It seems so simple. Just turn the Governor-General or the constitutional monarch into a President and, voila, there’s your republic. Yes it is a republic, but it certainly won’t work in the way a constitutional monarchy does, even if republicans claim it will. While our system provides leadership beyond politics, presidents are too often either under the control of the politicians or are themselves actively engaged in politics.
Now to those who will tell me that Australia has had politicians as Governor-General, I say no, we haven’t. We have had ex-politicians, which is an entirely different matter. They have been appointed not by the politicians, but by The Queen acting, it is true , on the advice of the Prime Minister. But the difference is this. They then owe their loyalty – and they swear to this – to the Sovereign as Queen of Australia, or Canada, New Zealand or any one of the sixteen Realms, and not to the Prime Minister who just happened to recommend their appointment. The Hon. Gough Whitlam learned this in 1975 when his choice as Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, removed his commission as Her Majesty’s Australian Prime Minister because he persisted in acting unconstitutionally. Mr Whitlam was well aware that his attempt to govern without supply was unconstitutional. As Sir David Smith demonstrates in his book, Head of State, Mr. Whitlam’s party when in opposition had on 170 occasions attempted to bring down a government by asking the Senate to deny supply. To say this is not to suggest approval for the denial of supply to the Whitlam government – that is a political issue. But once denied, a government has no alternative but to go to the people.
Let me repeat the distinguishing feature of our constitutional system. The constitutional Head of State, as the High Court unanimously defined the office of Governor-General, represents and owes allegiance to the Crown, and not to a political party or faction. (For the High Court decision, refer to this column 12 July 2007) And this is precisely what has happened in Australia. Take for example Sir William McKell,[pictured] who was former NSW Labor Premier. His nomination was strongly criticised, but the Leader of the Oppositon , Sir Robert Menzies, would not allow this to continue beyond his appointment . Sir William's loyalty to the Crown, and therefore to the Constitution and the people, was never in doubt.
By way of contrast, take a look at the election by India’s politicians of a new President on Sunday, 22 July 2007.
Although camouflaged as a success for feminism, on all accounts the new President was chosen not for her sex but for her abiding loyalty to the Congress Party and more particularly, to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. And remember how that worked to Mrs Indira Gandhi’s advantage when she installed her dictatorship by leaning on the President to declare, without justification, a state of emergency in 1975.
The French, an inventive and highly cultured people, for long tried to make a Westminster republic based on the British system work. Every attempt failed, and none worked smoothly. This is true not only of the disastrous First Republic, 1792-1804, but also of both the Third Republic, 1870-1940, which handed over the state to the fascists and the Fourth Republic, 1946-1958, which handed over power to General Charles de Gaulle. The Fifth Republic is a mixed model where a powerful president, an elected monarch but certainly not a constitutional one, may have to “cohabit” with an opposition prime minister where the presidential party does not control the parliament. It is an unwieldy arrangement, and it won’t last. When the National Front leader Jean- Marie M. Le Pen emerged from the first round of the French presidential elections in 2002 as the principal contender for the presidency against Jacques Chirac, there were many calls for the dissolution of the Fifth Republic and the creation of a Sixth Republic. Following on calls for a new republic from the Socialist and centrist candidates in the 2007 presidential election, the leading French newspaper, Le Figaro, on 18 March 2007, invited its readers to design a new Sixth Republic. Now that President Sarkozy has won a clear majority in the parliamentary elections, the move for a Sixth republic has been put off for another day.In the meantime, the current Turkish situation this year demonstrates yet another hitherto unseen flaw in those republics where the politicians elect the president. This arises when politicians are prepared to use extra legal tactics determined to upset the election of a candidate they don’t like. (Surely no one will seriously say that Australian politicians are different.) The manoeuvring by the Turkish politicians has brought on months of instability, several enormous demonstrations and even a very serious warning by the military that they might intervene. An early parliamentary election has been called for Sunday 22 July, 2007, which may or may not be the solution.
The lessons from all this are two. Anyone – well, almost anyone – can design a constitution. Only a very small number work over time. And anyone can destroy one of those rare treasures in this world- a constitution which works in the good years and the difficult years, including those times when selfish, opportunistic politicians are prepared to bring the country to the brink.