Sovereign Appointment FAQs

These FAQs are in two parts: “Process” (how SA works) and “Reasons” (grounds for SA).
Process FAQs: how SA would work

P1.  What is the “Sovereign Appointment” plan? 
The plan is to replace the word “Queen” by the word “People” in three places in Sections 2 and 4 of the constitution.  These specify the governor general’s appointment and dismissal.  They are the only such mentions in the constitution and making these three changes would transfer the appointment power from the Queen to the people in its entirety.  With this problem out of the way we could sensibly discuss how to become a republic. 
P2.  What would be the actual process of appointing a GG? 
The same as it has always been.  The PM writes a letter to the sovereign proposing a candidate and the sovereign writes a letter in reply.  Since the people would be the sovereign his letter must go to every citizen – ie, there would be a postal referendum.  The only change is that the candidate is appointed by the people instead of by the Queen.  The new sovereign simply takes up the duties of the old sovereign. 
P3.  Does the constitution provide for this letter from the PM to the sovereign? 
It is in the unwritten constitution.  The written Australian constitution does not even provide for a prime minister.  The prime ministership, and the PM’s arrangements with the sovereign (and with the GG who is the sovereign’s agent), are “conventions”.  These conventions have applied since Australia began in 1901, and in the Australian states since the 1850s.  They evolved over 800 years. 
P4.  Is a postal referendum secure and democratic? 
Yes, it was done nationally for the election of delegates to the 1998 constitutional convention and it is also used in Australia for local government elections. 
P5.  Would people really know what they were voting for? 
Does the Queen know?  The voter only needs to know the candidate has a good record of public service.  At an election the same voter is presumed to know all the candidates and all their policies. 
P6.  Wouldn’t some people vote against the candidate just to nark the PM? 
A few.  Expressions of disaffection occur in all ballots.  That’s democracy.  The number is insignificant. 
P7.  Does any other country do this public form of “sovereign appointment”?
Yes, but we would be the first to use SA for a head of state.  All supreme court judges of Japan are so appointed.  In the US it is called the “Missouri Plan” and many states (between 11 and 34, depending on the source and what is counted) appoint judges this way. 
P8.  Wouldn’t the referendum be like the pretend-elections of the Soviet Union or China
No.  Soviet citizens could not decline to “elect” the candidate. 
It was the republic proposal put to referendum in 1999 which would have created a communist style process.  Under the 1999 model the top power players were to agree in secret and then the members of parliament were to clap on cue, precisely as they do in China. 
P9.  Wouldn’t the PM just nominate a mate? 
That is more or less the present practice.  It could be different if the people were sovereign.  At the moment the PM can pretty much take the Queen’s approval of his candidate for granted but he is not likely to take the people’s approval for granted. 
Sir John Kerr was a mate.  As we saw in 1975, that does not mean that the GG is compliant to the PM. 
P10.  Still, with only one nomination, the people don’t get a true choice, do they? 
At present, the people don’t get any choice whatsoever.  The SA proposal is simply to take over the Queen’s powers.  Which is better: the Queen does it or the people do it?  To any republican the answer is clear. 
P11.  Isn’t SA a recipe for a movie star or sports hero to get appointed? 
