Women Say...on the Republic

Women Say...on the Republic

Men don’t have an inherent right to the top job

Feature article in The Australian, 25 April 2001

By Kim Rubenstein, senior lecturer in law at the University of Melbourne and member of the Australian Women’s Constitutional Network Steering Committee

The appointment of yet another man, Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, as the next governor-general of Australia calls for a radical rethinking of the way the head of state is chosen. Not once in Australia’s history has a woman been appointed to the post. In the length and breadth of this great brown land, where women total slightly more than half of the population, surely somewhere – anywhere – there is a woman suitably qualified for the job.

Central to the position of governor-general is that person’s ability to best reflect the identity and collective experience of the people. If men are always occupying that position, then women’s identity and collective experience will not be properly reflected. Any system of appointing a head of state should properly address the issue of equal representation.

For instance, the Constitution could be amended to mandate alternating appointments by sex. If a woman is appointed as the next governor-general, then the Constitution would require that the person appointed to the position after that would be a man.

This process would set clearly in our constitutional document, the fundamental importance of equal opportunity for men and women to the most senior position in the constitutional structure. It would establish that all Australians can realistically consider that they have the opportunity of being considered for the position.

Conditions to promote power sharing are the stuff of constitutions. The US presidency, for example, limits an incumbent to no more than two terms in office. This condition is a brake on the accumulation of individual power. The parallel principle exists on a broader level with this proposal – that no one sex should accumulate power over the other. Both examples reflect the belief that the institution of head of state has built into it principles that need to be reflected in the appointment process.

Some will argue that this consideration should not be put above merit for the position. This argument suggests that the best person for the position may miss out because of mandated sex. Underlying this argument are several assumptions that need to be unpacked. First, is the notion that there will only be one best person for the position. This is not a fair or realistic reflection of the pool of people available.

Another issue is that merit is complicated. What do we mean by merit when we look at the position of governor-general. Some of the characteristics we would put next to the position of head of state are integrity, wisdom, intellect, judgement and objectivity in exercising constitutional powers. These are all characteristics independent of sex.

Other attributes important to the position include responsiveness to the community’s needs and life experiences that reflect those of the community. We need to ensure that the diversity of our community is reflected in the position of head of state, and this is one aspect of merit that needs to be considered in the appointment process.

Some argue this would be an unnecessary exercise of affirmative action. In counterpoint, however, it is difficult to dispute that we already have a system of affirmative action that favours men. The stacking of the numbers against women can be readily seen in the most cursory examination of the senior ranks of Australian society. Do men really merit this outcome or is the system, by unspoken assumption, looking after them? This backdoor system of affirming men in top posts is more insidious in its impact on society than one that openly proclaims the equal importance of men and women holding the position of governor-general.

Any argument that mandatory alternation devalues women’s position needs to be likewise unravelled. Devices that allow men to grab the top jobs have never been thought of as a problem for men. Moreover, the proposed system would also have the benefit of showing the range of women who are competent and worthy of the position of head of state. It is not there will only be one woman who is available – rather, there is a pool of women from the 52 percent of society they comprise who should properly be regarded for the position. This will also better emphasise the diversity of women’s experience in society – women do not make up a monolithic group. The more women who occupy the position of head of state, the more likely this will be better understood.

Whether the archbishop will be a good governor-general or a bad one is beside the point. He is a bad appointment, however good his qualifications might be as an individual, because he is yet another man in a long list of men. His appointment says yet again to the women of Australia that they are not good enough for the top job and that their vice-regal interpreter will never properly speak their mother tongue.

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Last modified: May 11, 2002