August 6

Beware the politicians’ republic


The dangers of a politicians’ republic are demonstrated by recent events in The Lebanon, where the term of the pro-Syrian President, Emile Lahoud, will end this year. In this sort of republic the President can too easily become a politician in his own right, instead of being above politics – as the Australian Crown so demonstrably is.
The model the republican movement brought to the 1998 Constitutional Convention had precisely this potential. When this was pointed out, first by ACM and then by former Victorian Governor, Richard McGarvie, the republican movement went to the other extreme. They redesigned their republican model. When unveiled, it was revealed to be unique in the world. It was the only known republic in which, as we famously said, it would have been easier for the Prime Minister to sack the President than his cook. (At a breakfast debate in Sydney at the American Club during the 1999 campaign,  Peter Reith graciously attributed that observation to me, but the credit should go to that very wise man, former Senator, Reg Withers).As everyone knows, the model the republicans designed was put to the people in 1999.  It was rejected in a landslide. I have been “corrected” by republicans who tell me the vote was close. If a similar two party preferred vote, around 55:45, were to apply in the coming federal election, and 72% of seats were to be won by one side , that would be a landslide. There have only been two elections since the Second World War where an opposition has done as badly as the republicans did in the 1999 referendum. That was in 1975 and 1977 where the two party preferred votes were 44.3%:55.7% and 45.4%:54.6%. As a result of the 1975 election, the Opposition held 36 seats in a House of 127. In 1977, the Opposition did slightly better-38 seats out of 124 . In either case it was a landslide. But instead of  accepting the peoples decision in 1999, a myth has been  concocted to the effect that  John Howard manipulated the question, which is completely untrue. The question was settled by a parliamentary committee most of whose members were republican. I know, I appeared before it. That day, there was not a constitutional monarchist in sight.

According to Nadi Bokri writing in The New York Times on 5 August 2007, a poll in The Lebanon to fill two parliamentary seats left vacant by assassinations is being seen as a bellwether of this country’s political direction.

 It tests the political strength of the governing March 14 Movement, which is trying to end Syria’s and Iran’s involvement in Lebanon’s affairs, and ensure that the next president is not allied to Hezbollah and pro-Syrian. The assassinated government MP’s were outspoken opponents of Syria. The most heated contest was in a predominantly Maronite Christian region. There, Akin Gemayel, a former president, campaigned to replace his assassinated son against a candidate backed by Opposition leader General Aoun. General Aoun is in alliance with Hezbollah, and is pro Syrian and sympathetic to the Iranian government. He is expected to be the opposition pro-Syrian candidate in the presidential election later this year. To complicate matters, the pro-Syrian President Lahoud tried to block the election, and regards the government as illegitimate.  The Speaker, Nabih Berri, who is also pro-Syrian  says he will not recognize the results of the elections. The pro- Syrian opposition claims to have won the seat, but the governing party alleges that the election was fraudulent.Meanwhile the next Governor of South Australia, Rear Admiral Scarce, who is a republican says he favours a"pragmatic minimalist" model eschewing direct election of the president. When asked by Jamie Walker of The Australian ( 6 August,2007) how he could represent The Queen as a republican  he said "Yeah, I suppose some people might think it's unusual.But to me it's a continuation of what I did in the defence forces. I served and swore allegiance to the Queen for 35 years, and I don't see any difference being the Queen's representative under our constitution." He said he was “hardly” the first vice-regal appointee to favour constitutional change. "I think you might find that Bill Hayden was one," he observed.  But Sir David Smith, in his authoritative book, Head of State, ( reviewed here, 12 April, 2006) says that the allegation that Bill Hayden was a republican was never proven.
The Rear Admiral however may take comfort in the fact that Mr. Richard Butler, the former Governor of Tasmania was very much a republican.  


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