12/12/2006 - 22:00

Gallop right on the governor

12/12/2006 - 22:00


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State governors sometimes comment on topics that are then dutifully reported in the media.

State governors sometimes comment on topics that are then dutifully reported in the media.

Generally what incumbents of the state’s vice-regal office say is of little consequence, and therefore promptly forgotten.

Not so, hopefully, with a recent brief remark by the present governor, Dr Kenneth Michael AC.

Quizzed recently by a reporter on how the governorship may evolve, Dr Michael said he could see the 1990s republican debate returning, and when the dust had settled from that next round he was confident the office of governor would survive even if the method of choosing governors were changed.

“It might be an elected position one day,” Dr Michael said.

“But when we have another debate I would like to see a wider debate than last time, with more people involvement.

“I can see the debate coming round again.”

State Scene agrees with every word.

Moreover, let’s hope the debate to which Dr Michael refers comes sooner rather than later, and that its outcome is elected governors, not ones chosen secretly by premiers of the day as presently happens.

There’s no reason in the world why just one person – a premier – in a Western Australian population that currently stands at two million, should decide who will hold the state’s pre-eminent constitutional position.

The present state of affairs is, in State Scene’s opinion, quite undesirable.

So the sooner the post of governor is democratically decided the better.

Before State Scene sets out how WA could pioneer the way for democratically chosen non-party endorsed governors, some background information could prove helpful.

The first point worthwhile noting is that WA’s Labor Party once wished to scrap the position of governor. This was part of Labor’s ideology of being anti-British, with governors seen as a link to London.

This was Labor’s view from at least the 1920s, when it became a centralist party seeking to abolish the states, and thus the senate, as well as individual state governorships plus the governor-generalship.

Two who took Labor’s stance seriously during the 1970s were former premier Sir Charles Court and his Attorney-General, Ian Medcalf.

They consequently amended WA’s constitution so the vice-regal position could not be scrapped unless a referendum was held.

The Court-Medcalf move forced Labor to stop and think.

And the eventual outcome of that thinking was that Labor concluded it was unlikely to ever win such a referendum, so the matter was quietly sidelined from Labor’s agenda.

It is consequently fair to say that the current generation of state Labor MPs no longer seeks to scrap the vice-regal post, and Labor has moved across to the long-held conservative stance of retention of governors.

Moreover, Labor, when led by Geoff Gallop, went within a whisker of actually democratising the position in the way alluded to by Dr Michael during his recent interview.

In mid-2000, Dr Gallop publicly committed Labor to holding a referendum under which Western Australians would vote to either make future governors elected, or leave things as they presently stand; that is, that they be selected only by premiers.

In other words, should the position remain undemocratically chosen as currently is the case.

However, what happened after Dr Gallop gave that democratic undertaking remains a very dark and murky episode in recent WA Labor history, one that no-one within Labor ranks dares speak about.

All we know is that when Labor’s hard-nosed men and women sat down to draw-up their 2001 election platform a few months after the Gallop promise was made, they quietly canned his 2000 democratic undertaking by simply not including it in their campaign platform.

Out of sight meant being out of mind.

Why and who initiated this tricky anti-democratic stance remains a mystery. Did Dr Gallop protest? Was there a vote? Who was present? All this is a dark secret.

But this secret never remained entirely in the dark crevasses of Labor’s past because upper house One Nation MP, Frank Hough, asked when Labor would be honouring the Gallop promise.

Labor’s Kim Chance answered by saying the Gallop democratic plan was in fact only the “flagging” of an idea.

In other words, a promise was cynically downgraded – a tricky move if ever there was one.

It is now well over six years since that promise was made and dishonoured, and there’s no sign of it ever being honoured.

In fact, Labor’s power brokers hoped everyone had forgotten Dr Gallop ever gave that democratic undertaking.

They sat tight, fingers crossed, hoping no-one remembered.

But in a very real sense, Dr Michael has done precisely that by daring to say WA’s governorship “might be an elected position one day”.

Premier Alan Carpenter could easily honour the 2000 Gallop promise to give Western Australians a vote on whether they want democratically elected governors, rather than retain undemocratically selected ones.

All he needs do is hold a referendum on the day of the 2009 state election, thereby belatedly honouring the Gallop promise that Labor has tried to hide.

The elegance of such a move – especially if Western Australians opted for the democratic path, as State Scene believes they would – is that whenever the governorship needed to be filled, the premier of the day would simply advise Buckingham Palace that the people had chosen someone by ballot.

Under the system State Scene recommends, premiers would be under enormous pressure to nominate someone who was likely to attract overwhelming electoral support – 90-plus per cent – so it would be most unlikely party hacks would be nominated.

In other words, nothing would change in the nomination phase.

Where the change would come is the all-important confirmatory phase with the people voting to back or oppose premier-nominated individuals.

This, as well as being a democratic reform, would ensure the position of governor wouldn’t become party politicised, since premiers would feel compelled to nominate persons who could gain overwhelming support – individuals of standing, achievement and one’s commanding broad respect.

Another outcome of this democratic process is that, in say 30 or 40 years’ time, if the republican debate to which Dr Michael alluded was resolved in the direction of transforming WA into a republic, all that would be needed is to cease seeking Buckingham Palace’s concurrence for the nominated and electorally confirmed governors.

All future WA governments would need to do is call a referendum asking voters if they backed the idea of WA becoming a republic.

If a majority of Western Australians voted yes, then all that would be needed is for premiers to cease contacting Buckingham Palace for a monarch’s concurrence for the person who had been confirmed as governor by WA’s electors.

It’s as simple as that.

Much fuss and bother was experienced during the 1990s over finding what was called a minimalist approach to transforming Australia into a republic.

State Scene cannot think of anything more minimalist than no longer having to write to Buckingham Palace to advise monarchs that 80 or 90, or more, per cent of citizens had confirmed a particular person to be governor, following a premier nominating the candidate.

We’d simply cease requesting Buckingham Palace’s concurrence and move on to becoming the Western Australian Democratic Republic.

You can’t get simpler than that.

State Scene certainly appreciates Dr Michael highlighting the democratising option for the vice-regal post, something that was hidden from voters by Labor at the 2001 election.


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