G-G's blind faith in Australia's constitution

'The Republic', by Chris Johnston

The Queen's Birthday public holiday perpetuates the confusion the British monarchy brings to Australia's national identity. It is one of two days on which Australian Honours are announced. In an evolutionary step, these honours replaced the award of imperial honours to Australians. Yet not only are they still officially awarded by the Queen, Australians awarded such honours cannot escape their identification with the British monarchy.

The Australian Republican Movement aims to replace the constitutional monarchy by a republic with an Australian Head of State. Things have gone well for the Movement in many ways during 2008. The republican Labor Party platform sets out the steps that should be taken. It is committed to an initial plebiscite as the best step towards another republic referendum.

The merits of the move have been proclaimed by our new republican prime minister on several occasions. And those merits have been strongly endorsed by the 1000 Australians gathered at the 2020 Summit. Young Australians participating in the national Schools Constitutional Convention did likewise.

In contrast to the growing public support for an Australian republic, the British monarchy has suffered another PR crisis. A young Canadian Catholic woman has had to convert to Anglicanism in order to marry a member of the British Royal Family, as the British Act of Succession prevents any Catholic from doing so. This is further evidence of the outrageous discrimination built into the monarchy.

Despite all this the republic may still take some time to come to fruition, probably a minimum of five more years, as several steps are involved. That says a lot about the innate conservatism of Australian society and politics and the forces at work.

An explicit and implicit defence of the place of the British monarchy in the Australian Constitution is being mounted by the Queen's representative in Australia, the Governor-General, Major-General Michael Jeffery.

On several occasions recently Jeffery has proclaimed a very conservative view of Australian constitutional arrangements. In his view the Australian constitution of 1901 has made Australia a stable country. Not only is there no evidence of this relationship between constitution and society (it is a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument), but his view stresses a static version of Australian history that makes the task of all reformers, not just republicans, doubly difficult.

In fact, Australia's constitutional story is one of continual, well-accepted evolution. It has had many elements. They include changes to both the style and titles of the Queen and to the role of the Governor-General, the removal of appeals to the Privy Council, the appointment of Australians to the position of Governor-General, and the passing of the Australia Act in 1986 to break many, but not all, remaining colonial ties with Britain.

The move to a republic is the next step in a story of popular constitutional development, not a break with the past in the way Jeffery portrays it. He reproduces a version of the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' argument used so effectively against republicans at the 1999 republican referendum.

The history of that referendum is also now being tampered with to make the task of republicans more difficult. That referendum in time will be seen as a step along the path towards a republic. But in a brazen and quite deceitful rewriting of history monarchists are now claiming that that one referendum decided the matter.

In fact, the nature of the 'No' campaign was to urge republicans to wait for a better model. Authoritative research has shown that many republicans did exactly that. Indeed a majority of 'No' voters claimed to be republicans. The lesson was not that Australians were not republicans but that republicans were outwitted.

The move to a republic will take place in small and large steps. Realistically, the earliest that a plebiscite can be held is alongside the 2010 federal election. But it is possible that by the end of this year the Rudd Government will announce the public consultation process that is its necessary forerunner.

Australian Republican Movement
The Monarchist League of Australia

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: john warhurst, australian republican movement, queen's birthday, governor-general, Michael Jeffery



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Existing comments

I feel it is a shame that Eureka Street should align itself with a partisan, 'achristian' rhetoric such as the republican movement. There are many Australians, like myself, who, precisely because we are deeply democratic, internationalist, committed to human rights and see a spiritual depth to life support our monarchy as a defence against the kind of shallow, nationalist hubris that would compromise a deeper sense of humanity, culture and Spirit.
There is much about our society that can be changed for the better: constitutional recognition of the Aboriginals might be one. Why does this issue not generate the energy that this republic idea does? Perhaps, because we are motivated more by finding ways to impress ourselves than by the harder work of making Australia a more just society.

Eric Best | 06 June 2008  

Having stated emphatically less than nine years ago that - for whatever reason - they preferred the present constitutional arrangements, Australians will be sent back time and time again to vote until they "get it right". The only democracy we live in is a guided democracy on the Soekarno model. The plebiscite proposal is a manipulative move which overlooks the fact that Australia is a federation, not a unitary state. The appeal to nationalist sentiment by republicans sounds so very nineteenth-century in this age of the global village and ever-closer transnational integration. Our monarchy is not "British" but Australian. We merely share it with the United Kingdom. The fact that the monarch resides in London is irrelevant. Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and so on, derived from British constitutional history, have made Australia the envy of the world. We have flourished under our current constitution of which the monarchy is the capping stone. Take that out and the whole document will have to be re-written which is what republicans secretly want. The consequences of this takes the nation into completely unknown territory.

