Good news from down under .. summer reading from a wizard of Oz

Aug 13th, 2005 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

It is a usually ignored commonplace that Australia, even though it is just north of Antarctica far away, has a lot in common with especially English-speaking Canada.

Both places involve comparatively small numbers of people in very large aspiring national geographies. Both are former self-governing dominions of the defunct British empire (unless you think Washington really has just taken that project over now), still not quite sure just what they are going to be in the 21st century.

So it is not surprising that the very interesting Australian political writer Greg Barns had a piece in the August 9 Globe and Mail in Toronto – on the recent appointment of Michalle Jean as governor general of Canada.  

In this piece Greg Barns drew on the side of his kaleidoscopic background that was “national chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000-02, and national campaign director for the ARM in Australia’s 1999 republic referendum campaign.”

But don’t stop there. The August 6 issue of The South China Morning Post (out of Hong Kong) has another piece by Greg Barns – on Australia’s growing trade relationship with China. And this has some particular interest for Canadians too.

In fact, Greg Barns has an unusual down-under political voice that English-speaking Canadians especially could profit from hearing more often. Fortunately he is also “writing a book on Australia and Canada from 1968-2004.” So keep your eyes and ears open. (And if you do want to dig a little deeper right now, read on … and discover how there is more to Australia today than Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, and beautiful Byron Bay.)

“What a pity we don’t elect G-Gs”

Someone at the Globe and Mail – Canada’s self-proclaimed national newspaper out of Toronto – decided to call Greg Barns’s August 9 comment piece on the governor general “What a pity we don’t elect G-Gs.” And, ironically enough, this echoes an old local tea commercial, which in turn echoes the still lingering memories of the old empire and the old British North America, in a way that Greg Barns would finally like to put behind all of us in the old dominions, at last.

The “What a pity we don’t elect G-Gs” title may also say something about the Globe and Mail itself today – and even about what some in Marc Emery’s Vancouver (or Montreal), say, see as the continuing stodginess and hidebound elitism of anglophone central Canada. (Though, to take just one case in point, quite a lot of the old empire and the old British North America still lingers in Victoria, British Columbia too. And of course there is also a place called Victoria in Australia, where the word “Victorian” can even have a similar twist to “Albertan” in Canada, sometimes mistakenly thought to have been named after Victoria’s much-loved husband, Albert.)


There no doubt are a few parts of all this twisted romance of the first English-speaking global village that none of the old self-governing dominions will ever quite escape – including India and South Africa. But in northern North America right now the twisted romance is just the larger context in any case. (And one big way in which Greg Barns’s Australia is different from Canada, of course, is that it doesn’t live right next door to the United States. Another is that it doesn’t have anything at all like Canada’s unique French-speaking-majority province of Quebec.)

The practical point is that Michalle Jean, the new Governor General of Canada, who will take office on Tuesday, September 27, 2005 – the day after the fractious 38th Parliament of Canada returns from its summer recess – is without doubt a lovely woman and an inspired appointment. (And from several points of view, including the federal Liberals’ usual neo-Machiavellian version of Canadian nation-building calculations, with a particular Paul Martin nationalist twist – even or especially allowing for the latest carping about the alleged Quebec sovereigntist leanings of Mme Jean’s movie-making husband from France.)

But the prospect that Mme Jean just might have to serve as the ultimate constitutional referee for a stalemated fractious parliament this coming fall and winter has also at last raised the question of whether the Prime Minister of Canada really ought to be appointing the governor general all by himself (or herself, as the case may be). And it has done this in a kind of very down-to-earth way, with which the traditional modern Canadian mind can connect, in both official languages.

Prime Minister Paul Martin, e.g., will be a much interested party in any stalemated fractious parliament that in fact just might arise in Ottawa, over the fall and winter of 20052006. Is he really the right guy to be appointing the ultimate referee? Viewed in the suddenly harsh light of present federal political realities, it is almost as if the effective practical king of today’s Canadian parliamentary democracy gets to choose the person who will resolve any irreconcilable dispute between king and parliament. (And ya gotta wonder, whatever exact brand of present-day Canadian citizen you may be: how can this possibly make sense? Especially when the Martin Liberals by themselves do not even command a majority of seats in the present House?)


