[THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN 15 January 2020]
The Australian Republic Movement’s latest republican model, the third in as many decades, is even more confusing and contradictory than the others. This includes the one defeated nationally, in every state and 72 per cent of electorates, by a campaign run on the smell of an oily rag against most politicians, the media and the vast wealth of the ARM.
The ARM offers only one reason for removing the one part of our constitutional system that works and works well, and is economical. This is the untruth that only under a politicians’ republic can we have an Australian as head of state.
As long ago as 1907, a unanimous High Court of founders declared the governor-general is the “constitutional head of state”.
And reflecting a 1926 Imperial Conference decision, whenever officially overseas, every government, Coalition or Labor, holds out to the world that the governor-general is head of state.
Just as a camel is supposedly a horse designed by committee, so this quintessentially politicians’ republic is, frankly, unworkable.
While stripping the head of state of the crucial Westminster roles of constitutional guardian and of providing leadership beyond politics, it taints any president with preference deals, slick campaigning and a massive mandate for the winner. The election itself would be more appropriate to a guided democracy where the same cabal of powerbrokers that have captured our two-party system will determine the 11 candidates, with the smaller states, more often than not, subsequently outvoted.
In addition, the complication and confusion about dual citizenship is inexplicably added to the process. Woe betide any candidate of foreign, even New Zealand, parentage.
And if that is not enough, the ARM has given effect to its lately acquired obsession of revenging the lawful dismissal of Gough Whitlam and Jack Lang. The governor-general’s crucial role of ensuring supply before an election is granted, last required of the Turnbull government by Sir Peter Cosgrove, is out the window.
To top that off, the model elevates the prime minister from being no more than first among equals to being something no Westminster PM should ever be, the constitutionally endowed head of government. This reverses the overwhelming decision at the 1891 Constitutional Convention against empowering an individual as an American-style executive. Nor is it explained how this can be resolved with the existing – to be unamended – provision that the executive power of the commonwealth, vested in the Crown, remains exercisable by the head of state.
To persuade conservative republicans to support an elected presidency, the draft purports to move real power even more to the politicians but takes away the present sanction for misbehaviour.
This is that the incumbent holds office at the pleasure of the Queen of Australia.
It is inevitable the elected president will at some stage be unable to resist playing the politician.
The only sanction is for both houses to resolve to remove him on the ground of undefined “proved misbehaviour or incapacity”.
The High Court will obviously require there be a fair and therefore long process, but if the Senate agrees with the president, which is more than likely, a president playing politics will be unstoppable.
We can then say farewell to stable government.
Then there’s the provision that in certain circumstances the “senior governor” is to take over. Having to change their constitutions too, some states might opt to elect a US-style executive governor. So we could wake up one morning with a Daniel Andrews acting as president.
There is little interest in the nation in changing our crowned republic into a costly politicians’ republic. The fact is that when Australians say no in a federal referendum, they mean no – even when asked five times.
Polling indicates a constantly declining interest in a republic.
Last Australia Day, Ipsos found only 34 per cent think Australia should become a republic. But when shown a model – any model – a significant proportion invariably revert to our crowned republic.
There’s a time bomb there for the ARM. Of those aged 18-26, only 26 per cent think Australia should become a republic. If you can’t persuade the young on such an issue, you might as well give up.
Former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson has said that if the republic is not dead it is comatose. For the sake of the nation, will no one put it out of its misery?
[David Flint, an emeritus professor of law, has been national convener of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy since 1998]