The release of the ‘Palace Letters’ has renewed a fierce division of opinion that foreshadows the kind of partisan debate that would plague any attempt at constitutional alteration to a Republic. But could we foreshadow the form of such a Republic within the present constitutional constraints?
The appointment of a Governor General is by recommendation of the Prime Minister and fixed since Scullin’s insistence on the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs who had the dual misfortune of being Jewish and Australian.
How that recommendation is made, however, could take many forms and seeking parliamentary or public input is entirely possible and could effectively foreshadow a republic. Parliament could seek suggestions from a general public and make a recommendation that the PM could convey. Or there could be a general plebiscite with contending candidates. All this is possible within the present Constitution.
Each has its own distortions. A decision of Parliament, however candidates are nominated, would open the process to public figures of a broader public appeal outside of partisan politics. Or it could become a political reward like ambassadorships.
Polls seem to indicate a broad public desire to have such a position elected directly but that risks a party-political contest. Ireland seems to have managed this to some extent by restricting nominations to those over 35 put forward by at least 20 parliamentarians or by 4 city or county councils. Here this could be broadened by allowing State parliament nominations providing a broad filter to ensure experience and hopefully, gravitas.
Whatever the form, however, such a process of nominating a Governor General would foreshadow a republican model that the public would have been able to see in practice allaying apprehension by putting in place a known process.
In one sense that is the easy part. What has become clear from the release of the Palace Letters is that the prerogative reserve powers of the Governor General are broad and require definition.
The prerogative powers of vice-regal representatives have always been greater than those exercised in Britain. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 abridged Royal Prerogative but still allowed extensive prerogative power outside of Britain – which imperial representative exercise with extraordinary arbitrariness. So, the scope of the prerogative reserve powers under the Constitution should not be underestimated.
Again, defining these powers could be foreshadowed by a Governor General Act that defined the powers and responsibilities of a Head of State and the scope of reserve powers.
It would be an opportunity to also define the role of Prime-Minister which, oddly to some, does not even appear in the Constitution yet it defines our most important political office. Such an Act would, once severance from the Crown was decided, could be put to a referendum for a republic and incorporated in the Constitution.
The point of these suggestions is to place before the public an experience of how a republican model might work. Of course, there are other pressing claims for inclusion in the Constitution but making the fundamental severance from the British Crown is a singular consideration. This does not preclude consideration of an acknowledge of First Nation prior ownership within the preamble and again this could be foreshadowed by legislation.
This conservative approach is intended to minimise negative opposition by making plain the intention. There is, for example, no reason to change the name for the Head of State to President. Retaining the title of Governor General conveys continuity and it a perfectly legitimate appellation. Afterall, we retain the quaint title of the Commonwealth of Australia with echoes of the republican commonwealth of Cromwell in the aftermath of the English Civil War, though Lord Protector seems an appellation too far for an Australian Head of State.
It seems clear though that the decision in 1891 to call the new Federation, the Commonwealth of Australia, had in some constitutional contributors like Andrew Inglis-Clark a decided republican intent with a recognisable English lineage. So, melding the elements of tradition with a republican renewal offers the best opportunity for the success of any referendum.
The other element to assist realisation would be to raise the barrier for success by making the Northern Territory a State which is within the power of Parliament. At present to succeed the referendum must be passed by the majority of voters in the majority of states. As there are only 6 states any referendum must muster a majority in 4 out the 6 states, a considerable hurdle. A seventh state would lower the obstacle to success.
In the last attempt at constitutional alteration the wily John Howard set up the divisions of opinion that scuttled any alteration to the status quo even though it was clear a majority favoured some form of Republic. And those divisions of opinion still exist among supporters of a Republic to be leveraged in any campaign by opponents.
By altering the selection of the Governor General and defining the powers legislatively, people have the opportunity to observe a process in action and even get an opportunity to alter the model before entrenchment within the Constitution. And even if a referendum fails a considerable constitutional alteration has been legislatively achieved.
The role of Governor General has become much diminished in recent times as prime ministers usurp roles the Governor General once performed. This is obvious in recent events. Where was the Governor General during the recent bush fires and where has he been to assure the public during this pandemic? The role of public non-partisan assurance needs revival and as does public faith in the political process.