The recent spring 2005 follies of what is being called one of the most contentious federal parliaments in modern Canada’s 138-year history to date even seem to have brought this troubling matter home to many who would otherwise still prefer to avoid such touchy issues just yet – and no doubt for some good enough reasons.

For the moment, no sensible person wants to challenge what slender real authority the increasingly obscure office of governor general of Canada has, especially at the edge of another potentially fractious parliamentary session, that the “G-G”might ultimately have to referee and resolve. And the present method of prime ministerial (or as some say patronage) appointment does at least have more than a half-century of largely mindless and accidental but still quite indigenous Canadian tradition behind it now.

Yet more and more if not yet quite all sensible people in high enough places do seem to be rather quickly recognizing that the latest episodes of the federal parliamentary soap opera in Ottawa have finally shown some clear need for reforming how Canada’s parliamentary democracy of the 21st century selects its governor general – and de facto ceremonial head of state – and soon enough as well. (Even at the end of Mme Jean’s five-year term, that will officially begin this September 27? The still somewhat grungy but rising local republican lobby group, Citizens for a Canadian Republic, e.g.,. is urging that she should be “the last appointed governor general.” )

Whatever else, the time has now at least come to start discussing G-G reform options in the pages of the Globe and Mail, which still sees itself as Canada’s national newspaper – and perhaps still somewhat benignly, in a very vague way, even if this too should finally cease and desist? And that ultimately explains why Greg Barns from Australia had his provocative piece on “What a pity we don’t elect G-Gs” in the August 9, 2005 issue. (And again, remember: there are some striking similarities between Australia and Canada today, especially in matters of this sort.)


As long-time readers of Canada’s national newspaper and certainly Greg Barns from the Australian Republican Movement will be aware of as well, it turns out that reforming how the governor general is selected is ultimately just the practical side of saying farewell to the utterly last vestiges of the British monarchy in such places as Australia and Canada today. (And in New Zealand and Barbados, and a few other places too, including conceivably even the United Kingdom itself, though probably not any time soon, as in Australia or Canada etc?).

To its credit, the Globe and Mail in Toronto has been taking a somewhat progressive editorial position on this question for some years now. Its track record here has not been as honourable, e.g., as that of the Vancouver Sun‘s unapologetically republican columnist Barbara Yaffe. But Canada’s (already fading?) national newspaper is after all also and inescapably a regional voice of the stodginess and hidebound elitism of anglophone central Canada.

In any case, the Globe and Mail‘s now traditional option for reforming the office of governor general of Canada rather nicely fits this particular non-central-Canadian-media-stereotype. In the recent past at least the paper has more than once proposed editorially that Canada should discreetly end its remaining formal and nowadays strictly symbolic ties to the British monarchy at the end of the present good Queen’s reign, and that the Queen should be succeeded as official head of state by a Canadian governor general chosen by something called the Order of Canada.

The Order of Canada (in case you’ve forgotten) is a public enterprise established in the late 1960s, to recognize Canadians who have somehow been associated with “outstanding achievement and merit … especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large.” It is itself another gesture of remembrance towards the aristocratic cultural heritage of the old British North America and the old empire, with its OBEs and all that. Its still quite youthful history no doubt means something to some Canadians today. But it also seems fair to suggest that the great majority could not name anyone involved in the Order of Canada with confidence. Perhaps the best that can be said about the Globe and Mail in this context is that it no longer seems as enthusiastic about its proposal to have the G-G appointed by the Order of Canada?


Whatever the editors of the Globe and Mail may wisely believe in the summer of 2005, their traditional formula for ultimately replacing the British monarch as Canadian head of state with a governor general appointed by the Order of Canada suggests just how deeply rooted the inescapable small-c conservatism and cultural elitism of the old British North America Act of 1867 remains today. But the more such thinking comes out in the open, in the contemporary parliamentary democracy, the clearer it becomes that it cannot continue to bear the weight of what the Constitution Act 1982 calls the “free and democratic society” of the 21 st century.

Some small corner of Canada – and again in both English and French, in one way or another – may always remain hospitable to the old elitist conservatism, in memory of John A. Macdonald, Georges Etienne Cartier, George Grant, and even Smokey Smith and all his colleagues from the last golden age of the first self-governing British dominion, during the Second World War? But it does not take a brain surgeon or deep cultural critic to see that the old British North American nostalgia has had its day. What John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail has called “the next Canada” is on its way. And it is going to be rather different. (Just as the old British North America itself was rather different from the Canada before that – and so on, all the way back to what Pierre Trudeau’s new Constitution Act 1982 calls “the aboriginal peoples of Canada,” etc.)

