Americans momentarily became excited at the prospect of Oprah Winfrey somehow landing in the Oval Office on the strength of her black-dress speech at the Golden Globes. It was a fine enough speech, although some of the things she spoke of had already been said by other women. No matter, it was Oprah Winfrey saying it, bringing star quality to the issue and the moment.
Western democracies tend to offer up boring and formulaic types from the political boiler room for us to endorse for elected office, so can you blame citizens for turning to TV celebs for instant political gratification? This may be one explanation why the world ended up with Donald Trump in the White House, a crowned clown prince from what mysteriously is called “reality” TV.
The Winfrey moment in the United States actually strikes a chord Down Under as Australians lie awake at night tossing and turning about republicanism and a presidency. It is now uncontentious that a precondition of a republic in Australia is that the head of state, or president, be directly elected. That seems to be the basis of any constitutional change.
The appointment-by-politicians model just won’t wash and is made even less attractive by the fact that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports it. Analysis after the 1999 republic referendum showed that almost half the people who voted wanted a directly elected president. In other words, a large number of people voted no, not because they wanted a monarchy — rather they disagreed with the idea that politicians should appoint the president.
If Australians are going to swap the monarchy for a republic they find that direct election of the president is preferred by around 70 per cent. Even though this is enticingly democratic, a head of state who is popularly elected and is supposed to have no real political power, is fraught with contradictions. The president would then be the only directly elected member of the executive arm of government, since all the ministers and even the prime minister are not directly chosen by the electorate to those positions.
It would mean that the reserve powers of the head of state, such as the power to sack a prime minister or the power to refuse an election, would have to be comprehensively codified.
Even so, no one could be sure that a narcissistic, constitutionally illiterate and compromised former TV celebrity who won the popular vote would not run away with the idea that they were something other than a non-political ornament.
The exciting, yet disconcerting, aspect is that the job would be open to a far wider field of contenders than the usual crusty selection of retired politicians, judges and military types that the Queen ticks off on the recommendation of the PM.
Australia’s Oprah Winfreys would indeed be contenders. Is there any contest between Lisa Wilkinson and someone who fell off the treasury benches such as a superannuated Barnaby Joyce?
Maybe one of the wildly popular stars from The Chaser could capture the imagination of a grateful nation. A lot of people might also be attracted to Larry Emdur, former presenter of Wheel of Fortune and co-host of Celebrity Splash. Other attractive contenders for president might be Laurie Oakes or Adam Goodes.
Now that Craig McLachlan and Don Burke have been sidelined with injuries, the field is wide open and under the model put forward by the Australian Republican Movement in 2001 (now the Australian Republic Movement), we would enjoy the option of up to seven candidates, nominations having initially been made by the people and then filtered by a two-thirds majority of a parliamentary joint sitting, followed by an election campaign and the vote.
Would the vote be first-past-the post or a runoff between the top two contenders? — vexing issues that remain undecided.
Doubtless, the election would bring quantities of hitherto untapped excitement and glamour to the dreary sludge of Australian politics. The Irish have managed this process well and leaves might be taken from their book. They replaced their governor general in 1937 with an elected president who is largely ceremonial but with some discretionary powers that are excised under the president’s “own counsel”.
The candidates are selected by at least 20 members of the legislature, the Oireachtas, at least four county or city councils, or in the case of an incumbent or former president, themselves.
This has resulted in a range of sober worthies holding the office in the Republic of Ireland, usually former politicians, one former chief justice and in the case of Mary McAleese, a professor of criminal law and penology.
When Australia’s constitutional conventions were underway in the 1890s, there was a brief flirtation with the idea of an elected governor general, but sadly, that came to nothing. The republicans should riffle through the archives and see what the thinking was and how it was proposed the election would work.
Turnbull, a republican of lapsed enthusiasm, earlier this month got himself into one of his self-induced blithering messes when he floated the idea of a plebiscite or even a postal survey on the threshold issue of a republic, but not until the Queen dies. Apparently, there’s no “appetite” for change until the royal coffin is carted off on a gun-carriage.
About 24 hours later, one of the PM’s flack merchants “clarified” his master’s voice, saying that even if the Queen dies in the current parliamentary term, there would be no plebiscite on the republic.
According to a Morgan poll, there would be appetite for change if Prince Charles becomes King of Australia. Six years ago, Morgan found that support for the monarchy in this country would drop from 52 per cent to 43 per cent if Charles were crowned.
Fundamentally, the move towards a republic depends on the quality and popularity of our monarch. Can Prince William and little Prince George keep the flame flickering for another generation of wilting enthusiasm?
There’s another prospective complication. Australia may end up with a republic at the commonwealth level while some of the states retain their monarchical constitutions, with governors representing the British head of state. At the republic referendum in 1999, Queensland was the state with the lowest ‘yes’ vote at 37.44 per cent and the highest ‘no’ vote, 62.56 per cent.
It’s understandable. A place called “Queensland” without a Queen would be more confused than it is now.
With so many anticipated known and unknown knowns associated with a celebrity presidency it might be advisable to entirely scrap the idea and just let the prime minister saddle up as head of state and head of government.
It doesn’t seem absolutely essential to have the Queen’s man Down Under, with all the associated paraphernalia, signing bills into acts and taking the march-past on Anzac Day.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Richard Ackland is a Guardian Australia columnist.