Friday, January 27, 2006

Electing the Governor-General?

In a Herald column last week, Colin James explored the possibility of electing the Governor-General. Like The Holden Republic, I am of two minds about this. My natural preference is for election, but generally you have elections when you want the holder of a position to be accountable to the public for their performance. Which implies that there is something they can be held accountable for. Given that the Governor-General is an almost entirely ceremonial position whose actions are almost completely dictated to it by our elected government, election seems constitutionally pointless, and may even result in a Governor-General trying to do things (such as, say, vetoing legislation - or worse, governments - which isn't really their job) on the grounds that they have an electoral mandate.

And OTOH, as Lewis points out, it works perfectly well for the Irish. They have an elected President who is essentially a "twink" Governor-General. So it essentially all comes down to political culture, and whether we would be able to establish one of Governors-General (or Presidents) who were neutral and impartial, as in Ireland.

Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill [PDF] includes an option for direct election of the Governor-General. I guess we just have to hope that it gets drawn from the ballot.


The aspects of the Governor General's job that are not ceremonial are ones that absolutely must be performed in a non-partisan manner. There's no reason at all to elect the GG, in fact I am having trouble imagining what a campaign for the position would look like. Almost the only thing you could do would be to attack the character of the other candidate.

Do you think judges should be elected as well? To me, the role of the GG is more like that of a judge than a politician.

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 1/27/2006 12:07:00 PM

I think the system should stay as it is until a new constitution outlines the competences of a head of state (be it monarchy or republic). There is little point in tinkering with the current system - it's not broken as far as I know.
If we were to go the executive way (as in France or the US) with our head of state, then elections are a must, but if it's a ceremonial and refereeing position, I have no objection keeping the current system, or a parliamentary appointment, like the Speaker.

Posted by Hans Versluys : 1/27/2006 02:16:00 PM

Nigel: well, where "non-partisan" means "under the direction of the Cabinet or Ministers". I don't really see the G-G as having any independent function anymore. The selection of a government is governed by convention (which arguably should be codified into law, to prevent mischief); appointments are by direction; and there's no independence on when Parliament may be dissolved. So its not that they must be non-partisan so much as willing to perform a very tightly circumscribed role, in much the same manner as a talking horse.

One of the big worries with election is the prospect of a G-G who is unwilling to do this, and who (say) interferes with a government's legislative program, on the basis that they have a mandate due to being elected. But its not their job to do so, and hasn't been since we cut Charles I's head off.

And against that, it clearly can be successful; but we'd need to look at how it is done and carefully assess whether we can do it here.

(I still favour a Swedish style republic which puts Parliament at the center of things - but TIMTOWTDI, and an elected G-G at least makes it clear that sovereignty derives from the people, rather than the monarch. And OTTH, there's no real harm in appointing a mere figurehead).

I oppose electing judges, precisely because it would undermine impartiality. but I don't see the G-G as a judge; I simply don't buy the monarchist argument that they're a constitutional safeguard, and they've certainly never acted as one in NZ.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/27/2006 02:35:00 PM

Uroskin: no, the current system isn't particularly broken. But minor tinkering can advance the republican (and democratic, and authcthonist causes). And it allows our constitution to evolve naturally, rather than in a revolutionary fashion.

I can't imagine us choosing an executive republic. Instead, we're likely to have some tweak of the present system - most likely a twink republic (in which we twink out the monarch and G-G and replace them with some sort of President). Getting there can be done in one great leap, or a number of smaller steps. Smaller steps may help things stick better (less fighting over the exact roles of new positions because they will be clearly understood to be the same as the old ones), but is also less inspiring to republicans. But I think it is probably the path that will work in the end.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/27/2006 02:43:00 PM

Elective King/Queen? That'd be fun, we could give them a seven year reign, and sacrifice them to ensure fertile harvests when we elect the following King.

But seriously, I don't think it matters what we call our head of state, just that we take very good care that we don't allow any real _power_ to a position that may become a focus of personality cults or similar adoration of the masses.

I'm all up for keeping the current system. It's as vestigially useless as possible (hard to see how we could atrophy it any more).

Random Ballot? Chose your head of state by national lottery every year or two.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 1/27/2006 04:22:00 PM

Nigel - it would probably be much like the campaign for the Irish presidency: Low-key and candidate (rather than party) driven... and just because many former G-Gs have been judges (and the current one) doesn't mean that the office is like that of a Judge - nor that Judges do a particularily good job. Remember, Sir John Kerr was Chief Justice of NSW and was pretty partial in office...

Posted by Lewis Holden : 1/27/2006 09:22:00 PM

How about a Head of Sate picked from the Order of New Zealand (or whatever the exclusive list is of living Kiwis)? Either a vote or a yearly random ballot could determine the HoS. This would still allow the legislature to choose candidates, while excluding them from absolute control of the outcome. Would that be a sufficient check?

Posted by Will de Cleene : 1/31/2006 01:59:00 AM