Sylvester | 06 June 2008  

Would the republicans accept another referendum that favours the Australian Monarchy? Or lets put it the other way round: How many chances would Monarchists get should a referendum be won by republicans? Would there be a re-run in ten years time to give the people back the Monarchy should? opinion polls show a massive demand for a Monarchy?

Mark | 06 June 2008  

Congratulations,John Warhurst. I must say something in order not to leave the field to such simplistic monarchist argument.

What extra-ordinary arguments from a) Eric Best, that the Republican ethos is 'achristian' and that the monarchy defends our 'humanity, culture and spirit' which else would wilt and pine; and b) from Sylvester, that the things which 'have made us the envy of the world, like parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, etc must be fatally compromised under a republic. (I'm not quite convinced either that the poms would see us as 'sharing' the monarch at present, or that they would like his idea about the monarch's residing in London being irrelevant).

The need to assert our independence, while acknowledging all we've got from our descent, is not in any way 'nineteenth century' (I feel Sylvester's attitudes to be just that) burns deeply in my twentyfirst century guts!. As soon as possible!!!

Joe Castley | 06 June 2008  

Can we realistically expect moral and visionary leadership from politicians? Surely the best we can expect from them is political leadership? There is a sorry lack of visionary leadership in this country (i believe), simply because our current G-G is not (seen to be) the intuitive/spiritual leader that someone outside the party political process could be (assuming that he is currently outside). If we are to remain a Constitutional Monarchy I want to see a G-G who will stand up and be the kind of cultural barometer who will challenge and encourage us. This would seem to be improbable, however, while the Queen rubber stamps the politician's choice. Perhaps the time could come when
king Charles rejects the politicians choice and says "let the Australian people decide"? One hopes things will change before this doesn't happen.

Andrew | 07 June 2008  

I cannot believe this debate is still dragging on. Do we want our Head of State to be appointed on the basis of accident of birth into what is arguably Europe's most spectacularly dysfunctional family, or do we want someone chosen by ourselves, or at least by our elected representatives?

Peter Downie | 07 June 2008  

Monarchists engaging in "brazen and deceitful re-writing of history?" Not so, Professor. It is republicans who play those games.
It is republicans who falsely assert that John Howard manipulated the referendum question to guarantee that it would fail. This was the model that republicans spent six years and $130 million of taxpayers money to develop. If they didn't like this model so much, why did they campaign so vigourously for it in November 1999?
Republicans also tell us that Australia needs to become independent from the United Kingdom. We did that some time between 1931 and 1986, between the passage of the 'Statute of Westminster' and the 'Australia Acts'.
Republicans tell us that we need our own head of state. We have one, as diplomatic protocol shows, in the Governor-General. Except in exceptional cases, the Queen has to ask the Governor-General's permission to exercise any of her prerogatives in this realm. She's just there as a safety-valve in case the PM and the G-G get unconstitutional.
Republicans tell us that our monarchy prevents anyone from aspiring to the highest office in the land. Well, if I was aspiring to the highest office in the land I'd be going after Kevin Rudd's job. The beauty of the monarchical and gubernatorial in of our system is that they quietly keep in the background, keeping politicians in check and keeping supreme power out of the hands that those that most want it. A political presidency, whether directly-elected or through a majority vote in parliament would guarantee a great deal more tension at the upper echelons of power and, potentially, destabilize our parliamentary democracy. There is no way that either method of presidential selection would churn up the same exceptional vice-regal talent that we have, heretofore, enjoyed.
Republicans tell us that our monarchy is an affront to democracy. Go and ask a Canadian if they feel less democratic because they share a Sovereign with us. In fact, in Canada they'll tell you that, in comparison to their southern neighbour, their system is far superior. Of course, seeing as a referendum in Australia is essentially an election of constitutional policy, it must really annoy republicans to know that Australians have elected to remain a monarchy twice in a hundred years. As far as I'm concerned that makes our monarchy as democratic as it can get. S128 of the Constitution makes the Australian people sovereign; the constitution is in our hands.
Of course, the truth is that most "republicans", simply want to get rid of the Queen, with any model, at any cost. This is a very limited republican ideal, far removed from the rich republican history of western political theory. There is no doubt that Australia's excellent constitutional arrangements would be considered republican by most ancient and enlightenment political theorists. We are, as Justice Kirby so eloquently puts it, a "Crowned Republic".
Naturally Professor Warhorse brings up the Act of Settlement and the clause precluding a Catholic from becoming sovereign or royal consort. This magazine is, after all, a Catholic one and this discrimination has rankled Catholics for many years. The simple solution is to repeal that clause. Now this can be done, according to the 'Statute of Westminster’, with the approval of all sixteen Commonwealth realms. I have no doubt that if there was a serious campaign to do it, it would happen. Alternatively, Australia could decide to repeal that clause on its own and, maybe, split the union.
Now, of course, one referendum never decides the matter. I, like most monarchists, welcome another referendum if that is the earnest desire of the Australian people. In 1999, the damned thing was pushed on us by an axis of politicians, the media and chattering academics. It was the last hurrah of the baby-boomers who remember the dying gasps of colonial-cringe.
I’m twenty six and most of my generation and younger have no interest in the strange fixations of those who went through university in the seventies. We love Australia and we’re sick of being told out country is immature or on its last legs. We are the generation keeping Anzac Day alive, we are reconciling the shame in our nation’s history with its pride, we are flying the flag, we are taking Australia to the world and bringing the world back home and we are fearlessly living the dream for which our ancestors so bravely fought and died. You’ll find few rabid republicans in my generation. We simply love Australia the way it is and, for us, no foreign republic will make this nation better.