In any event, for reasons of some such sort the July 18, 2005 issue of Canada’s national newspaper included a somewhat more progressive proposal for reforming how the governor general is chosen – from former prime minister Jean Chretien’s former communications director, Peter Donolo. The crux of the proposal here is to have the governor general – and future republican president, or whatever the office might finally be called – chosen by some sort of free vote of the Canadian House of Commons. (And, unlike the assorted members of the Order of Canada, these Members of Parliament have at least been elected by the people of Canada – who, as everyone ought to be able to see clearly enough, have in fact become the practical ultimate sovereign power in Canada today.)

At the same time, Greg Barns from Australia could tell you that Peter Donolo’s proposal also bears some serious enough family resemblance to the one that was defeated in “Australia’s 1999 republic referendum campaign.” To make a quite long story short, the Australian monarchists branded such an indirect method of electing the new republican head of state as a mere “Politician’s Republic” – and this convinced enough more radical Australian republicans to vote against the 1999 proposal, because in the end it was just not republican (and democratic) enough.


Like many Australian republicans nowadays, Greg Barns has with some initial or historic reluctance now virtually come to the conclusion that only a directly elected governor general and future republican president can finally have the popular credibility to replace the last vestiges of the British monarchy in Australia today – or in Canada or New Zealand, and so forth, in the increasingly democratic universe of the 21st century.

Like Peter Donolo in Canada, Greg Barns in Australia is, among still other things, a former federal government senior advisor and political operative. He too intimately understands the inevitable qualms people of such backgrounds have about the destabilizing prospects of a directly elected head of state, in an old British or, as the more up-to-date euphemism has it, Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, that ultimately and logically evolves into an altogether independent free and democratic republic in the global village of today.

For just such reasons Greg Barns originally, along with all his colleagues in the Australian Republican Movement, opted for the more “minimalist” indirectly elected model of selecting the parliamentary democratic head of state, pioneered by India (another quite conservative country), more than half a century ago now. (Though even in India’s case, the state – or as we say in Canada, provincial – legislatures also indirectly elect the president, and former governor general, along with the federal parliament, which figures alone in Peter Donolo’s still more minimalist recent Canadian proposal.)

Yet again this indirect election model is more or less exactly what went down to defeat in Australia’s 1999 republic referendum. And to no small extent that was because many republican voters in the great mass base agreed that this was just too much of a “Politicians’ Republic.” In any self-respecting democracy nowadays the republic ought to finally belong to the people of the country in question – and the method of choosing the head of state should make this clear.

And so, some half a dozen years later, Greg Barns from Australia asks of even Paul Martin’s inspired appointment of Michalle Jean: “How much more genuine would the celebration of Canadian values of democracy, equality and fairness have been if Ms. Jean had been elected by the Canadian people.” And again, as he notes as well, there just happens to be a real-world parliamentary democracy where direct popular elections of a republican head of state have taken place for well over half a century now, without prompting serious political de-stabilization, or otherwise unduly stealing the prime minister and head of government’s thunder.

The case in point here is the increasingly hip modern Republic of Ireland. And, as Greg Barns also stresses: “In recent years, two women who have held” the popularly elected office of president of Ireland [also descended from an earlier British governor general] “- Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese – have become international symbols of hope for women and others who suffer discrimination. Ms. Robinson is now UN Commissioner for Human Rights and Ms. McAleese has just begun a second seven-year term as Ireland’s president.”

All this is especially interesting in Canada today, of course, because Greg Barns is talking from some hard-earned experience and its resulting practical wisdom. The international republican debate, so to speak, has lately been quietly heating up in Canada too, and even started to acquire something that approaches a degree of vigour (now especially pushed ahead by the latest federal parliamentary soap opera in Ottawa). And Canada is inevitably developing its own particular variation on the theme, suited to its particular unique circumstances – historically (and even wisely?) wedded to French-speaking Quebec and the multicultural global village in North America, and so forth. But Australia does remain somewhat ahead of Canada on this front. It has as yet come that much closer to facing up to and thinking through all the practicalities.

