The ALP debate “Forward the republic” went ahead at Trades Hall on 23 November, chaired most competently by the General Secretary of the NSW Labor Party, Matt Thistlethwaite, and very well organised by Kaila Murmain.
Professor Williams tossed a coin and I did what readers would expect. I called out “Heads.” It came up “Tails” and Professor Williams invited me to speak first, which I did. (We each had 15 to 20 minutes.)
I complimented the NSW Labor Party for their dedication to the principles of democracy and free speech in allowing this debate to go ahead, and inviting me.
…where Jack Lang stored the money…
I said that I was delighted to be back in the Trades Hall auditorium where I had been many years before as a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales.
I recalled that it was in this very building in which Premier Jack Lang had stored the proceeds of the government bank accounts of the state to avoid a federal law found valid by the High Court.
It was for this reason that after some warnings, the Governor Sir Philip Game had withdrawn his commission. This was the most famous exercise of the reserve powers of the Crown until 1975.
But pointing to a list on the ACM site, I said the reserve powers had been exercised often in favour of the ALP.
…Michael Kirby and the ACM Charter…
I pointed out ACM operates under a charter written by Justice Michael Kirby, as he then was , and that the Charter allows – and Justice Kirby frequently points out – that Australian is already being a republic, a “ crowned republic.” We thus enjoy the best of both worlds.
I asked why Andrew Fisher, Joe Cahill (who had been mentioned earlier) John Curtin, Ben Chifley, and Dr H V Evatt were all strong constitutional monarchists. The answer I said was in their confidence that constitutional monarchy, the corned republic, provides an exceptionally sound system of governance.
I pointed out that constitutional monarchy, the crowned republic, was the most successful form of governance the world has ever known, and the detailed evidence on that which ACM has been providing for well over a decade. Making up only 15% of the nations, the constitutional monarchies are always clustered toward the top, dominating the list of best countries on all sorts of measures.
Professor Williams, who was extremely competent and courteous, discounted this on the ground that unsuccessful constitutional monarchies became republics. Incidentally have known Professor Williams since we both appeared briefly in the High Court in a 1997 constiutional case involving the former New Zealand prime minister, David Lange. (Lange v ABC)
… a people's republic…
Professor Williams said it was time to revive the issue of a republic. He referred to the UMR poll which curiously recorded a spike in support for “a” republic. He said that Labor has a poor record with respect to referendums. Success in a referendum in his opinion requires:
1. bipartisan support
3. popular ownership
4. that it be sound sensible and safe
I said that if bipartisanship were necessary, it was not achievable It was a mistake to rely on the fact that the Coalition was led by a republican. Rank and file members of the coalition parties support the status quo. There is no bipartisanship among republicans. After 10 years they are divided among themselves.
Professor Williams rejected the view that Australia is already a republic, a crowned republic. Rather than becoming a politicians' republic, we should becomea people's republic. (This was the term also used by Senator Bob Brown in a recent hearing in the Senate when ACM contrasted our crowned republic with a politicians' republic)
During questions, Jai Martinkovits asked whether Professor Williams was saying Australia should become a republic because it was an unsuccessful country. Professor Williams of course denied this.
…head of state…
One mother asked me why her daughter who was also French sitting next to her and listening to and looking at her iPod, could not become the Australian head of state but could aspire to be the French Head of State. This question attracted a round of applause.
I pointed out that the High Court, made up of Founding Fathers had in 1907 declared unanimously that the Governor- General was constitutional head of the Commonwealth, and that more recently the Prime Minister had declared the Governor General Head of State. “So your lovely daughter may well aspire to be Head of State.”
Professor Williams said the term is not in the constitution and that he would have thought that The Queen is head of state because the Governor-General was her representative. There was of course no time to go into the intricacies of the term under international law and comparative constitutional law – there is a chapter on this in The Cane Toad Republic.
…four republican movements..
I pointed out that Australia had seen four republican movements. The first was in response to British liberal policies about immigration. Led by The Bulletin, whose masthead still declared unit the sixties “ Australia for the White Man”, this was for the establishment of an apartheid white republic. The second was for a soviet style republic, and the third was principally funded by Malcolm Turnbull. I argued that there were three myths about the 1999 referendum:
- · the convention was fixed, (there were 36 in John Howard’s gift which he mainly allocated to indigenous,youth and eminent persons 26 of whom were republicans)
- · the model was chosen by him (it was the ARM’s model and had the overwhelming support of the elected republican dlgates) and,
- · the question was fixed (the ARM wanted the words “president” and “republic” removed – ACM unsuccessfully proposed the question also refer to the extraordinary provisions for the dismissal of the president by the prime minister without reason, without notice or without appeal)
I pointed out the fourth and current movement is different from the third in that it has no model. They are demanding serious constitutional change but saying “But we haven’t the foggiest idea what change we want”
The republican search for an answer is still being subsidised by the taxpayer. Since it was proposed in 2000,
ACM has condemned the proposal for a plebiscite because it invites a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutional systems without it being replaced by their unknown preference. The Constitutional proposes the one way for change, which requires the people have the details before they vote.
Philip Gibson asked a stern question about the policy to change the Flag. Professor Williams denied there was such a policy, and said he did not argue the flag should be changed.
…personal union, succession….
I was also asked a question about the 1999 High Court case Sue v Hill. This which allowed me to explain that the link between the separate crowns was a personal union, and that the Act of Settlement was just as much an Australian , Canadian or New Zealand law as a British one. That case led to the Court finding One Nation Senator Hill, , who owed allegiance to the British Crown could not sit in the Senate. Co-incidentally one of the lawyers in that case was in the audience.
The Labor legend and former member of the Legislative Council “ Jonno” Johnston , a man of considerable grace and humour, asked the final question -why a long list of prominent Australians could not have married The Queen because they were Catholic, but she could have married Idi Amin and other undesirables. That brought the house down.
I said he could have added ACM's first Executive Director , Tony Abbott to his list. Republican politicians, I said, had never tried to change these ancient laws, but I expected Gordon Brown’s proposal to be discussed this month in Trinidad and Tobago will be approved by the Commonwealth Heads of Government.
Turning to Professor Williams I said:
“And George , that will mean George that you will have one less argument to beat the Crown with.” He laughed.
When the debate ended I drew the raffle and the charming host Mr. Thistlethwaite presented me with an ALP badge and key ring and two books, Graham Freudenberg’s history of the NSW Labor Party, “Cause for Power”, and “Thoughtlines”, by former premier, Bob Carr.
Having read his chapter on a republic, I can see Mr. Carr is not a lawyer – which many of you may think is a good thing.
He totally opposes the direct election of the president. I am sure he would vote for the status quo rather than that. Many republicans would do that in sucha referendum, and th emedia would be divided. Hence Professor Craven's prediction that sucha referendum would go down to a greater monarchist landslide than in 1999.
…Chinese immigrant's fears…
After the meeting I was told by a former diplomat that there was unanimous distaste in the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade against the Loyal Toast.
A Chinese lady, who was strongly opposed to a republic, asked why we don’t just change the Prime Minister’s title to President.