Angus Harker-Smith | 07 June 2008  

By my reading, Professor Warhurst’s piece is unremarkable in the sense that what he writes is in no way outrageously incorrect. The submitted comments of Sylvester, and Mark, however, purport to display the endearing simplicity of spirit that ensures that Howard’s battlers will never feel as though they are being wedged.
While the Australian States may continue to be vice-regencies with their various Governors, until they dissolve into irrelevancy, the Australian nation can proceed into its glorious future with an arbitrary foreign monarch as Head of State, or an unelected Eminent Australian as President (I nominate Prof Flint, author of “Triumph of the Elites”), or an elected politician as President.
In the latter case, Australia will (once more) follow the USA, this time along the trajectory described by H.L. Mencken. "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
Now, each of the above choices involves the elevation of one citizen above all others, a distasteful situation to all who do not enjoy the taste of boot leather. I therefore ask the question: does Australia require a Head of State at all?
Australia has a perfectly workable Constitution, and a perfectly workable Parliamentary democracy; workable in the sense that, if we don’t like them, we can work on them.
The Constitution sets out the discretionary powers of the G-G. How about the Constitution is worked on so that the discretionary nature of those powers are removed, and all G-G actions are compelled?
At that point, the G-G will be as useful as the hip pockets in my singlets, and we can pay him/her out with a redundancy.
A State of Headlessness* is about as radically republican as a nation could be, and Australia can proceed ever more confidently into its glorious future by doing away with Presidents and Kings and all their acoutrements.
And yet, it is a sad historic reflection that, notwithstanding the invention of the guillotine, France still allowed all sovereign power to be concentrated in the grasp of one megalomaniac. Perhaps they weren’t sufficiently assiduous in working on their Constitution?)

David Arthur | 07 June 2008  

Australian republicanism has historically been associated closely with xenophobia and racism. The now-defunct "Bulletin" tradition is a good example of this. Present-day republicans continue in this inward-looking, self-focused, old-fashioned hyper-nationalist point of view which is rapidly being discarded in the rest of the world. The trend now is towards integration and union not division and separation.

As to the Act of Succession, for as long as the monarch of the United Kingdom is the head of the Church of England, clearly, he or she cannot be a Catholic nor married to one, since Catholic canon law requires a Catholic spouse to do all he or she can to have any children raised as Catholics. This would change if ever the State Church were to be disestablished but in the meantime it is an act of history and simply not an issue for today. As a Catholic, I don't spend sleepless nights fretting about the Act of Succession nor do I know of any of my co-religionists who do.

The royal family is dysfuncional? Well, how representative can you get of modern Australian family life? As far as the Australian constitution is concerned, it doesn't matter a toss who the monarch is or how he or she got to be in that position or what personal problems the family might have. For Australia, the only thing that is relevant is the institution itself of the crown. It serves Australia well as a constitutional concept. In this country we have the best of both worlds: the great advantage of being a constitutional monarchy with none of the hooplah about the royals themselves that the British press is so dedicated to stirring up. And we don't have to pay for the upkeep of the royal establishment!

Sylvester | 10 June 2008  

Is Eureka Street a catholic Jesuit publication or a front for the republican movement? Thanks to Eric Best, Sylvester and Angus Harker-Smith, they expressed my views better than I could.

Ron Cini | 16 June 2008  

Those that say the Constitution is working might look to the NT aboriginal intervention.

In a month or two there will be a high court challenge to the powers of the High Court and the Judiciary itself.

Read it here and see if the Australian Constitution is working.

chaz | 22 June 2008  

An interesting article. The comments, however, above fail to note one thing: the Queen has no role other than appointing the GG (s61 clearly forbids her excerising constitutional powers). And although the Queen might not cost much, as note person put it, the Governor-General does cost us $12 million a year. So, update the constitution with the political and social reality - we are a Republic in all but theory and make it cost effective.

So, the question is which type of Republic. Simple: a rotating, collective Head of State (used in Switzerland and San Marino, both of which are 150 and 1700 years older than our democracy - now that is what I call the envy of the world). Allow each State and territory (who has a territory administrator) to choose its "Governor" and rotate them annually. Together they all form our collective Head of State - the Presidency of Australia.

Steven Spadijer | 09 March 2009  

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