Honorary President

Senate Submission


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© 2004 David Latimer

An Independent Institution

Two Heads Better Than One

The most likely source of confusion and debate about the Honorary President will not be the powers and functions in the proposed constitutional arrangement, but what will he or she otherwise do. If the Honorary President will perform ceremonially the same role as the Governor General so why would the Australian people desire paying two people to perform one job?

It would be easy to reply that if the people want a safe minimalist republic with an elected Head of State then the price to pay is two ceremonial officials. In fact, this misleading answer would only prove the critics right. So what is the correct answer?

There are both theoretical differences and variation in ceremonial functions between the Honorary President and the Governor General.

Theoretically, the Honorary President is a figurehead for the nation and federation specifically. They are the only elected representative for the entire Australian community. The office is linked symbolically to each Australian jurisdiction through the federal and state constitutions, but it is also an institution independent of all jurisdictions. The office does not involve itself in any parliament.

In contrast, the governors (including the Governor General) are the representatives of the Presidency in each parliament. They remain the constitutional umpires and the ultimate guarantors of responsible and democratic government. They are the enablers of the law for their respective jurisdictions, however they are compelled to follow the advice of their government ministers.

In practice, the Honorary President, Governors and Governors-General will spend the majority of their time participating in worthwhile ceremonies and contributing to civic society. The difference in their theoretical role helps distinguish the way they make this contribution. As the Honorary President will not live in Canberra, but live in the city or region of their preference, this also provides a further distinction in their ceremonial roles.

A demarcation line between the Honorary President and the Governor General will evolve over time, but we can anticipate approximately where the line will fall.

The Governor General will continue to open Federal Parliament and will preside over all ceremonial occasions involving federal institutions, the military, including veterans and foreign ambassadors. They will continue to manage the Australian honours system. They will be de-facto governor for the ACT, Northern Territory and other territorial possessions. In fact, the above describes about 75% of the Governor Generalís current activities (as per his public schedule)

The Honorary President will travel more widely both within Australia and overseas. They will attend charity events, science expositions, art gallery openings. Visits to schools and hospitals will be co-ordinated with keynote speeches at business conferences. They would answer correspondence from children and send letters of congratulations to centenarians on their birthdays or couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

An Honorary President can visit residents in a nursing home and be recognised as a national leader, while the Governor General can visit graduating soldiers and be saluted as their commander-in-chief.

The Honorary President may encourage contributions at a charity dinner, while the Governor General may honour a retiring High Court Judge. The Honorary President may attend a dawn service in Kalgoorlie, the Governor General in Canberra.

Both will continue to be patron of hundreds of organisations and they would encourage the members in any way possible.

Overseas, the Honorary President can promote Australian business, innovation and culture. They would accept the role as an ambassador for Australian goodwill. At short notice they could travel overseas for a commemoration on the anniversary of a famous historical event or for the funeral of an important foreign king. All such visits would be demonstrations of Australian respect or sympathy for the people in other nations.

Ultimately, it is the workload of the current Governor General that most justifies the additional ceremonial role. In a year of 365 days, there are only hundreds of occasions in any year that they can attend. Of those two or three hundred events, presumably thousands of requests are declined. The Governor General is patron of more organisations than there are days to visit them, let alone provide some form of encouragement.

The situation is not surprising. At federation there were seven governors for less than four million people. Today there are still seven governors for twenty million.

In summary, with a rough demarcation between the Honorary President and the Governor General, it is self-evident that the task of representing the nation will continue to be only ever fractionally fulfilled. There be plenty of work for the Honorary President.

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