TT: Who’s In Charge?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and join me as I battle distraction.  Then come and discover the role of wombats in Antipodean government.

JANE: Well, Alan, one point we haven’t looked at is the role that the Royal Family

Monarch and Friend

plays in your government.

ALAN: One major difference between our two systems is that we have a head of state (the Queen and/or the Governor General) which gives us a sense of continuity as governments come and go.

JANE: Governor General?  I’ve never heard of this.

ALAN: Because the Queen is not resident in our country, we have the Governor General, who is resident, and who represents, or stands in for, the Monarch in her absence. I suppose you could say that the Queen and the Governor General share the responsibility of being head of state. However, the Queen is a permanent fixture. Governors General change at regular intervals. I don’t know how other countries handle it, but here in New Zealand the Governor General is appointed by the current government. And no – if the government changes, the Governor General does not change. He/she continues to serve out his/her term and, when the term of office expires, a new Governor General is appointed.

Amusingly, our current Governor General used to be in charge of our Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, the equivalent of your CIA). It’s not clear who was appointed to replace him as head of the SIS. But I suppose I could ring them up and ask. The address and phone number of the SIS headquarters is in the phone book. Of course they probably wouldn’t talk to me if I rang them up…

JANE: A semi-permanent permanent head of state sounds like something my editor would ask me to change, but I trust you’re not pulling my leg.

Certainly, having one person or one group in office could influence the psychology of a nation.  When I was in high school, the pope died.  Then his successor died shortly after.  My father – who was not a Catholic – commented that in his childhood there had been one pope and one president.  I thought that was an interesting reflection on perceived constancy.

I wonder how much of the popularity of various political families – the Kennedys, the Bushes – is in some way a wistful desire to recover that sense of permanence since a large chunk of the voting block that kept those families in various offices comes from the generation that grew up in this “one president, one pope” time.

ALAN: That’s an interesting insight. I’ve had one king, one queen, and a multitude of popes. I was only a baby when the King died and Queen Elizabeth inherited the throne, so I have no memory of it. She has been a constant presence all though my life. She has no legislative power, but neither is she just a figurehead. She provides a degree of continuity and stability that, by definition, no government can possibly provide.  The institution of government remains constant, but the people in power  change at the whim of the electorate. Some governments are good and some are bad. Some are popular, some are not.

JANE: The role of the monarchy is something I’d really like to come back to, but so we don’t sway too far from the question of what might make voters take voting seriously, I’ll hold back.

Popularity is harder to judge in a country as large and as diverse as the United States.   I’m occasionally startled when I go to a different part of the country or circumstances lead me to mingle with people from a different social set (remember, I spend a lot of time with writers and archeologists – neither of which are exactly “mainstream” professions) and find that someone who my “usual” group approves of is highly unpopular.  It’s a good reminder.

ALAN: Of course popularity itself has nothing to do with electability. Our most popular Prime minister by far was David Lange – a man with a wicked sense of humour. His press conferences (and, reportedly, his cabinet meetings) were typified by the gales of laughter emerging from them. A famous film clip exists of Lange striding importantly down a corridor of power on his way to a meeting to discuss some crisis or other. A gaggle of reporters chased after him.

“Prime Minister, do you have any comments to make?”

Lange strode determinedly on.

“Just a word, Prime Minister. Just a word?”

Lange stopped and faced the crowd of reporters.

“Wombat!” he said firmly, and then turned and walked away to his meeting. The reporters looked at each other in consternation.


JANE: Cute…  But a viable reply?  Let’s touch on that next time.


2 Responses to “TT: Who’s In Charge?”

  1. Peter Says:

    Odd as a semi-permanent head of state may sound, Canadian Governors-General work pretty much the same way as their Australian counterparts.

    Tying together the themes of heads of state and voter participation, an article in Political Research Quarterly (summary here: notes:

    “The method of electing the head of state in a parliamentary system is a critical constitutional matter. A popular argument made is that allowing direct presidential elections strengthens democratic practices. Another argument posits that multiplying the number of political contests may fatigue voters and decrease their participation levels. This article considers electoral turnout in a global sample of parliamentary democracies with a nonhereditary head of state from 1945 to 2006 and finds that direct presidential elections decrease turnout in parliamentary elections by about 7 percentage points. This effect is stronger than that of most existing explanations of turnout.”

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