Earlier last week the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) unveiled their latest proposal for how Australia would select its head of state if ever it voted to be a Republic. However, this new model has been met with criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, most notably devout Republican and former Prime Minister Paul Keating. The new model proposed would draw presidential candidates from a pool nominated by Federal, State and Territory Governments. This shortlist would then be voted upon by the public in a preferential ballot and the Head of State would hold a five year term.
Three issues stand out to me after reading through the detailed policy document posted on the ARM website: issues surrounding the election nomination process and state disparities; funding of this election; and that the election would inevitably turn to gutter politics.
Firstly how can we ensure transparency in the nomination process and fairness in an election? (eg. Labor or Liberal State or Federal Governments nominating their mates and supporters – something that often is done for political appointments). With controversy and partisan criticism often surrounding appointments of governors, ambassadorships and other political roles, this hardly seems like a “people’s choice” and more like an option that only exists to those who know the right people. If there are options for state governments to elect their own candidates, what would stop them from bankrolling a large campaign statewide for the State Parliament nomination. This brings even greater disparity when it comes to populations, with more populous states such as New South Wales and Victoria having a much greater advantage to win compared to Tasmania or the Northern Territory. Do we also really need to be pitting state against state with a pandemic pushing our Federation to the edge already over the last few years? There are often complaints that Prime Ministers in Australia only come from NSW or VIC and this model would ensure that our President would be almost guaranteed one or the other each time.
Secondly, at no point does the model proposal document discuss anything related to election funding or give any outline of how the election would deal with this. Would candidates be allowed to fundraise? Who would fund the election? If proposed funding comes from individuals, that means the candidate would either need to – once again – be established enough to fundraise large amounts of money or be able to bankroll their own campaign. What is there to stop trade unions, businesses or other lobbies from making donations to a preferred candidate? Anne Twomey, a professor of Constitutional Law at our own University of Sydney, echoed this sentiment in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“The difficulty is how to actually manage that kind of election so that you don’t end up with something that is run and funded by politicians, or a situation where the candidate needs to be rich,” she said.
If one’s argument to disqualify the Royal Family from being head of state is that they are wealthy and out of touch elites, this model just replaces them with other elites that own property in Vaucluse instead of Kensington. Fair dinkum!
Third and finally this model also lacks a fundamental understanding of Australian Politics and our Westminster System. Regardless of how much furore and fanfare there sometimes is over leaders debates and personality campaigning, federal politics is still very much a local affair. Candidates with the most popular or unpopular leader can still have their electoral fate decided by their response to local issues. That being said, what exactly are these people running for President going to say in a stump speech? Why would someone like Sir Peter Cosgrove or Dame Quentin Bryce want to subject themselves to such a high profile election that would inevitably be reduced to gutter politics? There is realistically no way the candidates would be able to differentiate themselves from one another in any meaningful way other than personality traits and charisma. As the role is notably apolitical, they can’t make any particular stance on a local issue or align themselves to an ideology, something that candidates who run for parliament can do which is the point of difference for voters. It’s all well and good to have well spoken, good looking or charismatic candidates, but that seems more appropriate for something like Big Brother than an election for the head of state.
This model is a flop that is dead on arrival. The candidate shortlist would always be well connected people whose nomination would be clouded with allegations of favouritism and cronyism. The glaring issues involving how the election would be run and how it would be funded being overlooked and met with “it will all just work itself out” is not convincing or confidence winning in any way. Simply put the ARM needs more than cringy uses of “Aussie slang” so often found on their campaign materials and a model that actually works before it is going to convince the wider Australian public that the ARM represents anything other than a vanity project for certain Sydneysider and Melbournite high fliers with too much time and money on their hands.
Nicholas Comino is a former Vice President of the University of Sydney Conservative Club.