The point of becoming a republic is so that any Australian might become head of state.  The GG is someone who the PM and the sovereign agree is suitable. 
P12.  What if, at the appointment referendum, the people voted against the PM’s candidate? 
Declining to appoint the candidate would be their right.  The sovereignty is real. 
However in practice the people would not decline.  In the USA some judges were rejected in the early days (1940s – the previous system was corrupt) but not in recent decades.  No judge appointments have been declined in Japan in the 60 years since the system was introduced. 
If a candidate ever was rejected we should be thankful to have avoided a GG unacceptable to the people.  The PM would have to suggest another candidate.  It would also indicate such poor political judgement that the PM would be replaced by his party. 
P13.  Would voting be compulsory? 
Yes, the sovereign has to reply to the PM’s letter.  Besides, compulsory voting is normal in Australia and with a postal vote there is no inconvenience or cost. 
P14.  Wouldn’t the opposition leader make political capital out of the appointment referendum? 
No.  Any such attempt would be viewed as politicising the GG’s office and politicising an act of national concord.  The candidate would anyway speak to the opposition leader before deciding to stand. 
If there were real objections to a candidate, we would be glad to know them before the appointment rather than after as with Hollingworth.  Since the referendum would be a media event, the PM would take more care to avoid such candidates. 
P15.  On what grounds would voters decide whether or not to appoint the PM’s candidate?
Same as ever: the person’s past record and the PM’s recommendation. 
P16.  How would the GG be dismissed? 
This would never happen.  No governor or governor-general has been dismissed in a 100 years in the Commonwealth and 150 years in the states – in all about 200 appointments.  A few have resigned. 
Dismissal of a GG would be as at present: the PM writes a letter to the sovereign, ie holds a postal referendum.  It would not be slow.  It would come at the end of some extraordinary political crisis and may be faster than getting a decision from the Queen. 
P17.  So SA would obviate the “race to the palace”?  
Yes.  It is widely thought that Kerr acted in haste because he feared Whitlam might sack him before he could sack Whitlam.  The referendum requirement precludes surprises. 
P18.  Shouldn’t the people be able to get rid of the GG without waiting for the PM? 
The Hollingworth affair seems to show they can do that now.  It would not change.  If another method of dismissal is needed it could be introduced at any later stage.  As explained in the Reasons FAQs, it is not wise to make reforms to the constitution at the same time as transferring the sovereignty. 
P19.  What if, for some reason, SA didn’t work? 
It has worked for 100 years so it should go on working.  However, if we didn’t like it, we could change to any other method, or even revert to having the Queen do it.  SA burns no bridges. 
P20.  What happens with the “reserve powers” and other conventions? 
Nothing.  The GG’s powers to appoint and dismiss a government and to hold, or refuse to hold, an election are not affected.  SA is the only way to achieve this.  All present conventions are unaffected, including the convention that the written constitution make no mention of unwritten conventions. 
P21.  Would the GG have authority to interfere with day-to-day government? 
No.  There is no power shift: no campaign, no policies, no promises, no mandate to rule.  Since the politicians are not involved in the appointment, there are no private deals to be paid off. 

