Parliamentary appointment: Auditor-General, Governor-General?

Our parliament already appoints (and can sack) the Auditor-General. Having a head of state selected by a super-majority of parliament would follow this process, and result in a non-partisan choice.

We often hear that people don’t support parliamentary appointment of the Governor-General (and a future independent head of state) because it could result in a politician as head of state. In fact, it makes it much less likely; we have already had a number of politically-linked Governors-General (most famously Sir Keith Holyoake, a former Prime Minister, and Dame Cath Tizard, a Labour-aligned Mayor of Auckland previously married to Bob Tizard, Deputy Prime Minister in the 1970s). Not that either Sir Keith or Dame Cath did a bad job as Governor-General and remained neutral, it’s just that their partisan positions could’ve lead to great difficulty where there was a close election.

This is because at the moment, the Prime Minister effectively has the sole power to appoint and remove the Governor-General. While, yes, legally the Queen makes the appointment, the Queen herself has said (to Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving and straunchly pro-monarchy Prime Minister, no less) that the Prime Minister makes a recommendation that she has to accept. Parliamentary appointment would take that power out of the Prime Ministers’ hands, and any attempt to use that power for partisan advantage.

We also hear that people don’t trust our parliamentarians to act in a mature way to appoint a non-partisan head of state. Well, there is precedent for this that gives us confidence that our parliamentarians will. Under the Public Audit Act 2001, the Auditor-General is appointed by the Governor-General on “the recommendation of the House of Representatives.” This is because the office is so important to our system of government - auditing government departments and spending of taxpayers’ money - that it has been put into legislation that the office is to be appointed with the House of Representative’s approval. This means that a convention of non-partisanship of the office has been created.

The most recent appointment happened in April last year. Reading the transcript of the appointment, it’s clear that the major parties all supported the recommendation, with speakers from Labour, National, NZ First and the Greens repeating their respective party’s support for the appointment. National’s Anne Tolley concluded by saying:

I am confident that this recommendation to the Governor-General will provide New Zealand with an excellent Controller and Auditor-General, to lead an outstanding team in our audit office, to maintain the essentials of our democracy: integrity, transparency, and public entities that we as parliamentarians and the whole of New Zealand can have confidence in, that will operate effectively, efficiently, and appropriately, using public funds wisely and free from corruption. I have no hesitation in recommending this man to the Governor-General.

Schedule 3 of the Public Audit Act clearly sets out the term of the Auditor-General’s term (7 years), and that no-one can be Auditor-General twice. Both provisions we could use for the Governor-General and future independent head of state. There are also clear provisions for the deputy Auditor-General and the removal of a Auditor-General from office (again, by a resolution of the House of Representatives).

A similar process for choosing our next Governor-General makes sense. Our parliamentarians - and New Zealand - is clearly mature enough to take the choice out of the Prime Minister’s hands and to our House of Representatives.