A gay-marriage republic?

By November 25, 2013ABC, History, Other, Politics, Religion, Society

The Governor-General agreed to deliver the Boyer Lectures, and they came at the end of her term as G-G. So among other things  she gave us a sense of her own priorities in the Australia of the future. Two of these, delivered almost casually, were the attractiveness of a republic, and of legalised gay marriage. The timing of the republic, at least to me, seemed pretty far off. She imagined an Australia  ‘where perhaps, my friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state.’

I feel much the same. One day Australia will be a republic, and my guess is that very little will change as a consequence. I’m not opposed to it at all — it’s just not high up in my set of priorities. Indeed, I feel much the same about gay marriage. I have no objection to it, but there seem to be a lot of other more important issues facing Australians.

But what a lot of tut-tutting there was from the Monarchists, along with predictable cheers from interest groups that think both goals are really important. I thought Mr Abbott said it best: the Governor-General is at the end of her term, and there is nothing wrong at all about her setting out her own views at a time like this; what’s more, she did it in style. Her views don’t bind the Government, any more than she is obliged to agree with whatever the Government puts forward as its priorities.

The problem with an Australian republic is the same now as it was in 1999, when we had the referendum. How does someone get to be the Head of State, and what powers will he or she have? My own view then, which hasn’t changed, is that the republic should in form and style be as close to the present as it can be. And that meant to me that the Governor-General (I would keep that title) would be appointed by the Government of the day for a defined term.

The republicans, or at least a lot of them, wanted a real departure from the status quo, with an elected President. From memory, Mal Meninga, then the former great captain of the Canberra Raiders and an even greater Australian Rugby League captain, was put forward as the sort of President we ought to have. There were many other possible candidates, too. But what would they know about politics and government? What would happen if a President and a Prime Minister got into loggerheads? In a way, it all looked premature, because a lot of this had not been worked out and argued about in advance. John Howard diverted the issue cleverly, and the referendum lost. Since then ‘the republic’ as a policy issue has hardly been on even a back-burner.

Nonetheless, both issues have great capacity to attract the media. First, they are controversial, which makes news editors inclined to feature them at any time. Second, they attract special interest groups with articulate spokespersons, who can be relied upon to speak confidently and aggressively. And third, it is easy for the media to try and engage politicians, most of whom would be happy to say nothing about either matter. All this happened on Friday, and I’m writing this post on Saturday. By Monday it may even be dead as news.

I can’t find anything desperately wrong with the way Australia is governed, and while there are many areas in which you can point to possible improvements, it is not at all clear that they would come about because we ceased to be a monarchy and became a republic. In some ways, the republic issue is just a distraction from other important areas of public life, like how best to improve the health system.

And if we legalised gay marriage tomorrow, it would make the gay and lesbian community feel a lot better, but what then? I don’t see any likely awful outcomes, but equally, I think there are more important areas of public and social life to worry about. The Governor-General is an intelligent and experienced person who has made a real contribution to Australian life. Her thoughts as she ends what I see as an illustrious terms as G-G are interesting, but her own choice in making them at this time suggests to me that she recognised that they are no more important than those of anyone else.

And they don’t bring the day of realisation for either issue a second closer.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Bryce has made a totally inappropriate set of comments that are highly partisan on political issues in this country . She’s a disgrace. The concept of the G-G who doesn’t venture into live political issues is now dead in the water.

    Unlike you, Don, I think this is an important issue, regardless of what you think about the merits of the particular matters being discussed.

  • Bryan William Leyland says:

    A form of marriage was imposed on the people by societies that realised that children were necessary for the survival of the society. Churches adopted this and, for many of them – maybe all – the final act that completed the marriage ceremony was “an act capable of producing children.” Without consumation the marriage was not complete.

    So marriage is not about two people, it is about looking after children in a stable environment. If, as with gay people, it is not possible to complete an ad capable of producing children, “marriage” is not a word that should be used.

    By all means, let them enter into civil agreements and have any celebrations they like. But do not call that “marriage” because the civil agreement is about two people, not children.

