Monday, February 25, 2008

Training wheels for a republic

Over at the Holden Republic, Lewis discusses the Australian Republican Movement's suggestion of an elected Governor-General as a transition to a republic. And thinking about it, it's not a bad idea. As a democratic society, our natural approach to a republic would be for an elected presidency, but one of the most commonly expressed concerns about such a system is that the head of state would feel they "had a mandate" and start throwing their weight around, sacking elected governments and trying to veto legislation. This is then taken as a reason not to shift to a republic.

The underlying concern here isn't really republicanism or election as such, but the fear that a transition would undermine the strong constitutional conventions which render the office of Governor-General utterly powerless. Governors-General can't refuse assent or appoint whoever they want as Prime Minister because those battles were fought and won by democracy long ago (in 1687 and 1834 respectively). But a Presidency would be a blank slate, at least in the public mind, and so would have a lot more room in which to manoeuvre and possibly ignore those conventions (not least because they'd also buy their own socks1)

But the answer here isn't to abandon republicanism or democracy; it's to manage the transition so that the convention of a powerless head of state utterly subservient to the elected Parliament survives. And electing the Governor-General while still retaining the monarchy strikes me as a good way of doing this. In the public mind, they can't throw their weight around because they're still the Governor-General. Then, when we twink out the monarch and turn the Governor-General into a President, they're still in the public eye the Governor-General. Election has been normalised, and we've got used to the idea of an elected ceremonial figurehead (of course, it would also help if we codified the head-of-state's powers into the bargain, but that applies whether we move to a republic or not).

There are two possible downsides. The first is that a strategy of bedding in incremental changes commits us to a slower move to a republic than I would like. The second is that it basically commits us to the "twink republic" model of retaining the present system but erasing the monarch. As an advocate of that system, I don't actually see that as a drawback, but those who favour different models, or who want a constitutional blank slate, might.

1 English constitutional history being a process of Parliament shifting power to itself by continually threatening to cut off the monarch's sock budget.