Michael Copeman’s recent article on an Australian republic deserves a response. I confess I am a ‘republican’, although I dislike the term intensely. What I want is for an Australian citizen to be our Head of State and that is all. My opinion is purely subjective and personal, but no less valid for that. It is simply that I find the idea of an elected Head of State to be anachronistic and that ours should be a citizen of a foreign country is bizarre.
I accept that many people find the presence of the British monarch at the top of our political tree to be an adornment to our system of governance. That is also a valid viewpoint. If one restricts the discussion to this question alone, then I would maintain that there is no right or wrong answer and the views of each side should be equally respected by the other. The debate need not, indeed should not, become acrimonious.
As I said earlier I dislike the term ‘republican’ because it is much too broad. There are those who believe an Australian republic should go further than this, although I believe they would be in a vast minority. I believe that when most politicians talk about the Australian republic they are not advocating a change, for example, to a US-style executive-president system, as Michael Copeman suggests. And if they are, as Daryl Kerrigan would say, ‘tell them they’re dreaming’. There is no way that constitutional change of that magnitude could succeed in current or foreseeable circumstances. Many would, however, be envisioning a model with a directly elected non-executive president.
The Australian Republican Movement, of which I was once a member, has done itself a disservice by allowing this confusion to continue. It should make quite clear that its only object is to secure an Australian Head of State, and it should narrow the models it canvasses to variations on the theme of a president appointed by Parliament – effectively a version of the ‘minimalist’ model proposed at the 1999 referendum.
Central to any ‘minimalist’ position is the proviso that the reserve powers currently exercised by the Governor-General should not be altered in any way. In this sense, the system ‘ain’t broke’, as evidenced, and rightly noted by Copeman, in referencing the way in which the 1975 Supply crisis was resolved by Sir John Kerr. (As an aside, I think it was Sir David Smith who pointed out that this was not a ‘constitutional crisis’ as it is so often depicted, because the Constitution worked in the way it was intended, to solve a ‘political crisis’. The fact that some did not like the result is neither here nor there.)
But such powers in the hands of an elected president would be an invitation to political activism and I, for one, could never vote for such a model. Incidentally, Copeman’s suggestion that millions of people desperate to escape the tyrannies of their native countries because they are drawn to the stability of the constitutional monarchies of the West, is somewhat specious. Might the constitutional monarchies and the republics of the West be equally attractive to people who find their own monarchies and republics corrupt? Would it be ‘racist’ of me to suggest that European democracies, of whatever persuasion, seem to be more stable, less tyrannical and much less corrupt than those of the Third World?
A vote for an appointed Australian president, with appropriate safeguard mechanisms, would not be a major democracy threatening move.
Peter O’Brien is retired Army officer with academic credentials in science and data processing. He addresses the republic issue in his novel ‘A Climate for Change’. It’s also available as an ebook from Amazon