The Australian Republican Movement, curiously, sees some advantage for their cause in Brexit. Nobody else seemed to have noticed this, even our strongly republican Prime Minister. Writing in his Sun-Herald column, ARM Chair Peter FitzSimons says that, unlike Britain, we Australians “seem to be lacking confidence to go it alone.” He says we are still ”pathetically” clinging to ”Mother Britain’s skirts,” even as ”Mother Britain races to the exits.”
He says it’s time to end this farce; we need our own head of state. But even Malcolm Turnbull now concedes that the Governor-General is our head of state. Explaining why he was not present when the remains of our soldiers killed in Vietnam were recently returned to Australia, he pointed out that the Australian head of state, the Governor-General, was there.
There have been some misunderstandings about the term, “head of state”. It is not contained in the Constitution nor any relevant constitutional documents. This is because it is essentially a diplomatic term. As such its meaning is governed by international law and practice, not constitutional law. There can be no doubt that under customary international law the Governor-General is indeed head of state.
FitzSimons also suggests we are under British control. In fact, all residual constitutional links with the United Kingdom were terminated in 1986 under the Australia Act. This was passed by all of our parliaments and the British Parliament. Royal Assent was given by the Queen, as Queen of the United Kingdom and, separately, as Queen of Australia. So how could we be under any British control?. In fact, we have been independent for a very long period of time. Our independence was formerly acknowledged by the British in 1926, although we were factually independent before then.
Fitz Simons then goes on to claim that the reason we need a head of state “who is one of us” (which we clearly have in the Governor-General) is that he or she will have to ‘steer the course in maintaining good relations with the European Union’. But that is not the role and function of the head of state. That is for the government of the day, headed by the Prime Minister. Under our Australian Westminster system, our head of state never takes an active part in policy matters relating to foreign affairs, including international trade.
Actually, Brexit will advantage and strengthen the constitutional monarchy in at least two ways.
First, although it had absolutely nothing to do with the Australian Constitution or the Australian Crown, Australians and especially war veterans are understandably irritated at Heathrow where they are required to queue for entry while citizens of other former enemies pass through through unhindered as EU citizens. Various attempts have been made to have a separate entry for citizens of the realms — those countries which have the Queen as their sovereign, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. None of these have succeeded, and there is no doubt that there is some irritation at the situation. It is clear this irritant will go with the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.
The other reason for there to be an advantage in Brexit for the constitutional monarchist argument is that by withdrawing from the European Union, the UK will inexorably return to closer links with the realms and other members of the Commonwealth. This is consistent with the feeling among British people, a sentiment which was effectively overruled when the politicians propelled Britain into the European Union without explaining that it was more than just a free-trade grouping and also would involve the transfer of sovereignty to what, in due course, would become a federation.
The Brexit decision is very clear. Although technically not binding on the British Parliament, it is inconceivable that the United Kingdom will not now formally withdraw. This will be triggered by a notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, with two years to complete the withdrawal (unless this is extended). It may well be that legal reasons may see some delay in the actual delivery of the notice, although United Kingdom is being pressed by the foundation members of the European Union to give such notice.
The position is very clear. Brexit is of no advantage whatsoever to the republican argument. Whether or not the government which is formed following the coming election takes action on the question is not clear. Only the Labor Party is committed to taking action to remove the Crown from the constitutional position which has existed since the settlement. The policy is to turn Australia into some unknown form of republic. Under a decision at the 2015 ALP National Conference this will involve a referendum preceded by two plebiscites and the election of a convention. While the Liberal Party is not committed to removing the Australian Crown and to a republic, the present Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was chair of the Australian Republican Movement and has a the Yes campaign in 1999 . He has argued that change to a republic this could best be advanced at the end of the present reign.
The politicians of course are aware that support for even a vague republic is now in the 30 percentile range and that once a specific model is identified, the significant portion of the Republicans indicates a preference for the status quo. And unlike the situation in the 90s, the young are now challenging the elderly as supporters of the constitutional monarchy or crowned republic.
Given these facts, is unlikely that the politicians will try to advance the cause of removing the Australian Crown from our constitutional system.
David Flint is National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy