June 14

Our constitutional guarantor

The Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, says a directly elected president would be a "risk" to political stability and may lead to friction between the head of state and prime minister, according to a report by Phillip Hudson in The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 June 2008, ” Voters choosing president too risky: G-G.” 

In an introduction to this exclusive interview, Philip Hudson says after the failure of the 1999 republic referendum, which offered voters a president appointed by parliament, observers believe the option most likely to be put to voters next time will be the direct-election model.

He is correct, but the recent Morgan Poll must be heart breaking to direct elect republicans, indeed all republicans (see this columnCollapse! Young Australians kill off republic,” 8 May 2008).

Asked specifically about the direct elect model, support for this republic fell to 45%, the lowest in fifteen years.

Evn worse was the time bomb in the youth vote. Support for this republic among those aged 14 to 17 is down to a catastrophic 23%.

…a most experienced viceroy…  

 Mr Hudson points out that General Jeffery will retire as Governor-General on 5 September 2008, and is “one of the most experienced viceroys in Australia's history, having served seven years as governor of Western Australia before his five years at Yarralumla.”

 "I'm concerned about the potential for friction between the prime minister and the head of state," he said. "That would be, I think, counterproductive. 

"People will say they have elected heads of state in this country or that country and it seems to work. Maybe.

 "I wonder within the Australian psyche if someone was elected with, say, 5 million votes and felt passionately about an issue, whether that might cause a potential problem between the head of state and the prime minister.

" I'm not saying it would, but I'm saying the risk is there and that is something that would have to be very, very carefully considered.

"I think the beauty about our present system is that governors and governors-general are not elected and therefore are bound to act on the advice of ministers provided that advice is constitutionally correct and legal."

…key function as the constitutional guarantor… 

The Governor-General told Mr. Hudson that his key function was "to be the constitutional guarantor … to ensure at the federal level that the prime minister of the day behaves himself or herself constitutionally". 

He said the head of state must be very careful not to upstage the prime minister or talk about policy.

"You can't stand up and say what the opposition is proposing in relation to taxation or something is right and what the government is doing is wrong."

This , I think , is better than the opaque description of the Governor-General explaining the nation to itself, which was an expression used by one of his predecessors who subsequently campaigned for a Yes vote in 1999.

 Mr.Hudson says that the he Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has “put the spark back into the republican debate” by promising to consult the public through plebiscites to choose a model to be put to a referendum.

I am not sure whether Mr Rudd has gone that far. He does seem to have forgotten his clear pre-election promise not to proceed with a  republic during his first term “if at all” ( see this column, “Kevin Rudd retreats on republic,” 24 November 2007). 

 The Governor-General  stressed to Mr. Hudson that he was not commenting for or against a republic.

He told him that while he had not detected a passionate desire from the public to replace The Queen, "I'm never against change. I think if you can work out ways of better governing the country – that's the way I put it – then fine. We should always look at ways of improving our system of government in the same way we do with business and academia.

"But you've got to have a foundation and a basis of knowledge from which to make those decisions and I think that … is summed up in having a good understanding of civics." He said it was "too hard to say" if a republic was inevitable but a first step should be to educate citizens how the present system works.

 He reminded Mr. Hudson of political chaos in other countries.

"Some of them are so-called democracies, but they're not democracies because they haven't got the checks and balances in their system, otherwise these things wouldn't be able to take place. 

"I think [our system] is taken for granted because it's worked so seamlessly and so effectively. Look at the seamless transition of power from Mr Howard to Mr Rudd and the lovely way it was done: the two families having a cup of coffee at the Lodge and handing over the keys …

" We have had 100 years of political stability and I don't think that's happened by accident. I think it's happened because checks and balances were put in place by our founding fathers, and citizens should understand what they are."

…a little known aspect of his key role…


He revealed he had "sent back" about 15 pieces of “legislation or items requiring his assent”, but would not say what they were.

"It might be that I need more information or I think the thing could be better expressed or its not clear in its intent. Invariably departments and ministers correct it. Sometimes they'll withdraw it."

It is clear that the governor-General is referring to subordinate legislation, not bills requiring Royal Assent. He is clearly referring to matters coming to him in the Executive council.

He thus demonstrates another important role of the Governor-General as an auditor of the executive government, a role almost unknown not only by the general public, but many republicans.

If you want to change the constitution, especially such an extraordinarily successful constitutional system, you have a duty to first understand it, and then say how you want to change it.

How much self- described”passionate republicans” do? 

 The republican movement and politicians won’t even tell the people what they want to put in its place.



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