14/06/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Gallop misses on governor

14/06/2005 - 22:00


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Well, it has happened again. Western Australia is to have another governor, a retired public servant, 67-year-old Dr Ken Michael, and the people were again denied a say in who would hold their state’s most powerful constitutional post.

Well, it has happened again. Western Australia is to have another governor, a retired public servant, 67-year-old Dr Ken Michael, and the people were again denied a say in who would hold their state’s most powerful constitutional post.

This, of course, is thoroughly undemocratic, despite so many of our politicians and teachers, including academics, claiming we are a democratic society.

Now, this wouldn’t matter so much if it were a conservative premier who had picked (for the people) the person who’ll hold the governorship.

But this time it was Geoff Gallop who did the picking and he knows full well that the whole secretive, behind-closed-doors process surrounding the appointing of governors is most undemocratic.

All 27 WA governors – beginning with Captain James Stirling, who London appointed in December 1828, before Europeans had settled by the Swan – have been picked either by London or from Perth by premiers, not freely elected by the people they’ve ruled.

Six years ago this 176-year-old undemocratic selection practice briefly seemed as if its days were at long last numbered.

All the signs in April 2000 were that WA’s present governor, His Excellency Lieutenant-General John Sanderson AC, would be the last to gain this high office by secretive appointment.

On April 19 that year, then Labor leader and now premier, Dr Gallop made a historic democratic commitment by disclosing that the Labor Party, when in government, would call a referendum over how governors would gain their post. That is, whether they would be elected by the people, or would continue being secretly picked by just one person, a premier.

A year or so after Dr Gallop defeated the Richard Court-led conservatives, State Scene commenced inquiries about the likely date of the promised referendum.

Would it be mid-term, February 2003, or perhaps on election day in 2005?

State Scene realised that for some the break with the by-then nearly 200-year-old undemocratic practice of selecting rather than openly electing vice-regals may be somewhat traumatic.

But it was felt people with such anti-democratic proclivities would eventually adjust as they’ve adjusted to other welcomed historic democratic reforms and practices such as secret ballots, elections, parliaments, referendums, and so on.

To them, State Scene also pointed out that Dr Gallop’s proposal of opting for an elected vice-regal was not new.

For instance, 10 years before Dr Gallop’s proposal, Emeritus Professor Martyn Webb had published a democratic constitution for WA that’s readily available. It was even presented to a joint parliamentary committee on the WA Constitution, which reported to parliament.

Dr Gallop may well have read it.

Article five, part two, of the democratic 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 first 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 fulfilment 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 had voted to have an elected Australian head of state, following Prime Minister Howard’s convening of the 1998 national constitutional convention.

And it was no secret that the reason that initiative had failed at referendum was because the backward-looking Australian Republican Movement had campaigned against having a democratically elected head of state.

It should be noted, as Professor Webb’s 1990 constitution so well demonstrated, that the Gallop referendum undertaking didn’t intend transforming WA into a republic.

Shortly after highlighting, or more correctly reminding, people of Dr Gallop’s April 2000 elect-the-governor referendum commitment, then One Nation MP Frank Hough quizzed the Government on when the promised referendum would be called. He asked: “When will the premier keep his election promise, as quoted in The West Australian of April 20 2000, to hold a referendum to decide whether he should continue to appoint the governor or whether the position should be filled as a result of the vote of the people?”

Upper house Labor minister Kim Chance answered for Dr Gallop.

 “I thank the member for some notice of this question,” he said.

“In April 2000 the premier did flag the idea of a new system to elect the governor,

“However, it was clear that the public believed this was not a priority issue and, as such, the Government has no plans to hold a referendum.”

So a promise had been cynically downgraded to “flagging an idea”.

Soon after, while attending Labor’s state conference at the Sheraton Hotel, State Scene briefly met Dr Gallop and he raised the question of his broken referendum promise.

He firstly confirmed there would be no referendum as undertaken in April 2000 and went on to justify this by claiming that the commitment had not been included in the party’s election manifesto.

To which State Scene replied: “So you broke your promise before rather than after the election; that’s amazing.”

This, State Scene later felt, was something of a historic first in political promise breaking and should perhaps be recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.

Mr Hough could, of course, have drawn attention to another newspaper’s report of Dr Gallop’s April 2000 promise, one far more detailed than carried in The West Australian.

The Australian newspaper also reported Dr Gallop’s referendum promise on democratic choice versus secretive selection of governors.

“I want to give them [voters] that say, because it is my view they should be able to look at alternatives,” Dr Gallop told The Australian.

“The process currently has no public involvement and no parliamentary involvement.

“It is a secretive, behind-closed-doors process, which is out of tune with the democratic ethos of the 21st century.

“The processes are just as important as the outcomes, and one of the important agendas for modern politics is to reconnect people to the process.

“It may well be that the governors we have had have done their job adequately, but the process of getting them has not adequately met the desire of our community to be involved.

“The current position is that the government of the day selects the governor, and that is a pretty political process.

“My view is that the people of Western Australia are sensible enough to choose someone to do the job properly.

“To say that an election politicised the process is to say that the Western Australian people can’t be trusted, and I just done agree with that.”

State Scene couldn’t have put it better.

So what’s changed since April 2000, over the past five years?

Well, Dr Gallop is now premier. Why should he give up his monopoly power to pick, and presumably remove, a governor, and share it with the people?

That, no doubt, looks too much like democracy, something Dr Gallop once claimed he valued.


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