Reasons FAQs: grounds for introducing SA 

R1.  A republic endorsed by a big majority would be nice but isn’t it a pipedream? 
No.  Some 70% of Australians want a republic.  All that is needed is a practical proposal.  All of them would vote for “Sovereign Appointment”.  They have nothing to lose and a republic to gain. 
R2.  Getting a republic seems difficult.  Won’t seeking wide agreement just make it harder? 
It is probably essential.  Proposals that seek a narrow victory are the monarchist’s friend.  We can either have a referendum where we largely agree, or else have a political fight where republicans are divided and “yes” proponents try to overwhelm the “no” opponents – as in 1999. 
Realistically, the only alternative to SA that can reach the referendum stage is some variation of the 1999 model.  It is politically impossible for either a McGarvie model or a direct election model ever to get to referendum.  Yet a second attempt at a politicians’ republic, even with both parties behind it, would look very arrogant. It would generate resentment to make the bitter 1999 campaign look gentle.  It is hard to see the parties attempting it in less than a generation. 
In short, for the foreseeable, SA is the only possibility of moving toward a republic. 
R3.  Does it really matter if the republic squeaks in with a bare 50 percent? 
Yes.  If the result is a comfortable majority, the no-voters will know their fellow-citizens disagree with them and their cause is lost.  But a narrow yes-vote, where half of Australia celebrates the distress of the other half, would see the losers blame media bias and they would fight on, state by state.  Is the monarchy so bad that we need to do this? 
The referendum for a republic is not an election where mistakes might be rectified in three years’ time.   It is not a football final which measures the current skills of competing teams.  The switch to a republic is a permanent change of national identity.  If the victory is narrow there will be political repercussions far into the future.  It would be a poor start to our new republic, and it is quite unnecessary. 
R4.  If the people appoint the GG that does not make us a republic, does it?  
No.  Sovereign Appointment may be regarded it as “Stage 1”.  It would remove the big obstacle to becoming a republic, and resolve the issue we have been quarrelling over for the last thirteen years, namely: Who appoints the GG if the Queen does not do it?  With the question of the GG’s appointment out of the way we could consider what sort of republic we want and so move to “Stage 2”, ie become a republic.  All proposals would be on the table.  SA shuts out no options. 
R5.  Isn’t SA half-hearted?  Couldn’t we become a republic straight off? 
It seems it is too difficult.  In theory it is easy: the constitution contains about two dozen mentions of the monarchy and all of them could be replaced by “the People”.  That would create the republic.  It also would not prejudice subsequent reform, however for some it might be too sudden; doing it in stages may be politically easier and it is always prudent to make changes gradually.  By doing only Stage 1 everybody would have an opportunity to argue for their preferred republic design. 
R6.  Is Sovereign Appointment really republican? 
Very.  The basic definition of a republic is a polity where the people are sovereign.  Our monarch has only one scrap of sovereignty: the power to appoint the GG.  If the people are to be sovereign it is proper for them to take over this power.  That also applies to a substitution of “the People” for all two dozen mentions of the monarchy though there is no power attached to the other things. 
R7.  Supporters of direct election would see SA as low people-power.  Would they endorse it? 
Why not?  SA makes no difference to the chances of getting a republic at Stage 2 with a president popularly elected from multiple candidates.  All options are open. 
However…!  There will never be an elected president in Australia.  It is politically impossible and earnest talk of a popularly elected president is rubbish.  The reason is that the Liberals will never agree.  No form of the Liberal Party of the last hundred years would have contemplated it and no imaginable future one will either.  The republic needs both major parties.  Forty years ago Labor might have supported election but not now and if Labor leaders (sometimes) say they agree with popular election they know there is no chance it will ever happen. 
R8.  Wouldn’t it be better if a committee chose the candidate from public nominations? 
Perhaps.  But we have survived without a nomination committee for a hundred years.  If we want to make such a constitutional reform there is no need to do it at the same time as transferring sovereignty. 
There are many reform proposals: a nomination process, a fixed term for the GG, codified powers, a new flag, a new preamble, CIR, Aboriginal reconciliation.  They are worthy ideas but every such proposal is grounds for someone to object.  For example, against a nomination committee some would argue that the present discreet way that the PM selects his candidate is important for securing the right type of person and any nomination process would be undignified. 
The republic is stalled and it is partly because reformers want to solve all the problems at once.  By wanting everything, we get nothing.  Every suggestion for reform is a turnoff to someone. 
Those who want reform X alongside SA will still vote for SA without reform X.  They know they can promote X afterward.  On the other hand those who do not like reform X will vote against SA if X is included.  SA does not stand in the way of any reform, but every proposed reform potentially stands in the way of SA.  One thing at a time.  It is already hard enough; extra reforms only make it harder. 
There is a further reason why we should keep reforms separate: it keeps the politicians’ fingers out of it.  Politicians are always looking to increase their power and if there is any fiddling with the constitution they will ensure it is bent in their favour.  They can’t help it; it is their profession.  Politicians are presently not involved with appointing the sovereign or with appointing the GG and there is no need for politicians to have anything to do with appointing their future replacement. 