Or, if you like, Greg Barns and other Australian republicans have been resolute and broad-minded enough to learn from their own experience. Canadians could profitably do the same. You of course might say that, among other things, Canadians are more small-c conservative than Australians. But Greg Barns, who has also been recurrently doing business in Canada for the past number of years, and become something of a student of Canadian politics, sometimes seems to think almost the opposite (as readers of his projected “book on Australia and Canada from 1968-2004” will eventually discover). And who knows? He could be right. Canada may have at least a popularly elected governor general even before Australia finally does become a republic – as no doubt all the former old British dominions eventually will.


Only a few days after Greg Barns’s piece appeared on August 9, almost all such higher minded thought about the future of the office of governor general of Canada was almost swamped by a new round of tentative complaints about a story that Michalle Jean, and especially her husband who is originally from France, are in fact Quebec separatists or sovereigntists or whatever it is at heart.

The story seems to have been started, as one might expect, by Quebec separatists, miffed at being outplayed by Paul Martin’s inspired appointment of the lovely Mme Jean from Quebec in the first place. But it was then picked up by some provincial premiers, and federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper, starved for attention in the summer heat.

As the Globe and Mail for August 13 has explained: “Martin defends vice-regal couple’s loyalty.” If Mme Jean’s appointment were to finally lead to some sensibly updated Canadian public debate on Quebec sovereignty, and just what it does and does not mean nowadays, it could prove inspired in that respect as well.

Intriguingly enough, at least the Vancouver Sun website seems to be altogether ignoring the Quebec-sovereigntist-G-G issue – which may reflect the deepest wisdom of all. On the other hand, an August 13 Globe and Mail online readers poll showed a quite decisive majority of respondents answering Yes to the question: “Do you believe incoming Governor-General Michalle Jean and her husband should reveal how they voted in the 1995 Quebec referendum?”

Greg Barns in the South China Morning Post

Republicanism in the old self-governing British dominions nowadays (if not of course in the United States, where it is about something much different) is finally about a lot more than how you choose your parliamentary democratic head of state.

It is ultimately about joining in on all the new and challenging dynamism of the rising global village – and fighting its harsh fears, suicide-bombing terrorism, and obvious deep problems and troubles with a broad-minded embrace of the new positive opportunities for the expansion of free and democratic societies and real human welfare everywhere.

Greg Barns is remarkable for how he manages to cover all these bases in his political writing.

He is an urbane liberal democratic populist from the land of Oz – in an encouraging and optimistic way that is alas still not at all so easy to find in Canada today. His August 6 piece on “Manufacturing a storm” in Australian-Chinese trade relations, in the South China Morning Post, is just one case in point. You have to pay for the full article. But here are a few intriguing clips:

“According to a state government minister in Australia there is a tsunami out there called China and we have to find a way around it’. That was the rallying cry recently of Andre Haermeyer, the Victorian government’s minister for manufacturing, to his political colleagues around Australia …

“Even if the Australian manufacturing sector aims its guns at China, it needs to remember that Canberra is keen to keep Beijing on its side so that the vaunted free-trade pact sees the light of day. Industry Minister Ian McFarlane was lukewarm in his response to Mr Haermeyer’s call for an Australia_wide manufacturing strategy.

“Perhaps it was because the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has noted that exports of [manufactured goods] to China have grown rapidly, their value increasing by 160 per cent between 1999 and 2004, compared with only 13 per cent to the rest of the world’.

“That does not mean some local manufacturers will not feel the chill wind of increased competition from Chinese imports. Remember, however, that other manufacturers here are relishing more trade with China. Take the Australian automotive industry. General Motors, Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi all have a substantial presence here. They are licking their lips at the prospect of exporting cars and auto parts to China.

“Contrast this with the clothing industry, in decline since the 1980s. Now China dominates the Australian clothing and footwear market. One leading clothing manufacturer, Andrew Edgar, says the threat of low-cost competition is an irreversible reality.

“However, even in this case the impact of Chinese imports might be exaggerated. As ANZ Bank’s chief economist Saul Eslake said last month: For all the attention devoted to China’s exports of textiles, following the [belated] dismantling of trade barriers… their share of total exports has fallen from nearly 24 per cent in 1997 to less than 14 per cent in the first four months of 2005.’

“Perhaps the image of a tsunami to describe the impact of China on Australia’s manufacturing industry is a just another case of western political rhetoric.”

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