The Australian Republican Movement has launched its new model for the selection of an Australian head of state just in time to get media attention in the lead up to Australia Day, and it has sparked a bit of chatter around the place.
Chatter is good and the model is bound to both attract support and detractors, and it is bandied about by its originators as one possible solution to evergreen discourse about appointing an Australian head of state.
The curious thing about the timing of the release of the model is that its release coincides with public controversy about the Duke of York and his links to Jeffrey Epstein in the context of a court case mounted by Virginia Giuffre.
His mother, Queen Elizabeth, told her son last week that he would not be able to call himself His Royal Highness, and a range of other titles he has collected along the way have been taken back by her as he goes into fighting a court case on his own.
Transpose onto that the continual soap opera that is the Harry and Meghan show, with their capacity to attract a headline the way a barbeque attracts flies in the head of the Australian summer, and this model drops just at the time when some Australians might think we would be better off jettisoning the Windsor lot, given we have enough theatrics, scandals and clandestine relationships of our own to grapple with down under.
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Considering a new model is one thing – the royal dilemmas provide a backdrop for the conversation – but what are some of the issues when you unbox the thing the ARM calls its ‘Australian Choice Model’? What would you notice about the model if you looked at it more closely?
The ARM wants nominations to come from the state and territory parliaments as well as the lot that sits in Canberra. This recommendation is not in itself problematic. You need a source for nominations and a process to get them from around the country onto a ballot paper to be voted on.
What the ARM wants to do is get the states and the territories to establish their own processes to select names to get onto a national list. The processes don’t have to be the same in each jurisdiction – the ARM is not arguing for consistency of process – but that each state and territory must establish some way of getting candidates selected at a state level.
A question for the ARM to reflect on as it continues to promote the model, as well as others that engage in the consultation, is whether there is merit in having consistency in the selection of nominations at a jurisdictional level. Why have processes that are different to get nominations up? What would be wrong with clear, unambiguous processes at this stage of the process of selecting people to be chosen as a head of state?
Would those processes involve local electoral commissions in order to have a state and territory-based vote before names get kicked up a tier to those organising a national ballot?
Consistency in the method of selection between jurisdictions would strengthen the ability of people to have confidence in the process. That is a gap in the ARM proposal that the federal, state, and territory governments can resolve at a forum like the national cabinet. Consistency can be achieved by agreement between jurisdictions.
Another issue of interest is the fact that each state and territory gets to nominate one candidate while the commonwealth gets to nominate three. This means there can be up to 11 names on the ballot paper, which is probably nice for the nominees but doesn’t quite make sense. Why does the commonwealth have an allocation of three in the model? Why not one, two, four or even five? That choice seems arbitrary and one that merits further reflection.
The national election process is an easier issue to navigate. Once you have the list of candidates or nominees, you can get the ballot papers sorted, distributed and get people to vote for their choice for president. This would seem straightforward once you have the choices lined up. A head of state would be in office for five years, according to the ARM, and would not be permitted to serve more than two terms.
Limiting a head of state to two terms of five years is reasonable, although one wonders why the ARM did not go with the two terms of four years given that is what people are very familiar with from the system in the United States.
Powers of the head of state also need consideration. The ARM proposal says the head of state would act on the advice of the prime minister except in four specific circumstances, which they describe as limited exceptions.
The head of state would have to:
- Determine who is more likely to form the government in the House of Representatives,
- Terminate the appointment of a prime minister in circumstances whereby confidence is lost on the floor of the House and the prime minister refuses to resign, summoning parliament to help determine who has the confidence, and
- Call an election where confidence of the House in a side to form government is unclear for more than seven days.
These are powers that should not be contentious given that they are required from the perspective of checks and balances. The prime minister needs to demonstrate the capacity to form government in the lower house to somebody before being given that commission.
A head of state is a part of a chain of accountability but the head of state themselves would need to be accountable. The ARM proposal suggests that a head of state should be able to be removed by a motion passed by both houses of parliament in circumstances where there is proved misbehaviour or they are rendered incapable of continuing in the role for whatever reason.
The most senior governor of a state would be asked to act as the national head of state until the head of state can return, for example, from illness or another election can be held for the vacancy of the role.
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Challenges will exist for the ARM in its campaign to advocate for this particular model because there are competing issues being raised for constitutional changes. The one that has occupied the minds of the government and advocates from the indigenous community is the creation of a voice to parliament for the indigenous population.
The consultation process for an Indigenous voice to parliament has been run by the government and the discussion is advanced. It may be wise for the country to bed down the changes related to providing First Nations with a voice to parliament before this proposal to change the head of state gets considered.
We can ill afford to give people excuses to not progress with a voice to parliament and a full-blown debate on changing a head of state – as worthy as a discussion as it might be – could be just the distraction for which people uncomfortable with a voice of parliament may be grateful.