R9.  Isn’t becoming a republic our opportunity for constitutional reform?  Wouldn’t SA squander that opportunity? 
Quite the contrary. 
Firstly: there is no such opportunity; each reform proposal is something which someone else will object to and is therefore an obstacle in the way of voting to break the tie with the Queen.  Whatever plan is adopted, practical politics will ensure it does not include significant unrelated reforms. 
Secondly: there should be no reforms associated.  Severing ties with the British crown is an emotional issue of identity.  Reforms of the constitution are rational matters and should not be mixed up with it. 
Thirdly: if SA were adopted for appointing the GG, the really contentious issue would be out of the way, allowing reforms to be debated on their own merits without being dogged by arguments over the method of appointment.  That is to say, SA would actually provide the opportunity for reform. 
R10.  The GG’s real job is to dismiss the government.  Would SA provide sufficient authority? 
Yes – and SA is the only way this is achievable.  Only a GG appointed by the sovereign has authority to act in the sovereign’s name.  To dismiss the elected government is a huge power.  Such authority (and more) would also be granted by national election but (a) all election proposals actually plan to remove (“codify”) the GG’s reserve powers and, (b) Australia will anyway never have an elected GG/president. 
R11.  Those reserve powers are very great.  What is to prevent the GG using them irresponsibly? 
Personal integrity perhaps.  Probably many subtle things.  The governors of the states also have these powers.  In 150 years there have been some incidents and “codification” of the powers has been discussed since the 1930s.  But it appears that codification is too hard (or the incidents were not that serious). 
R12.  Where would SA leave monarchists? 
Monarchists are not at first affected since SA does not introduce a republic.  However it would be a start.  Emotional supporters of the monarchy cannot be helped: they will be disappointed when Australia becomes a republic.  Rational supporters, ie those concerned about the reliability and dignity of succession, will be happy with SA because it ensures both.  Indeed, it should be an improvement since it eliminates the risk of the royal family behaving in an undignified manner. 
R13.  Would the politicians accept Sovereign Appointment?  
They should.  It solves their problem.  The politicians want to talk the public out of an elected president.  Of course, they would prefer to appoint the GG/president themselves (as they sought in 1999) but their bottom line is: “No election!”  They fear the power of an elected president and their reports, enquiries, and speeches are always cast to show how dreadful it would be.  However these make no impression on public opinion.  SA would satisfy the public without any effect on politicians’ power. 
Some politicians plan to re-run the 1999 referendum and, with trickery involving preferences, to convert a minority vote into an apparent majority.  If attempted, it will create a lot of anger.  SA has the potential to get 70% endorsement, or even more depending on how monarchists vote. 
Sovereign appointment is the only process satisfactory to both people and politicians. 
R14.  Doesn’t the PM lose some power under SA? Would he endorse it?   
It’s a worry.  The PM knows the Queen will not decline his nominee.  He could not be so sure of the sovereign people so he would have to be more careful and therein lies a small loss of power.  It shows there is meaning to becoming a republic.  Either we accept that the people will be sovereign or we promote another sham.  SA is genuine and the PM who supports SA would accept it. 
R15.  Regarding Stage 2: Could Australia really become a republic just by switching “People” for “Queen” in two dozen places in the constitution? 
Yes.  There are a few places where the wording has to be adjusted to fit the context but it is quite straightforward.  SA is the simple and logical way for sovereignty to pass from a monarch to the people.  It is the only way to become a republic and do nothing else, ie without making other power changes.  But Stage 2 is the more distant future.  If the problem of appointing the GG were resolved there may be many ideas for turning Australia into a republic. 
R16.  In sum, what are the reasons people would vote for SA? 
– It transfers sovereignty from the monarch to the people which is the proper way to become a republic. 
– It continues the system which has worked satisfactorily for 100 years whereby the GG is the agent of the sovereign appointed by the sovereign, and holds the sovereign’s authority. 
– The constitutional change is extremely simple
– It continues to exclude politicians from the selection of the head of state.  As a result: 
    – It makes the people sovereign without political power upsets
    – It has no effect on reserve powers or on other conventions so no “codification” is required. 
    – It preserves the dignity and predictability of the office of governor-general.
    – It clears the way for rational discussion of a republic. 
    – It has no effect on the prospects for any republic design
    – There is a prospect of real consensus.  About 70% of Australians favour becoming a republic but can’t agree on how to choose the president.  They could all agree with “Sovereign Appointment” for it does not alter power relationships and does not inhibit anyone from promoting their preferred model. 


2 Comments on “Sovereign Appointment FAQs”

  1. […] Under SA the people simply take over the sovereign’s task of appointing the PM’s candidate.  After pondering the comments to the previous post I thought it might it pertinent to post here the last item in“> the FAQ file which summarises the virtues of SA.    […]

  2. […] The recent lively discussion at Quiggin’s blog makes me more than ever convinced that there are just three possible ways this country can resolve the problem of choosing the GG/president.  One is the politicians’ republic à la 1999, a second is politicians’ election, and the other (the only decent way to do it) is Sovereign Appointment.  […]

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