Election: the democratic way to select our Governor-General

Dame Silvia Cartwright has been an exemplary Governor-General — gracious yet down-to-earth and thoughtful about what makes and unmakes this nation. Her occasional low-key missions abroad have pointed the way to a bigger role.

Dame Silvia retires in August and another is to be appointed.

Dwell on that word “appointed”. You have no say on who shall be your country’s ceremonial figurehead, your representative at dignified occasions and the ultimate guardian of your constitution should the politicians lose their heads or war with the courts.

That is because the MPs you elect think you are too dumb and/or fickle. Moreover, they think they should monopolise popular mandate, which is why they are also wary of referendums.

So the Prime Minister will think up some names, with some help, discuss a preferred option with other party leaders, whose objections she may or may not take into account, and then “advise” the Queen, who is our head of state, to appoint the anointed one. The Queen will duly follow orders.

Under Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Constitution Act the appointee is officially “the Sovereign’s (Queen’s) representative in New Zealand” and acts as head of state unless the Queen “exercises” those powers, rights and duties “in person”.

This curious formula is required because for convenience most laws specify the Governor-General when referring to things the head of state is to do. So the Constitution Act spells out that “every power conferred on the Governor-General is exercisable by the Governor-General on behalf of the Sovereign and may accordingly be exercised either by the Sovereign in person or by the Governor-General”.

So who is to be next? Once Mother Britain sent out some upper class Pom deserving or desiring a sinecure and prepared to tolerate this trifling outpost’s provinciality. But the six appointees since 1972 have been locally resident bourgeois, including a former Prime Minister, a Maori archbishop and two women, with a bias toward judges.

Last year smoke signals from the Prime Minister’s enclave indicated the next one is to be white and male.

Let’s now put those smoke signals in the context of the Prime Minister’s top priority, enunciated in a speech to the Council of Trade Unions straight after announcing her government on October 17: a “broad national consensus on how we can own our future and improve our economic performance”.

Logically, that takes us to a businessman, especially if we also factor in that leading businesspeople were among those with whom the Prime Minister had audiences in the long wait for the final election count.

So let’s hypothesise — by way only of illustration — that that points to someone like Roderick Deane. I emphasise “hypothesise” and “illustration” because I have no wheeze on candidates nor any preference. Moreover, I cannot see a compelling reason why Deane would accept even if invited.

I mention Deane as representative of a small — some might allege tiny — class of leading businessmen who combine fine intellect, involvement in charity and other non-business interests and deep interest in the arts. That last quality is what first engaged Deane with the Prime Minister in her Opposition days. She made him chair of Te Papa for more than his balance sheet skills.

My hypothetical guess is that, if thrust into a national role that required him to mine the depths of his intellect and broaden it to be more reflective and inclusive than an economist’s rigour and balance sheet management allow, such a man as Deane might turn nation-builder.

And, because his ilk are men of action, such an appointee would likely push the boundaries of the vice-regal role and its head-of-state dimensions.

Which would be in order. The time has come for an expanded role, so that the Governor-General is nationally representative beyond the rhetorical, especially in country-to-country and trade relations. Hence the import of Dame Silvia’s low-key missions.

And if it is time to expand that national and representational role, why not elect the person the Prime Minister advises the Queen to appoint as Governor-General? Ireland successfully elects presidents with a similar constitutional role to our head of state’s.

There might need to be rules about who and how many could nominate and how. These are not straightforward matters, as the Australian constitutional convention in 1998 found.

Initially, if we — or MPs — thought we must go one step at a time, candidates could be selected from public nominees by a 60 per cent vote of Parliament — say, three or five, with former MPs and party grandees barred.

I dream, of course. We will get the Prime Minister’s selection. If she needs an excuse she can say it is too late to change this time.

But in 2011 couldn’t we make the appointee more our own and less a prime ministerial poodle, secretly selected in a smoke-unfilled room?

And wouldn’t it be more democratic? Oops. Sorry to use such an impolite word so early in the year.