The Conservative Case for a Republic

top hat rooMichael 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






7 thoughts on “The Conservative Case for a Republic

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    It was obvious at the time of the referendum on the subject that the minimalist model was rejected because the “man/woman on the street”, not being particularly astute, did not like the idea that politicians would appoint the president. Directly electing the president appealed to their “democratic” sensibilities, not appreciating the devil in the detail. Should the idea be put to another referendum, the same dilemma would surely apply. Only the “directly elected” model would have any chance of succeeding and heaven protect us from that.

    As to having an Australian head of state, we have one already and having had them for decades. It was sir John Kerr who dismissed the Whitlam rabble, not the Queen. So, yes, it ain’t broken. Fiddling with it for impractical, sentimental reasons is a waste of time and effort.

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    There are several problems with the various options canvassed to date. The first and perhaps the most intransigent is the apparent majority view that insists that a President be popularly elected. As the only Republic with which most Australians are familiar is the United States, most probably envisage a presidency along American lines with a starry-eyed Hollywoodesque concept, perhaps along the lines of Kennedy’s’ Camelot. The reality is that at least 50% of the population of the U.S. at any given time actually detests the incumbent President, and the same will inevitably be the case in Australia because any candidate will have to be a politician to be elected. Our present system of appointing Governors-General avoids this problem provided our Prime Ministers continue to appoint political eunuchs who know how to behave themselves – something else that militates against appointing politicians.
    Another problem is that a popularly elected President is likely to interpret successful election as a mandate, and many voters, if not most, may well believe that “their” President should exercise that mandate. In my view, such a situation will be the beginning of the end of our present enviable system. Finally, there is the problem of defining “Australian” for the purposes of the “head of state”. David Smith in his book made a compelling case that the G-G is our Head of State and if he’s right where is the problem. The problem really is simply a case of xenophobic dislike of the British.
    Bottom line: the advantages of our current system far outweigh the disadvantages, and the risks (Cheney’s “unknown unknowns”, if you will) of destroying a very good system are not worth taking. Leave well enough alone.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      If the G-G is our Head of state, what is the Queen?

      • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

        Read David Smith’s book “Head of State: the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal. Macleay Press, Sydney, 2005. (ISBN 1-876492-15-5)

        A whole chapter of that book, Chapter 3, discusses the question of who is Australia’s head of state in considerable detail. Briefly stated the Queen is our monarch and the G-G is our head of state. Our constitution makes no reference to a head of state and “(T)he term was not used or discussed during the constitutional debates in Australia in the 1890s which resulted in the drafting of the Constitution by Australians and it’s subsequent approval by the Australian people. Hence the term ‘head of state’ does not appear in the Australian Constitution, though it does, for example, appear in the Canadian and New Zealand Constitutions.”

        In 1947 King George VI by Letters Patent “…transferr(ed) all the duties of head of state from the monarch to the Governor-General…”. In the case of New Zealand, “In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II signed letters patent relating to the office of Governor-General of New Zealand and conferring on the Governor-General all the powers of the sovereign. No change was made concerning the powers of the Governor-General was ever made to our Constitution. As Smith further notes in Chapter 3 (page 87), “The Canadian and New Zealand Governors-General received their powers from the Crown; Australian Governors-General received their powers from Australian people via the Australian Constitution”.

        There is plenty more, and I doubt there are any more credible authorities than Sir David Smith on the subject, notwithstanding that the usual ALP suspects continue to hate his guts for his alleged role in the Dismissal.

        • Peter OBrien says:

          Fine, have it your way. In that case my proposition is simply to remove the monarch from our constitutional arrangements. Given your reasoning above it is even harder to sustain the argument that this would pose any constitutional or political risk at all.

          • Avalon says:

            A real minimalist, which republicans rarely are, would accept a situation where a couple of abdications resulted in a monarch of Australia, alone. That monarch could live here, raise a family here and so on. That’s not acceptable to “minimalists.

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