Is it time for the Republic of Australia?
By Don Aitkin
Australia Day produced a small flurry of republican sentiment, with the Prime Minister and all the Premiers and Chief Ministers save one (Colin Barnett in WA) agreeing that it was time for us to think seriously about the coming Republic of Australia. I thought about it seriously for thirty seconds or so. I don’t think it’s likely to happen in my lifetime, not a great deal of which is probably left. So it is a matter that I can leave cheerfully to the good sense of the Australian people, at the time of their choosing. I suppose I would care if the style were changed to ‘Republic’ rather than ‘Commonwealth’. I do think that others should care a great deal about what it would mean in practice — or more precisely, about the possible evils that would be involved in redesigning something that has worked very well for more than a century. I see no reason to change it.
I am no monarchist, but (unfashionably) I don’t think you have to be a monarchist to recognise that the system we have is alive, and functioning well. In what sense would a change improve us? You can hear people say that it’s just odd that in this day and age, with Australia being ‘smart’, and ‘modern’ (I am using the words of a panellist on a morning TV program) it needs to cling on to some blue-bloods in England when we could have our own head of state. The trouble with that is that we do have our own head of state. He (she) is Australian, is called the Governor-General, and is appointed by the Queen (the ‘sovereign’) on the advice of the Australian Government led by the Prime Minister. That first happened a long time ago, in the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1931. It seems to me than many of those who trumpet about the need for a republic have very little idea of how Australian politics and government actually work.
It seems to me also, perhaps selfishly as well as unfashionably, that we do very well out of the Queen. We are not called upon to support the monarchy financially except when she or another Royal is here, which is not all that often. She has said plainly, and this has been repeated again and again by ‘the Palace’, that Australians are responsible for Australia and what happens there. What is the objection to the link? As one of the descendants of displaced crofters from the Highlands of Scotland after 1745, I suppose I could nurse a grievance against the English, if I tried very hard, or the House of Hanover. But life really is too short for that.
When the Constitutional Convention was in full talk in 1998 I argued that if you were going to have a change, then the smaller the change the better. In arguing that way I was following the lead of the Republic Advisory Committee that Paul Keating established in 1993. Its general advice was to do as little as possible, and Keating’s response was also minimalist. He wanted a ‘President of the Commonwealth of Australia’ with essential the same powers possessed by the Governor-General today, to be nominated by the PM of the day and chosen by at least a two-thirds vote of both houses of Parliament at a joint sitting.
Paul Keating lost office in 1996, so his ideas were put aside. John Howard went down the route of a Constitutional Convention with a mixture of appointed and elected members. Its job was to agree on a model, which proved difficult, because so many of the ‘republicans’ passionately wanted a directly-elected head of state. In the end what was agreed to was the essence of the Keating proposal, but it did not get up at the subsequent referendum. The proposed Preamble, recognising (among other things) that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have been here ‘since time immemorial’, was a real fizzer. Our Constitution has no Preamble, and I don’t think it needs one, either.
I wouldn’t change the Constitution at all, if only on the great principle of ‘Never open the Act!’. For those unlettered in these things, if you are in charge of an entity established by Act of Parliament, it is risky to ask Parliament to make changes to that piece of legislation, even when the changes you want are obviously necessary. The reason is that those in Parliament might want to make other changes that you don’t want. And you can’t stop them doing it, once the Act has become a Bill. I did successfully ask for a particular Act to be opened once, and lived in fear until its new version was promulgated, without anything unpleasant having been done to it.
But there are other good reasons, too. It is true that all Constitutions (indeed, nearly all pieces of legislation) become out of date, or become less and less in tune with mood of the day. All such documents are what Popper once called ‘democratic approximations’. There is no perfect Constitution, just as there is no perfect electoral system. There are obvious gaps in them. Ours famously doesn’t mention a Prime Minister, for example, or a political party, though it does mention ‘ministers’. Does it matter? I don’t think so. There have been a couple of hiccups in how it all works, but the Constitution comes now with a whole lot of conventions which people take almost as seriously as the words of the Constitution themselves. We learn how to live within these rules.
In the same fashion, pieces of legislation can be interpreted by the Government of the day in loose, informal ways, in part because it is just necessary to have certain bits and pieces of government running properly now, not in three months’ time. On the whole the Opposition doesn’t object, because in its turn in government it will want the freedom to do similar things without comment — so long as they are sensible and necessary. So governments ‘wing it’, and get on with life and the business of running the country.
What makes it all work, as it has done over 115 years, is the culture of Australian democracy: no one has tried to to take over Government in an illegal fashion; Mr Whitlam accepted in 1975 that he had been dismissed, and went; we the voters take elections seriously — and so do the politicians; and proposed amendments to the Constitution are usually rejected. Fiddling with the Constitution won’t make Australian politics or government any better, and several proposed alternatives are likely to make things worse, at least in my judgement.
A popularly elected President is a ghastly possibility, in that he or she will derive authority in part from having been elected. Clashes between such a President and the Prime Minister will be inevitable. To what important public end? I can’t take really seriously any of the arguments for a Republic that have been put forward, like the lack of attachment from some migrants to a country connected to the British monarchy, or that we will finally be seen as an independent country by others in the world. Really? Who? Why are they important? This sort of stuff seems trivial to me.
The monarchy is, for us, a piece of useful flummery. If the Brits decide they want a republic (only about three in four in the UK support the monarchy), then we’d have to do something. Until then, my feeling is that we should leave well alone.