  • PeterE says:

    There is a great deal I would disagree with (politely, of course) in what you have said. First, a great deal of planning has gone into these ‘innocuous’ statements and the ABC is running true to form in deliberately providing the platform with malice aforethought. The Governor General has succumbed to the need to feel ‘loved’ by those who know what is best for us and of course, as a result she is loathed by those who disagree. This is precisely the role of the ‘President’ envisaged by those who have encouraged this; that is, an authority figure who will lecture us from time to time on what we ought to think, a Big Brother (or Big Sister). The GG showed that she has not got a clue about our system of government (and why should she, as active education on the subject is frowned on in our schools). The GG (once a little Australian girl) already is our Head of State (David Smith has convincingly argued this). It is she who signs Bills into law, appoints people to various offices and in very rare circumstances sends the Parliament back to the people. The Queen cannot do this, yet the Queen is a pearl above price because she represents (in the Crown) tamed power, power tamed over a thousand sometimes bloody years. She and her heirs are above politics, which is a wonderful thing to bring unity. When she appoints the GG on the advice of the Australian PM she gives us a temporary king or queen who does for us what she does for the UK. More in a minute.

  • PeterE says:

    The GG should be completely above politics and here she has joined in, much in the style of the loathsome William Deane. Bear in mind that the opportunity to become a republic was put to the people in 1999 and it was defeated in every State, succeeding only in the Labor-Green ACT. Something like 72% of electorates voted no. 55% to 45% was a landslide if seen in the context of voting for the Parliament. Yet the republicans press on with their campaign; we must vote until we get it right. Contrary to what you say, John Howard did not engineer this result. True to his word he called together a representative group, dominated by republicans. They fought each other but the idea put in the referendum was precisely what the republicans voted for – to replace the Queen and the Governor-General with a President appointed by the Parliament. It was an exceedingly dangerous proposal as can be seen be reference to the variety of republics around the world that have replaced the Queen, starting with Ghana. We in Australia have had the constitutional monarchy from the beginning of our modern State. It is very flexible and has modified over time to give us a unique Australian system that is second to none. It does depend on Governors-General who have the strength to stick to the first line of their duty statement – stay out of politics!

  • PeterE says:

    By the way, the word ‘Monarchist’ is quite misleading. We are talking about constitutional monarchists who know a strong system when they see it and won’t be bullied about what to think. ‘Monarchist’ conjures up a caricature. ‘Tut-tutting’ is quite insulting. The point is that the GG should be above politics and if the line is crossed you might as well have a republic. Even the best of them, the USA, has system under which a new President is loathed by half the country before he begins work. Who was it said that ‘Australia is a country waiting for its Ceausescu.’

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I felt that my post was likely to bring on some strong criticism. The notion that the Head of State is ‘above politics’ is rhetoric. As I wrote to another correspondent (email) earlier today, ‘On this subject we deal with convention and prejudice. The Constitution makes reference to the Governor-General, who is the Government. There is no reference to Ministers, Cabinet or anything else. When the Queen opens Parliament she refers to ‘my government’. We don’t do that here (convention), but the reality is the same. G-Gs sensibly exercise discretion in what they say publicly, but all of them from time to time will say things that express their own opinions rather than the view of the government of the day. I have known all the G-Gs since Hasluck, some of them quite well. The current one is no different, in my opinion, and what she has said caused no offence to the PM or, I would think, to most of his Ministers.’

    Had she said all this in a speech at the beginning of her term I would take a different view, but this is at the end. She has said firmly that she wishes to leave, and the Government has not pressed her to stay, though (my sources say) they think she does a good job and have no animosity of any kind toward her.

    Both these issues, in my view, are confined to small active groups, not the broad body politic, though that does not deal with the issue of principle you raise.

    The G-G is and has to be involved in the politics of government, and is therefore part of the team. What we see is theatre. If she is part of the team, and members of the team themselves publicly express their own views on these issues, which are not part of government policy in any systematic way, why shouldn’t the G-G?

    My answer is that G-Gs do express their views, but sensibly and often en passant, or casually, as I wrote.

    But reasonable people will disagree!

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