24/08/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Blaming the Butler won’t do

24/08/2004 - 22:00

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How could wily and experienced politicians like Mr Howard and Tasmania’s late premier, Jim Bacon, have gotten it so wrong?

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Blaming the Butler won’t do

A BENEFICIAL outcome of the recent resignation and debate over the $650,000 payout to former Australian diplomat and Gough Whitlam staffer, Richard Butler, is that it evens the score.

Both Labor and conservative MPs are now equal.

Last year Labor MPs sat back watching Prime Minister John Howard having the unpleasant experience of dealing with his mistaken choice of a governor-general, Dr Peter Holingworth.

This month, Coalition MPs did likewise as Tasmanian Labor Premier Paul Lennon had to resolve his State’s governance system by removing Mr Butler, his predecessor’s mistaken choice of governor.

One such mistake can be attributed to bad luck and two may be a coincidence.

But if it happens again, neither party will any longer have an excuse.

Clearly there’s something not quite kosher with the vice-regal selection process.

The nagging question remains – how could wily and experienced politicians like Mr Howard and Tasmania’s late premier, Jim Bacon, have gotten it so wrong?

What are the key steps in Australia’s current procedures of vice-regal appointment?

Firstly, prime ministers/premiers make discrete inquiries, either with ministers, advisers, or perhaps even senior judiciary members, who suggest a name or two.

The favoured person is then discretely contacted.

If they concur, a letter goes to Buckingham Palace for the monarch’s concurrence, thereby permitting a prime minister/premier to announce that person’s name, which is followed by a ceremony.

Central to this procedure is secrecy, meaning no opportunity for citizens or even the media to scrutinise appointments.

All Dr Hollingworth’s problems were known – though not widely – well before his appointment.

And Mr Butler had actually had a little-read biography published that apparently candidly referred to his style and manner.

More importantly, the procedure is undemocratic, for it deliberately excludes voter involvement.

Australian national and State voters are simply saddled with someone without being consulted.

And, as the Hollingworth and Butler affairs showed, the public was also excluded from the removal procedure.

Secrecy is, therefore, the order of the day when appointing and/or removing vice-regal appointees, who hold what are Australia’s seven most powerful constitutional positions – six governors and one governor-general.

There’s little doubt that there is steadily growing disquiet in some quarters about this, which may explain why Premier Geoff Gallop, a republican, in early 2000 undertook to hold a State referendum to ask Western Australians if they wished to have elected governors.

Unfortunately, he promptly reneged, so his stand is now akin to that of Opposition leader Colin Barnett, who backed the Australian Republic Movement’s (ARM) anti-democratic model that excluded voters from the process of choosing presidents.

The issue of how vice-regal positions or those of their republican counterparts are filled came to the fore during the 1990s because of disputation over whether Australia should break with Buckingham Palace having the final nod on who became national head of state.

In that debate polling consistently showed the public favoured republicanism, so breaking with Buckingham Palace, and that an elected head of state was preferred.

Yet, when it came to the 1999 republican referendum, breaking with Buckingham Palace failed to get up. The reason for this apparent backflip was because the pro-republicans were split over whether presidents should be instated only by politicians, as ARM-backers like Mr Barnett wanted, or elected by the people, as most Australians wanted.

The choice Australians were given in that referendum was for retention of the present secrecy surrounding instatement of governors-general, or a variant whereby prime ministers named someone and opposition leaders agreed or otherwise, after which parliament voted to ratify the person both leaders had agreed upon.

Clearly, the one playing the key role in all this suggested secret arrangement was an opposition leader, for if he or she wouldn’t accept a prime ministerial suggestion that nominee had to be scrubbed.

But again the people, the voters, were excluded, something opinion polls had shown to be out of step with the public mood.

Democratic republican voters consequently joined the pro-monarchists for the present undemocratic approach to remain.

Clearly, with WA’s two major parties headed by politicians who have shown they lack sympathy for democratic appointment, it’s unlikely the present clandestine mechanism of vice-regal instatement will change in the near future.

That said, it’s worth noting that the simplest way of moving towards the democratic path was outlined to State Scene several years ago by Michael Pepperday, a politics masters graduate of the University of WA, and now a doctoral student at the Australian National University.

Mr Pepperday, a democrat, said all that prime ministers/premiers needed to do when recommending candidates to Buckingham Palace was to advise monarchs that the nominated person would gain the position only after the citizens of Australia or a State had firstly confirmed that appointment at a plebiscite, in other words by a vote.

If voters agreed with a 50 per cent plus one vote the appointee became a vice-regal or president. If not, another would have to be found.

Removal of failed vice-regals or presidents could spark recall plebiscites that would be launched after a set proportion of MPs had voted for it at a special joint sitting of parliament or a similar agreed procedure.

The key to such a democratic approach is that everything would at long last be above board, out in the open, very public, the exact opposite to what now exists.

But don’t expect it to happen soon, since Dr Gallop reneged on a promised referendum for voter choice and Mr Barnett favoured the anti-democratic ARM model.

Which is probably understand-able, since the next, and perhaps the subsequent, governor of WA will be chosen and appointed by, you guessed it, either Dr Gallop or Mr Barnett.

Why, when you can have that power all to yourself, give it away to the people?

Hey, these guys ain’t stupid.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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