Voters choosing president too risky: G-G

Sydney Morning Herald
14 June, 2008
By Phillip Hudson

THE Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, says a directly elected president would be a "risk" to political stability and may lead to friction between the head of state and prime minister.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Major-General Jeffery broke his five-year silence on the republic debate by warning the community not to take for granted the structure that has worked for 100 years. After the failure of the 1999 republic referendum, which offered voters a president appointed by parliament, observers believe the option most likely to be put to voters next time will be the direct-election model.

General Jeffery, who will retire as Governor-General on September 5, is one of the most experienced viceroys in Australia's history, having served seven years as governor of Western Australia before his five years at Yarralumla.

"I'm concerned about the potential for friction between the prime minister and the head of state," he said. "That would be, I think, counterproductive.

"People will say they have elected heads of state in this country or that country and it seems to work. Maybe.

"I wonder within the Australian psyche if someone was elected with, say, 5 million votes and felt passionately about an issue, whether that might cause a potential problem between the head of state and the prime minister. I'm not saying it would, but I'm saying the risk is there and that is something that would have to be very, very carefully considered. I think the beauty about our present system is that governors and governors-general are not elected and therefore are bound to act on the advice of ministers provided that advice is constitutionally correct and legal."

General Jeffery said the governor-general's key function was "to be the constitutional guarantor to ensure at the federal level that the prime minister of the day behaves himself or herself constitutionally".

He said the head of state must be very careful not to upstage the prime minister or talk about policy. "You can't stand up and say what the opposition is proposing in relation to taxation or something is right and what the government is doing is wrong."

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has put the spark back into the republican debate by promising to consult the public through plebiscites to choose a model to be put to a referendum.

General Jeffery stressed he was not commenting for or against a republic. While he had not detected a passionate desire from the public to replace the Queen, "I'm never against change. I think if you can work out ways of better governing the country - that's the way I put it - then fine. We should always look at ways of improving our system of government in the same way we do with business and academia. But you've got to have a foundation and a basis of knowledge from which to make those decisions and I think that is summed up in having a good understanding of civics."

It was "too hard to say" if a republic was inevitable but a first step should be to educate citizens how the present system works.

He pointed to political chaos in other countries. "Some of them are so-called democracies, but they're not democracies because they haven't got the checks and balances in their system, otherwise these things wouldn't be able to take place.

"I think [our system] is taken for granted because it's worked so seamlessly and so effectively. Look at the seamless transition of power from Mr Howard to Mr Rudd and the lovely way it was done: the two families having a cup of coffee at the Lodge and handing over the keys We have had 100 years of political stability and I don't think that's happened by accident. I think it's happened because checks and balances were put in place by our founding fathers, and citizens should understand what they are."

He revealed he had "sent back" about 15 pieces of legislation or items requiring his assent, but would not say what they were. "It might be that I need more information or I think the thing could be better expressed or its not clear in its intent. Invariably departments and ministers correct it. Sometimes they'll withdraw it."

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