At the heart of the republic debate lies a paradox. An Australian president, almost everyone agrees, should be a largely ceremonial figure like the Queen or Governor-General. Such limited constitutional powers held by the President would be exercised in a carefully just and apolitical manner.
And yet, many Australians, perhaps most, would prefer the new Australian Head of State to be directly elected by the people. Such a choice would be a competitive and political competition. As Neville Wran wisely remarked years ago: “If anyone who ran for president was not a politician when they nominated, they would be when they won.”
That’s why the Australian Republic’s movement more than 20 years ago supported the appointment of the new president by a two – thirds majority in a joint sitting of parliament – ensuring bipartisan support for the new head of state.
This model was narrowly rejected in the 1999 referendum in large part because of a campaign by Republicans who wanted to elect the president directly and joined the monarchists to say no to what they described as the “Republic of Politicians.”
This week, ARM has produced a new model in which the president would be directly elected from a field of up to 11 nominees; one submitted by each state and territory legislature with three submitted by the federal parliament. This curated approach to direct election is designed so that Peter FitzSimons has said to ensure that only the right kind of person can be nominated.
If this perfectly usable model were presented at a referendum, I would certainly vote for it. But I do not think it is likely that it will ever be presented to the people, let alone carry the day, if it were, because it will be seen by many as the embodiment of the weaknesses of direct election. and parliamentary models of appointment, but the forces know none of them.
If we are to have a directly elected president, every Australian citizen should be able to nominate. They should not need the permission of a bunch of politicians to run. To ensure that the ballot paper is not uselessly large, there could be a requirement for a minimum number of voters – 5,000 or 10,000 perhaps – but in addition it should be open. And if people want to choose Shane Warne or Clive Palmer, Paul Keating or John Howard, then so be it. The reality is that politicians will run and a politician will win, and one of them can run on a platform to “keep the bastards in parliament honest”.
In short, anything less than a presidential election open to all will be accused of being “just another politician’s republic.”