Do We Actually Need A President?


Last Monday, the ACT Legislative Assembly elected Katy Gallagher as the territory’s new Chief Minister following the retirement of Jon Stanhope. Gallagher and Zed Seselja, the leader of the opposition in the ACT, both presented themselves as candidates to the legislature, and Gallagher won an election with the support of Labor and Green MLAs. The ACT has no governor or administrator, and the top job is held by whoever wins a clear vote of the legislature. The highest office in the territory, in other words, is elected by the legislature — without fuss.

By contrast, the process of choosing a prime minister is a long and complicated one, with crossbench parties and MPs signing agreements vowing to support a particular party in government. The same goes for choosing state premiers. In both cases, a simple vote would surely be far simpler in determining which party forms a government, in circumstances both clear and unclear.

There’s another layer to these convoluted processes, of course: the governor-general. Do we really need them — at either the state or the federal level? And if we didn’t, would we be able to move debates about republicanism forward a little more quickly?

Most powers of the governor-general are exercised in practice by the prime minister (who is not actually mentioned in the constitution), along with other government officials accountable to the cabinet and parliament. Most such powers could be transferred to either the cabinet or the parliament with little change to the day-to-day practices of government.

The governor-general also plays a role in calling elections when they are requested by the prime minister. Occasionally the governor-general can have autonomy to act when the prime minister calls for an election when they lack the support of a hung parliament, and the governor-general has the freedom to reject the request. Fixed terms in states like NSW and Victoria have largely made this role irrelevant. Federal elections in the United States happen every two years without anyone ever officially calling them: federal and state laws simply set down the date the election is to be held, and that is carried out by election officials.

You could even eliminate the role of the governor-general without fixing parliamentary terms: simply allow an election to be called if a majority vote is passed through the House of Representatives. This would prevent prime ministers from calling early elections to avoid a House who has turned on them, but allow a government with a stable majority to have the same freedom to call elections.

The governor-general, like the Queen, also has a substantial ceremonial role. While governors-general do carry out a lot of ceremonial responsibilities, and also are significant figures in raising money for charity and helping needy causes, these responsibilities don’t necessarily justify the existence of such a position. In recent years, prime ministers have continued to take over many of the most high-profile ceremonial roles played by the governor-general. Many countries have an executive president who also acts as a ceremonial leader, and it seems that this model is not only plausible for Australia, but is being implemented in practice by prime ministers without any constitutional reform.

One of the most important remaining roles for governors-general surrounds the appointment and dismissal of prime ministers. In most Commonwealth systems, including Australia’s states, Canada’s provinces, and the national parliaments of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the Queen or her representative ultimately makes the decision to dismiss and appoint prime ministers, usually after taking into account the numbers for political parties in the parliament.

There are, however, a small number of jurisdictions where this authority has been given to the legislature itself such the ACT — and Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament also operates using a Westminster model with the Queen as monarch, but Scotland’s First Minister is also chosen by a vote of the parliament, rather than an appointment by a governor. Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond was elected for a second term as First Minister after his party won a majority in the parliament earlier in May.

The debate over a possible republic in Australia has focused almost exclusively on how we would choose our new head of state to replace the monarch. To this end, the ACT example might be a helpful reference point. The 1999 referendum saw a model presented to Australians that would have had a new president assume the responsibilities of Queen and governor-general and face election by two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of the federal parliament.

The referendum failed and not only thanks to the monarchists. Republicans who favoured other models of electing a president, such as direct election by Australian voters, were critical of the model proposed.

In turn, the direct election crowd were criticised by minimalist republicans for potentially giving political legitimacy to someone who is supposed to be a figurehead. A directly elected president could play a more active role than the Governor-General or Queen does today. While the current head of state has a great deal of theoretical power, she largely does not exercise it herself due to her lack of democratic mandate and respect for constitutional traditions. Someone elected with a popular mandate may not exercise the same restraint. It would also be a great expense to directly elect someone expected to play no substantial role in day-to-day decisions of government.

Despite substantial support for direct election of a president, no major political figures in Australia argue that the head of state should wield substantial executive authority, as presidents do in the United States, France and many other republics. Constitutional monarchists, minimalist republicans and direct-election republicans mostly agree that the parliament should remain central to our system of government, with little change to the Westminster system beyond the identity of the head of state.

Given all this, does a future republic of Australia actually need a new head of state?

Eliminating the governor-general and putting their responsibilities in the hands of democratic institutions and clearly written laws increases transparency and avoids relying on someone with a great deal of theoretical power choosing not to exercise it. It seems to be far more transparent and democratic for the prime minister and ministers to be elected by a vote of parliament than appointed.

This would also allow Australians to focus on the aspects of our constitution that could really use change. After 100 years there are many parts of the Australian constitution that need reform, and a debate on constitutional reform could do a lot more good by moving past the question of head of state and focusing on changes that might actually make a difference to how Australia’s system of government works.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.