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A chance for democracy

WESTERN Australia is moving towards ensuring it won’t find itself in a predicament similar to that which Prime Minister John Howard and hapless Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, have recently placed Australia.

The reason is that WA is on the brink of having elected, as opposed to secretly selected, Governors; vice-regal representatives.

All the signs are that WA’s present Governor, His Excellency Lieutenant General John Sanderson AC, will be the last to gain this high office by appointment, not election.

All WA’s 27 Govern-ors, beginning with Captain James Stirling, who London appointed in December 1828 have been selected either by London or from Perth by Premiers, not chosen by the people they’ve ruled.

This 174-year-old practice is, of course, quite undemocratic, so awaiting fundamental reform.

Thankfully it’s set to be replaced by giving Western Australians a direct say in who holds their top governance position.

Many have probably forgotten, but the Premier Geoff Gallop made a historic commitment on April 19 2000, when he disclosed that the Labor Par-ty, when in Government, would call a referendum over how WA Governors would gain their post; by election or continue being secretly selected.

I’ve no doubt that when voters confront this historic decision at the ballot box they’ll opt for the democratic path rather than continuing to have a single politician – a premier – secretly deciding who’ll be their Governor.

Though nothing has again been heard of Dr Gallop’s April 2000 pro-mise, it’s likely he’ll soon announce the referendum will be held on election day 2005.

For some the break with the by then 176-year practice may be somewhat traumatic.

But they’ll undoubtedly adjust eventually, as we’ve all adjusted to other welcomed historic democratic reforms and practices – secret ballots, elections, and parliaments.

It should be pointed out that Dr Gallop’s proposal and announcement is not novel. For instance, in 1990, Emeritus Professor Martyn Webb published a democratic constitution for WA that’s readily available and was even presented to a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the WA Constitution which reported to Parliament.

Perhaps Dr Gallop even read it.

Article five, part two of the Webb Constitution reads: “The Governor shall be elected every four years at the same time and places as members of the Assembly and shall hold office from the Monday in January until a successor qualifies.

“The Governor shall be an elector who has been a citizen of Australia and a resident of the State of Western Australia for five years immediately preceding the Governor’s election.

“The Governor may not hold any other public office or receive any monies for the fulfillment of any duty other than that of Governor.

“The Governor upon election shall immediately advise the Queen of Australia that he or she is her chosen representative as Head of State in Western Australia.

“No person who has been elected Governor for three successive terms shall again be eligible to hold that office until one full term has intervened.”

Moreover, many thousands of Western Australians voted to have an elected Australian head of state when Mr Howard convened the 1998 national Constitutional Convention.

And it’s no secret that the reason that initiative failed was because the backward-looking Australian Republican Movement campaigned against a democratically elected head of state, which is one reason why unelected Dr Hollingworth now holds the post.

However, it should be noted, as Professor Webb’s 1990 Constitution so clearly shows, the Gallop referendum would not set out to transform WA into a republic – quite the contrary.

If anything, it has the potential to strengthen the non-republican cause, but that’s an entirely separate issue.

What Dr Gallop’s referendum will do, is pave the way for WA Governors to be chosen by the people for the people – not by Premiers – so it’s a welcomed and overdue democratic reform for which he and Labor should be commended.

We can only hope WA’s other parties – all strangely silent on this important issue – don’t find themselves backing a non-democratic status quo. It’s time they came clean and revealed their hand.

It’s also time Dr Gallop re-emerged with details about the referendum he has promised to hold.

When making his April 2000 announcement, Dr Gallop said he estimated the referendum would cost $5 million.

This suggests he’ll probably call it for election day 2005, since polling booths will already be manned.

If he’s planning otherwise, it’s time that was clarified.

It’s also time the wording of the crucial referendum question was disclosed for everyone to see, for, as we all know, “the devil is in the detail”.

There are important associated issues to be considered and debated, such as how gubernatorial candidates will emerge, who will sponsor or nominate them, their powers, and so on.

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