dies.

In the meantime, there is much that needs to be done, beginning with how the governor-general is selected.

Many ideas have been put forward for how an Australian president should be chosen. Some of these can be applied to the governor-general. The Republic Advisory Committee set out the options in 1993, including selection by the prime minister, Parliament or the people.

People also proposed to the committee that the office pass automatically to the retiring taxation commissioner, or that the person be selected by lottery from Order of Australia recipients because this would be ''as Australian as the Melbourne Cup''. Another suggested that the selection be made from people with an IQ of more than 140 who are ''a good shot''.

The most adventurous option would be to allow Australians a vote. There is no constitutional impediment to this. The prime minister could simply request that the Queen appoint whoever has won the popular ballot.

While this might seem like a radical idea, it was considered by the framers of the constitution in 1891. They rejected it because they saw the governor-general as only representing and exercising the powers of the British monarch. They did not conceive of the position as representing the interests or acting on the authority of Australians. This has changed, and so too should the way that the governor-general is selected. While an election may yet be too big a step, the people should still be given a say. This could be done in a modest, straightforward way without the need for legislation.

Before advising the Queen of the next governor-general in 2014, the Prime Minister should invite nominations. She should then seek advice from a panel of eminent Australians and community representatives as to which nominees are most suitable for the post.

Another problem with the office is its powers. We know that the governor-general can exercise a ''reserve power'' against the wishes of the prime minister. Sir John Kerr did so on November 11, 1975 when he sacked the Whitlam government.

These powers are vague and unclear. They are not written down, and depend on convention. Constitutional scholars have long debated fundamental matters such as when a governor-general can dismiss a prime minister or the procedure to be followed in appointing a government from a hung parliament.

Such uncertainty is hazardous at a time of high political drama. As the events of 1975 showed, it can turn heated political disagreement into a constitutional crisis.

This can be fixed by establishing a non-partisan process to codify, or write down, the powers of the governor-general. This would clarify the conventions. The task would be difficult and contentious, but it is dangerous to leave such disagreement to be resolved only in the midst of a crisis.

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of NSW.

Follow the National Times on Twitter

78 comments

  • I hope that Australia becomes a Republic before I die, but I cannot see it happening.

    While we have monarchists in Government it will all be too difficult!!!

    I believe that there are vested interests in Australia and the UK to stop us becoming a Republic.

    Just for example there must be a lot of business/government mandarins and pollies who would have liked to be knighted and called Sir. The Order of Australia does not look as good as being called Sir John or Sir Tony.

    Commenter
    Tc
    Date and time
    November 06, 2012, 8:58AM
    • The article says we should get a say in the appointment of the G-G, who is the Queen's Australian representative, nominated by the PM and appointed by the Queen. Australians don't get a say in who will succeed the Queen, no-one does. Why then should anyone expect to get a say in who will be the Queen's representative? The only exception is the Australian PM, whose advice the Queen is obliged by convention to accept. Don't tinker with the monarchial system, replace it with an Australian Republic with our own head of state.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 11:38AM
    • How about Sir Julia.....ha, ha, ha - not that it will ever happen. One has to be competent and actually accomplish something before one gets knighted.

      Commenter
      emily
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 3:32PM
  • Quentin has certainly been one of the preferable choices in recent times. She is gracious, intelligent, charming and a perfect choice for our first female GG.
    But how I'd love to see a Republic in my lifetime.
    Time Australia got past puberty and reached adulthood.
    The last chance to become so was a farce. A loaded question at the behest of avid monarchist
    JWH. It never seriously had a chance of happening.

    Commenter
    Republic
    Date and time
    November 06, 2012, 8:58AM
    • Sometime the push for a republic seems like an angsty teenager struggling through puberty, wishing that it wasn't part of the family and really adopted. The adult thing might just be to recognise how we fit in with our past, as a nation with a strong British heritage that is building a new family with the rest of the world, but not denying who it really is inside.

      Commenter
      Thinking out loud
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 9:38AM
    • "gracious, intelligent, charming..." and Sir John Kerr wasn't?????

      Commenter
      Louis Cypher
      Location
      hades. missouri. land of the free
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 10:19AM
    • Agreed, but I consider William Deane to be the best GG we've had in my lifetime. Monarchists continue to point to the 1999 referendum as the question being settled. But there is one question the monarchists will be dragged kicking and screaming to the ballot box - Do you want an Australian Head of State? Yes or No. Because the monarchists know they would be thrashed. The Referendum was rigged, no two ways about it. As for David Flint - lock him up in the Tower of London!!

      Commenter
      The Redman
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 10:27AM
    • Thinking out loud,

      Yes and sometimes the Monarchists seem like reactionaries fixated on a feudal institution whilst the future seems so threatening. So they retreat to the past as their goal for the future!!

      Commenter
      Lesm
      Location
      Balmain
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 10:34AM
    • @Thinking out loud

      Keep your heritage in the history books, not in the political system. Then again, I'm sure you would immediately flip flop when it comes to recognising the First Australian heritage in politics as well.

      Commenter
      tester
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 10:46AM
    • Louis Cypher, Republic quite clearly said "in recent times". Do you really think 1972-1974 qualifies as recent times? Put your brain in before you get your knickers in a twist.

      Commenter
      Kate G
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 1:50PM

More comments

Comments are now closed
Featured advertisers

Special offers

Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo