Is it time for the Republic of Australia?

By February 1, 2016ABC, History, Media, Politics, Society

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.




Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, I agree with this quietist approach. Inevitably the term ‘monarchist’ has attracted the common Australian slur that pre-empts having to actually attend to how such a person might configure the constitution he/she prefers. I’m probably more dyed-in-the-wool than you Don, because I admire HMQ for her constancy, tact, and ubiquity, and I respect the evolution of the system from its absolutist origins to its present status in a democratic conglomeration of states. I’d concede to the Republicans that the Royal expenses might be trimmed, but as you say, we enjoy the freebies rather than bow under the costs.
    Migrants who feel the system is absurd? My mother came from one of the world’s oldest republics – Iceland, and my mother-in-law from another Republic – Czechoslovakia. Both were staunchly in favour of the Oz monarchic system. This was common in their generation, and may be less so now.
    Let me repeat my support for an aspect of Constitutional Monarchy that seemed to trouble some when I expressed it in recent round-up emails. I think that within a system where the vote is widespread and secure at all levels of life where choices need to be made, an item of constitution that is non-elected but works by a convention of natural succession is a convenient arrangement, one that sustains a connection deep into the history and nature of human societies, and is therefore good. To believe this imperils anyone’s liberty is to misunderstand one of the important balances that bring well-being to a system that is crowded with opportunities to vote by standing as a useful relief to it and thus highlighting the value of our liberties in the same way a chiaroscuro painter will use a small placing of light to bring out a larger and wholer form.
    I pledged not to address this matter again, but felt moved to align myself with what you write above. It is, as always, good sense, and contributes to the well-being of discourse.

  • Peter WARWICK says:

    Agree Don that a Republic may be some time coming. I have changed my views over the decades of my life. I was born in 1948 and it seemed to me that we were British – the Union Jack was hoisted at school (no one thought that we had our own flag), we sang God Save the Queen (Advance Australia Fair was in the distant future), and we studied British history (there was not a surfeit of Oz history at the time), and is was “proper” that children knew their heritage (despite being a fifth generation Australian). One history teacher has us all committing to memory the full details of the last 20 British monarchs.

    Cubs and Scouts pledged loyalty to the Queen, and as a good Church of England lad I thought the Queen sat at the right hand of God, we endured some clapped out British Earls and Barons as Governors-General, and we asked Britain for some has been Generals as the Chief of the General Staff to head our Defence Forces (they came over to teach us how to run a real Army – proper like !).

    Class was quite pervasive and there were whispers of someone’s pedigree and religion (I was brought up anti-Catholic by a rabid C of E minister – it was not until some years later that I realised I had been conned).

    To gain a position in the public service, one had to be Catholic (you had to declare your religion), although you could get lucky if a Protestant was the assessor of your application. To get a place in insurance, you had to be Church of England (whispers in the old boys clubs).

    But it was all we knew and saw nothing untoward about anything. It all worked well as far as we knew.

    I served for 20 years in the Oz Army, and the document I signed on enlistment was that I “would serve Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors according to law – so Help Me God”. No mention of Australia. I was pragmatic enough to think at the time “so long as she pays me”

    To me Queen Elizabeth embodies the model monarch. She has been assiduous in her duties, her private life has been immaculate (more than what could be said of her offspring). The prospect of Charlie ascending to the Throne worries me. Many a poll in Britain has asked the question “Would the Prince of Wales make a good and true monarch”. The bulk of replies are that while he is an “affable and likable chap”, he is not “king material”. The respondents obviously see the Monarch as much more than “affable and likable”.

    What worries me about becoming a republic, is not so much the loss of the Monarch, but any change to our system of government. I am a minimalist is this regard. Perhaps the simplest way would be to take the constitution, and with yellow highlighter in hand, highlight any reference to the Crown and replace it with “Governor General” (not “President”). I do not see any offence with the term “Constitutional Republic of Australia”, with a Governor General as the Head of State.

    I certainly would not take to the USA model, where the President is hated by 60% of the population on the day he is elected. I wonder why the place is called the United States of America – it must the most disunited place in the world.

    The Commonwealth of Nations is pretty well defunct these days. It’s more of a social club. There are some useful educational, social and cultural exchanges, but the days of trading (exclusively) within the Commonwealth have dwindled. We trade with communist countries – wherever there is a buck to be made – all very pragmatic.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Yes, our system is ticking over apparently satisfactorily, but what we have is not necessarily the best we could have. I accept your point about the risks of change, I don’t advocate change for the sake of change, nor do I feel it matters much whether we have a monarch of another country as our nominal head of state. While a matter of great concern to many, to me the latter is essentially superficial. However, what can be healthy for the body politic is a substantial discussion about how we govern ourselves – a step forward from the usual political lethargy most people display towards the important issue of the management teams we elect to run the country.

    While our Westminster system relies heavily on convention and precedent, when push comes to shove the courts and lawyers on both sides of a tiff will also be looking closely at the written Constitution. Much safer to ensure the Constitution reflects what we mean today, surely? And as I said, a good national discussion would encourage many to think, and appreciate what we do have as well as what we might improve. If we are to have a debate (and I don’t see one arising any time soon, it should be about far more than that a head of state “should be one of us”. That’s effectively what has been the case, since Lord Dunrossil departed Yarralumla. The issues, as you note, are far more complex.

    Why do I think the status quo is not good enough? Can I point to the amount of squawking about the results of the last Senate election? Or to the potential of a secret race between a G-G and a PM, to pull a dismissal gun on the other before the latter can draw? Can I also note the considerable lobbying and public posturing of many an interest group, some in my view forever squawking? In this short comment, I’ll touch on the first and the last of these questions. So here is my fanciful suggestion.

    Our federal Senate could be altered in composition by no longer being based on twelve representatives from each of our six states with two from both mainland territories. (You’ll all know how that formula was used to “preserve States’ rights” – especially those interests of the numerically smaller states.) Instead, I suggest that the senators should be elected in numbers proportional to the platform on which they have campaigned for election. Further, for this new Senate we would have non-preferential voting – that is, first past the post. Each registered voter would therefore exercise one vote only for the Senate – simpler, and avoids the farce of preferential shenanigans of recent elections. In addition, the role of the Senate could be tilted far more strongly to act as a House of Review, rather than a House of Stymie. (I have no firm ideas on how that tilt might be achieved or maintained, but bear with me.) So should there be x% of the population who place a particular platform as their top priority for the Senate, (e.g. disability support, Grey Power, Gen Y, The Tofu Eaters), that platform (I’m not calling it a political party, deliberately) would have approximately x% of the Senate seats. That would mean that each of those groups would have a clear voice, in the Parliament. Each would have a numerical representation matching its “constituency”. Such a measure does not stop the squawking, but at least it has a formal representation; hopefully there would be less frustration, and so less squawking.

    The tilt towards becoming more of a House of Review? This part of my argument “needs more work”. I’d keep the Double Dissolution provisions, but I don’t know how we could avoid party politics having their way with us as usual. So I’d welcome other ideas, and am prepared to receive bucketfuls of old tomatoes – just hang on to the buckets as you hurl them!

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Peter, You list a good set of insufficiencies, and the attendant squawking. But why do you think that a new Constitution would prevent or obviate them? Your suggestion for a change with respect to the Senate is a thoughtful gloss on some older ones. But to get it you need a Constitutional change. It is unlikely that any government would present such a single proposal at a referendum.It wold be allied to a couple more. You mightn’t like either of them.

      In my view, the problems with our system are not in the main Constitutional, but reflect the diversity of our population and its relative indifference to the business of government. I’m not sure how to overcome this lack, and it would take a long time.

  • Mike Burke says:

    Apart from the myriad known and unknown unknowns likely to stem from such a significant change to our constitution (given the increasing tendency for our High Court judges to indulge their activist instincts), two obvious problems have always struck me as militating against a move to a Republican system. The first, mentioned in the article above, is the potential for a battle of conflicting “mandates” between the PM of the day and an elected Head of State. The second, not mentioned above but potentially as disruptive to ordered government, is the situation that exists with modern Presidents of the US where at least half of the population is likely to detest any elected Head of State. This can only lead, as it has done in the US in recent times, to a loss of public respect for the office and, as seems to be occurring in the US right now, to a situation where only deeply flawed and even quite despicable candidates will present for election to the office. Give me our impotent monarchy any time in preference to such a potential shambles.

  • Peter says:

    Hullo Don,

    I accept the following propositions in your column:

    *A popularly elected President is a ghastly possibility
    *The smaller the change the better.
    *The system we have is alive, and functioning well

    I resist, however, your conclusion that ‘we should leave well alone’.

    It is essentially a matter of choice: do most Australians want an Australian Head of State? Most Australians applaud the Queen for her stoic, lifetime commitment but would be appalled if her son, Charles, became King; probably not so, with William and Kate. It should not be a matter of personalities but a question of independence and a reflection of the nature of contemporary Australian demographics.

    The ARM needs to be strategically focussed on what sort of referendum proposal would get up and what changes
    – constitutional or otherwise – need to be made without opting for ‘an heroic defeat’.

    Peter FitzSimon tweeted recently “At the ARM, we are not yet ready for referendum. We need to prepare the ground bit more!”

    What’s the answer? We maintain the present system of choosing the Governor General (perhaps with voting input from all MPs and a nomination process that all Australians can contribute to, along the lines of selecting the Australian of the Year. The Queen/King is replaced by our own Governor General – minimal change, no popularly elected president and continues the best elements in the present model, except for one critical element.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Why do you think that most Australians would be ‘appalled’ at a King Charles. Some might be, no doubt, but some won’t care one way or the other, some will hope he can do a decent job, some will wait to see. Even if most were appalled, it doesn’t really matter, because King C. would have no role in Australia anyway.

      • Peter says:

        Charles is indelibly associated with Diana in the minds of most Australians and the intrusive media coverage around their deteriorating relationship etc was a most painful phase some years ago now. There were also bizarre private conversations he had with Camilla which were unfortunately published in the popular press. You are correct, however, when you refer to indifference. Basically, Diana was almost beatified by the press and Charles, by contrast, appeared as ineffectual, older, weaker…. Even in terms of succession, one might think that a mother around the 90 mark might give her son a go at the top job; but certainly there is no obligation for her to do so, especially when she is so highly admired.

        It’s a matter of fact that in 2014 Prince Philip, whom PM Abbott meant to honour, was lampooned and ridiculed; many were aghast at the Captain’s Choice, now part of our lexicon. It’s a sad and probably unfair interpretation, but many people, so influenced by the media etc, don’t distinguish between Prince Philip and his son, Charles – good enough as consorts or people-in-waiting but not quite ready for the top job. In contrast, William and Harry are seen as young, exuberant, marketable, manly…..Of course, whether they would do a decent job as King, would also be a matter of waiting.

        I am not saying these are my views but many Australians are crude in their responses. They look at young Harry and his red hair, and ask: “Where did that come from?”

        The image I have of Charles is of a very young person, perhaps four years of age, waiting to greet his mother after her being abroad. He had to wait in line – forlorn, dutiful, almost pitiful.

        Charles is presently being rehabilitated by the media and will in time, one presumes, become the King but is this a person most Australians would choose themselves as a King? It’s only my personal judgement, but I think not and that is why we should carve for ourselves.

        • dlb says:

          To me “The Crown” is an institution that represents ones country and sits above politics.
          I don’t care if Charles, Philip, The Queen or Peter Cosgrove opens the local fete or Olympics. But I could get rather annoyed by a party politician or President I didn’t vote for doing the job.

    • Alan Gould says:

      Well, Peter,
      The prospect of Charles does not appal me at all. My assessment is that he is a fellow with the approachability and skills of genial engagement and curiosity that his parents evidently have, and would fulfill the role he inherits well for the inevitably shorter time than his long-lived Ma. what does appal me is the nature of the modern press with its celebrity-mania that planted secret microphones, chased his wife into a car crash, and hangs about every opportunity to present attitude on him, his wives, his kids and theirs, whether sycophant or derisory.
      If he turned out to be a duffer, I would exercise restraint for the duration of his office, hope for a shrewder successor, and take comfort in the idea that the constitutional arrangement is in fact stronger – as it should be – than the strength of any given individual in office.
      I would also observe that perhaps the cruellest part of the constitutional monarchy is the life it compels upon its members, to conduct their own lives such that they have a congenial presence in the company of all, from bricklayers to ballet dancers, because that is the essence of their job, to present the parts of the realm to its whole. Our GG does the same.
      But with all this said, if it transpires that a majority of Australians want to break with the Monarchic and British tie, so long as the question in the referendum is honestly put, I’ll either cast my vote as wisely as my thinking allows me at the time, and either live in minority with the result, or decently clear off.

      • Peter says:

        Hullo dlb and Alan,

        The issue of Charles is a peripheral, personal issue and I agree that it is the institutional/constitutional links that are of the essence in this discussion. The point, too, about the ugly, intrusive presence of the media – certainly with royalty but also with film stars, singers, News of the World trawling generally – is a valid point.

        Many emotive issues swirl around the monarchy, however, and I heard yesterday that ‘The Daily Telegraph’ has now taken to championing the issue of the Republic. Without being unfair to the DT, it is unlikely that their campaign will focus just on the constitutional nuances. I heard Peter FitzSimon tell Amanda Vanstone yesterday that the ARM is attracting 400/500 members per month, an accelerating phenomenon.

        The success or failure of the next referendum will depend on the simplicity of the model proposed and the growing consensus is that a minimalist approach has the best chance of success.

        I agreed with three propositions that Don proposed in the column we are discussing. The point he raised about the popular election of a president certainly raises ghastly possibilities. I suggested that all interested Australian citizens have the option to nominate HoS names to be considered by a committee because expectations have already been raised about all eligible Australians being able to vote for a president.
        This is not a major innovation but it provides some input to the broader range of Australians, rather than confine it just to politicians as the barest ‘minimalist’ model would have it.

  • Jim Rose says:

    The principal argument against the republic is it results in the head of state been a president.

    In the last Republican debate in 1999, the Republican movement split between those who wanted an appointed president and an elected president.

    An elected president would quickly get ideas above his station. Because of the popular mandate. Imagine Dick Smith as president.

    It would be a good pub quiz game to list the people would be wholly unsuited as president would be likely to be elected.

    The Irish president, for example, is elected but is completely circumscribed in powers. The only power they have to exercise independently is whether to dissolve parliament after a motion of no confidence.

  • dasher says:

    I find myself in furious agreement with most of what has been said. In particular your point Don, that a popularly elected President would come with a mandate whatever the rules around his appointment. I must however, disagree with Peter who suggests a “nomination process that all Australians can contribute to, along the lines of selecting the Australian of the Year” in recent years I have seen this process deteriorate into a forum for activists who push their tiresome barrows. That said I am a Republican of the Keating mould…absolute minimalist. I do not see it as a matter of any urgency. In my view it is inevitable as a natural progression and its time will come. On this point I am closer to Malcolm Turnbull (!!) I am very wary of indigenous recognition in the Constitution as I see this as an ephemeral issue that has too much heat in it…it has already been hijacked by the zealots who want far more than simple recognition, effectively entrenching our differences rather than bringing us together. Again it will not change anything and those who say it will give our indigenous people a lift are dreaming. It will certainly give aboriginal leaders who roam the halls of power and the aboriginal industry in general a lift but it will do nothing for those in real need. This is the real disgrace of indigenous affairs. Of course you can’t mention the republic without the flag. I think our flag is wonderful but I also think its days are numbered. I can live with this but again I am most concerned about what is decided for its replacement. Some of the more popular suggestions (e.g. replace the Union Jack with the aboriginal flag- which I think is an excellent flag for its intended audience ) are aesthetic disasters and again would serve to divide rather than unite. I would be happy again with a minimalist approach that saw a rearrangement of the stars without the Union Jack….attractive, simple, strong, easily recognised with a pedigree. Oh, and finally having a guy who dresses up like a pirate and comes from the looney side of left Australian politics is crazy, at the very least Fitz….. should be balanced by someone with whom the other half of Australian can identify.

    • Peter says:

      Hi Dasher

      You wrote: I disagree with Peter who suggests a “nomination process that all Australians can contribute to, along the lines of selecting the Australian of the Year” in recent years I have seen this process deteriorate into a forum for activists who push their tiresome barrows.

      Yes, I concede this is a possibility but in lieu of no separate vote for a President/Head of State this is a reasonable alternative. Especially if you believe in democracy and the option of citizens to have a voice in decisions that affect them.

      Yes, we could get a Donald Trump; yes, we could an Australian of the Year who is being criticised because he is not strong enough on the interests of veterans; yes, we can get a sour-grapes response from GLTG groups; yes, we can get Rosie Batty subjected to criticism from Mark Latham et al.

      So what? Most political issues and legislative proposals have cranks, lobbyists, pressure groups and you-name-it-activists trying to exert a minority interest on the outcome.

      You need a group that can sift decent proposals from all citizens and then compile a list from which MPs vote. But you don’t want a thin-skinned, weak-at-the-knees group that will acquiesce to minority cranks and activists otherwise just go to North Korea where these problems are dealt with efficiently and somewhat ruthlessly.

      • dasher says:

        A perfectly reasonable position Peter, but I would go for the same approach that decides our Governor General which is essentially selection by our elected representatives…, some bipartisan arrangement would be my preference, but any change is potentially dangerous as Don has alluded to. It is by no means foolproof and one can never eliminate the politics, i.e. the left will have their favourites as will the right but over time we have not done too badly and provided the person has a limited appointment as with the GG we can always endure the occasional dud.

  • Peter WARWICK says:

    I do not see the Constitutional Monarchy we live under as being nasty, or not worthy of consideration. It has served us well, and it has not broken down. But that does not say that it should be continued because of those traits. Its a bit like having our Defence Force issued with muzzle loaders and issued with red tunics with white cross belts. Great pieces of kit that served the soldiers well (although the white cross served as a great target), but well beyond their use by date.

    The reason for my strong minimalist approach is that any tinkering with the current system of government will be fraught with unintended consequences. And hence my “yellow highlighter” (limited to references to the Crown or Monarch) approach. It simply changes the Head of State person. Everyone remains seated except the Monarch who gracefully vacates her/ his seat, and the New Oz Head of State sits in the chair. NOTHING ELSE CHANGES !

    The GG would be appointed in precisely the way it occurs now (which most see as satisfactory – there have been no riots about it).

    If the move to a Republic is made a complex proposal with huge and far reaching legal machinations, it will turn out like that, and many constitutional lawyers will have an assured significant income for decades trying to sort it out.

    In fact, with an absolute minimalist approach, the change would barely be noticed by many Australians. I would imagine many Australians waking up on the first morning of the Republic and learning that Australia having a new HOS, would go about their daily chores in the way they been doing for decades of their lives.

    And that is what I want. No revolutions, no armed soldiers roaming the streets looking for dissenters, no storming the palace gates, no insurrection in the Parliament – just a simple news item at 7 o’clock at night.

    I am a conservative radical, that is, keep the things that have worked well over time, and change those things that are not working well, and the current arrangements are not working well. Its time to change the absentee landlord, although as I have said, I have nothing but admiration for the reigning Monarch, who clearly must be the best of all the Monarchs of The Realm.

    The flag also needs minimalist modification and the minimalist approach is to remove the Union Jack (with or without some minor re-arrangement of the remaining contents). The flag has served us well, but we do not need a new design with rolling hills, rolling surf etc etc. As Dasher says – its got pedigree ! And forget putting any one ethnic group on the flag. A flag is not about singular ethnicity – it is about the unity of its bearers however diverse they may be under the one sky.

  • os says:

    When you say “I suppose I would care if the style were changed to ‘Republic’ rather than ‘Commonwealth’” I’m reminded that ‘common wealth’ means exactly the same as ‘republic’ (res publica).

    • Don Aitkin says:


      Not quite.

      Commonwealth’ comes from common ‘weal’, meaning welfare (it’s linked to ‘well’), while republic comes from ‘res publica’, which means the public thing, or affair. The first points towards the common sharing of the wealth of the country, the second to the way it is governed. My Shorter Oxford does give ‘republic’ as a meaning for ‘commonwealth’, so you have some support. But I do think the two words point to different aspects of the nature of a society, and that is why I didn’t like the term ‘Republic’ for Australia.

      As it happens, I doubt whether any proposal to change the Constitution would include such a name-change.

  • PeterE says:

    Yes, I think Don has got it right. The discussion does however reveal some fanciful notions about how we are governed.The British crown evolved over a thousand years and with it there evolved our present system of Parliamentary democracy under which the individual wearing the crown acts upon the advice of her/his Ministers, who have been elected by the people. Thus the Queen is above politics and does not get involved with them at all. The crown arrived here in 1788 and has been with us ever since. The crown is, as they say, ‘divisible,’ so our Australian crown is not quite the same as the UK crown. For us here, the Queen is Queen of Australia and her other roles do not count for us. Under our constitution, the crown is represented by the Governor General, who is appointed by the Queen on the advice of her Australian adviser, the Prime Minister (this is not in the constitution but it is the way it is done). The Governor General is not the Queen’s deputy and he does not answer to her. He is, however, expected to behave in the same punctilious and proper way that she does. If you remove the Queen, you remove that example. You also end up with the Prime Minister appointing the GG, who must therefore be beholden to him. So you have to devise a whole new way of appointment. One possibility would be to have a Head of State panel comprising all the elected Premiers and Chief Ministers. To reflect the way the present system operates, they would be obliged to agree to the Prime Minister’s nomination without demur. Should demur occur, the penalty would be that all jurisdictions go to the Polls. Only in this way would the people have the final say. This is not a patch on the current system, so it is unsatisfactory. All right, what about a two thirds of Parliament vote? You will get a huge wrangle every time and the difficulty of getting the two thirds may well lead to inordinate delays. So we are left with direct election by the people. Ireland does that but the President’s duties have been codified on half a page, so that would need to be done. The next step is the US system – enough said. As to the ‘Australian of the Year’ method, we’d end up with a shocker every time. Add to this the difficulty of getting any one of these through a referendum, I think Don is right – not in our life time. One other thing – the Aboriginal flag was first raised over the Aboriginal embassy, set up by ultra-radicals. Many may therefore find it hard to see this as the general banner for the nation.

  • dlb says:

    If it aint broke don’t fix it, probably sums up my “conservative” attitude to life.

    I look at the Republic debate and the Climate debate with this maxim.
    Having said that many things can be freshened up with a new coat of paint. I am all for Keating’s minimalist approach.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    As readers will have observed, my website has a fresh style. Coincidentally, I am sure, I am getting a large amount of spam, and the filtering system has meant that a real, intended and worthwhile comment sometimes gets mixed up in it. I have worked out how best to deal with the problem, and hope that I continue to do so successfully. My apologies to anyone who wondered why their comment seemed to be in moderation so long.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Canada seems perfectly happy not to be a republic. The French Canadians cause a fuss every now and then, but I’m not aware that there has ever been a groundswell of support for leaving the Commonwealth.

  • David says:

    In your recent post on UN, you spoke at length of the benefits of the “nation state” . Yet here you are extolling the benefits of a supra-national organisation, like the British Commonwealth. To me it seems strange that Australia being a viable nation state should feel the need to outsource the position of “chief ribbon cutter” to another national.

  • Frank Donnan says:

    On the republic I am in almost complete agreement with Don. I admire his measured and understated reasoning. His piece reminds me of the little boy who said “But the emperor has no clothes on”. I voted for the Turnbull/Keating referendum in 1998 but I have had a change of heart. I do not think a republic – even a minimalist one – will bring about any improvement in our national governance or any real improvement over what we now have. The reasons why Keating embraced republicanism perplex me. I can’t see it as benefiting his party or as a logical response to the sacking of the Whitlam government. I suspect it was just jingoistic populism on his part. It was Keating who denounced the Senate as unrepresentative swill for its obstructionism. He is kidding himself if he thinks that a president won’t also obstruct or play politics.

    I put aside any discussion about a popularly elected president which I agree is ghastly. Going down this route would inevitably put us on a trajectory towards the US model with an executive president. A massive change with enormous implications.

    Republicans argue that we are a monarchy and a colony. We are not autonomous. A foreigner – the queen – is our head of state. These arguments lack substance. They are certainly contestable. We are not a colony. We make our own political decisions. No-one in practice doubts that. We do not have to cow tow to England. Our autonomy is complete and unfettered so far as England is concerned. If republicans want to argue about our lack of autonomy, they could mention that the United Nations has much more, and – daily – growing, power over our affairs than any other foreign entity. I acknowledge that strictly the queen is our head of state. This does not seem such an important matter to me. I see her, and her successor’s, role now as being purely ceremonial. She does not have any say in our political affairs and does not, and would not dare, interfere in them. The reality is that in substance the governor-general is our head of state. We, not England, choose who our governor-general will be. In reality we are not a monarchy either. England is but we are not. In debates about our political affairs and legislation, the monarchy does not warrant a mention except in a formulaic sense. The republican push is all spin and no substance.

    The minimalist model envisages that a president be appointed by Parliament. This is a different process of appointment from what we now have. My concern is that it would elevate the position to a higher status than it now has and would politicise the position. A president appointed under such a process might see themselves as having a bigger political role than previously, irrespective of what the constitution might say or use their position to pursue a political role. Given the animosity that prevails between the various parties, election by Parliament could be problematical. It might just become a circus. Parliament might refuse to make an appointment. It might use the process to make things as difficult for a government as it can. There could be legal challenges. Removal of a president for bad behaviour would also raise the same problems.

    The present method of appointment – ie by the PM – as far better. It is flexible and efficient and caters for a wide variety of circumstances. I put little store in the argument that under the present method the governor-general is beholden to the PM. Setting out a complex and binding process for appointment will narrow options. The current method has not been controversial or seen as undemocratic. And that is no anomaly. Ordinarily the governor-general exercises no political power. If he were to exercise political power, then yes he should be democratically appointed. Remember Archbishop Illingworth. A bad appointment. He was quickly removed without any problem under the present arrangements.

    Essentially I see the House of Representatives as being the embodiment of our democracy. There is a risk in creating a special position for a super person called a “President” . You don’t know what it might grow into. Personalities don’t bother me. We have a strong upper house in the Senate. England, Canada and New Zealand don’t have anything like our upper house. A president competing with the HoR and the Senate for political influence and standing or the right to make appointments would erode the centrality of the House of Representatives and even create disfunctionality.

    I acknowledge that there is a sense of national pride and some historical resentments driving republicanism. As a descendent of Irish immigrants, I have resentments. Don mentions the treatment of the crofters after the invasion of England by Bonnie Prince Charlie. I have always been appalled by the centuries of oppression of Ireland by the English. The refusal of the Russell Government to alleviate the Irish famine in 1846-47 was tantamount to genocide and on a par with Stalin’s engineered famine to liquidate the Kulacks in the Ukraine in the 1930s. The rejection of the Irish Home Rule Bill by the Commons in 1886 was another act of mindless cruelty. But harbouring these resentments has little to do with what constitutional structures are appropriate for our country and takes us nowhere. Some historical connections with England are positive. From England we have got our language, much of the literature we delight in, our liberal political philosophy and structures and our inclusive culture. I agree with Don that in the main these have stood us well. We did not have to fight a war of independence. If you just want to jab England (or Charles) in the eye with a blunt stick, some people may be happy but it seems a small achievement to me.

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