The case for a people's choice Governor-General


Finding a new Governor-General is one of Kevin Rudd's major tasks this year. That may seem a surprising statement in the midst of coping with inflation and having negotiated a parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians. But both the process and the appointment itself will help set the tone for his government. Rudd should be creative on both counts.

The Prime Minister puts forward a name to the Queen for appointment. There is no provision for public input or even for consultation with the Opposition in parliament. History tells us the decision is often made by the Prime Minister alone or a kitchen Cabinet at best.

The process should become more open and consultative in keeping with community expectations and contemporary practice. Compare this process with the one just announced by the Prime Minister for the Australia 2020 Summit in April. In the latter case 1000 of the best and brightest Australians will come to Canberra to discuss Australia's future and debate the way forward. This process reflects the great talent available in the community and shows that not all ideas come from within government. It connects the government with the community.

The contrast with the traditional approach to selecting the Governor-General could not be starker.

The nature of the position of Governor-General means not everyone can do the job well of course. It has a formal constitutional aspect, a ceremonial political role and many community responsibilities. The person needs to be someone with experience, dignity, eloquence and the necessary people skills. Australians also want someone of great personal achievement in their chosen field.

But there are still many suitable people. It is not like that other top position to be filled this year, Chief Justice of the High Court, where the need for professional qualifications and experience limits the number of possible contenders. And even with the Chief Justice position there is much wider consultation, with state governments and bar associations, when seeking out the right person.

The Governor-General should represent the diversity of the Australian community. It is no disrespect to the present Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, or to the previous incumbents, to say that our record so far is too narrow and conservative. Rudd should look to Canada and New Zealand where recent appointees have sent a far more inclusive message. The need for diversity of backgrounds makes the case for appointing a woman and/or someone outside the traditional Anglo-Celtic mainstream very strong this time.

Random public debate on the next Governor-General so far has suggested many names. There should be much more discussion encouraged by the government.

There are several good reasons why Rudd should move quickly to open up the appointment process by involving the public and the parliament. There is already a debate going on and, individually, some people are emailing Rudd with their choices. Why not formalise it?

Not all knowledge rests within the Prime Minister's inner circle on this or any other issue. Public consultation will probably add a range of new names for consideration. The serious long-list should easily have 100 names. Let's not sell Australia short. There is a lot of talent out there. Just look at the members of the Order of Australia for starters.

The process of consultation will be beneficial in itself. It will connect Australians to the political process in a way that is lacking at the moment. That will do the office of Governor-General a lot of immediate good and will ultimately enhance our democratic culture.

The government consults over many things already. Younger Australians are increasingly being asked their opinion by TV shows. So let's ask them who they would like as Governor-General.

The advisory process to the Prime Minister should include an open hot line and a formal nomination process. The public would welcome such a modern step towards further new leadership.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.




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Existing comments

We had all the arguments about the possibility of a popularly elected president during the Republican debate. Exploring a way of popularly electing the Governor General, without running into all the problems associated with big funding, advertising by wealthy interest groups etc., could be good preparation for the Republic. My vote would go to Lowitja O'Donoghue as someone who could bring a compassionate and intelligent presence.

J | 15 February 2008  

I hope your suggestion of opening up the position of Governor-General to the general public would not result in any sort of "election" as this would politicise the position. However, input from the public is a good idea only so far as the public input would be "suggestions" only. The Governor General's role is increasingly becoming irrelevant in the Australia of today - in the past I have supported retaining the ties through this position to the Queen (or whoever is the reigning royal of the day), but because of the diversity of origins of our population in 2008 I believe it is time to cut the ties.

pat | 15 February 2008  

An excellent suggestion. Such a procedure would make the position much more meaningful providing the incumbent is allowed to do his/her job.

michael skennar | 15 February 2008  

My nomination is Patrick Dodson, the Aboriginal Reconcilation leader.

Adrian Gallagher | 15 February 2008  

Your idea may cause abberations, such as people marketing themselves publicly as in state and commonwealth elections in order to gain the role.

As a member of the general public I have never know the background of most of the appointees of the past. Such exemplary people as William Deane have played an important role in educating the general public. I was present at a dinner in the first few weeks of his governance. He told of going out with his wife and living for 6 weeks or so with aboriginal communities to be certain for himself that he would be the right person for all Australians.

Some appointments in the past have been political or a reward for past work done for a particular party, I realise. It would not be an easy decision for anyone to make.

Bev Smith | 15 February 2008  

A great suggestion. Question - does our new PM read Eureka Street?

Thomas Curran | 15 February 2008  

This is a well reasoned article. I DON'T like an open election process - John Warhurst gives reasons for this - but I agree that consultation is needed. The challenge is to establish a consultation process which is simple and yet legally pretty watertight.

Jim | 16 February 2008  

Agree entirely PM shoild be advised to involve the public in selection of a G-G. I could offer a name. But don't just write about it to your select audience. Tell the PM to act on the suggestion.

Bill Barry | 17 February 2008  

The key advantage of our present constitutional arrangement (constitutional monarchy) is that it requires the person who has supreme executive power (Prime Minister) to defer ceremonially to the person (GG) who represents the people. It is important not to politicise the office, which overmuch consultation could foster. At the same time, it is important to have someone with political nous and experience, who in the face of a crisis would first seek a political solution before having recourse to a constitutional one, unlike John Kerr in 1975. Some otherwise worthy and popular candidates might lack the required political nous and savvy in regard to the constitution.

Brendan Byrne | 20 February 2008  

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