At the heart of the republican debate lies a paradox. An Australian president, almost everyone agrees, should be a largely ceremonial figure like the Queen or the Governor-General. Such limited constitutional powers held by the President would be exercised in a scrupulously honest and apolitical manner.
And yet many Australians, perhaps most, would prefer that this new Australian head of state be directly elected by the people. Such an election would be a competitive and political contest. As Neville Wran wisely observed years ago: “If someone who ran for president was not a politician when they nominated, they would be up against the time they won.”
That’s why, more than 20 years ago, the Australian Republic Movement supported the new president being appointed by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of parliament – guaranteeing bipartisan support for the new head of state.
This model was 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, the ARM created a new model where the president would be directly elected from a field of up to 11 nominees; one presented by each state and territory legislature with three presented by the federal parliament. This combined approach to direct election is designed, Peter FitzSimons said, to ensure that only the right kind of person can be nominated.
If this perfectly workable model were presented in a referendum, I would certainly vote for it. But I do not think it will probably ever be put to people, let alone carry the day, as it were, because it will be seen by many to illustrate the weaknesses of direct election en parliamentary nomination models but the strengths of neither.
If we had a directly elected president, then every Australian citizen should be able to nominate. They do not need the permission of a set of politicians to run. To ensure that the ballot paper is not unreasonably large, there could be a requirement for a minimum number of nominees – 5,000 or 10,000 perhaps – but otherwise it must be open-ended. 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 of “keeping those bastards in parliament honest”.
In short, anything less than a presidential election open to anyone will be accused of “just another republic of politicians”.