October 10

Former Governor-General’s high road to republicanism

In her review in The Age on 15 July, 2006 of Sir Zelman Cowan’s memoirs, ‘A Public Life”,  Michelle Grattan recounts how he has “ walked the high road en route to becoming a republican.” 

In the headline story of the book, she write, Sir Zelman documents his journey from being at least a sceptic about a republic to a supporter of an elected president. In the late 1980s, he wrote: "I concluded (in a lecture) that my own experience as Governor-General, which had taken me to many places in Australia, did not suggest to me that a change to a republic was seen as necessary to express our national identity." ( Sir Zelman had also concluded at this time that the Governor-General was the Australian Head of State)


The transition to activist republican was smoothed, Ms Grattan observes , by the fact that his earlier concerns about a republic were not that it was “a bad idea” but that it was not symbolically important or a high priority.However, in the 1990s he decided a change was important and then in the 1999 referendum he campaigned with Sir Anthony Mason and Sir Gerard Brennan for the model the No campaign condemned as the “politicans’ republic.”


The three knights surprised observers not so much for  certifying this model as safe, but more for the way they entered the debate. This was by way of a  letter to The Australian, which became a front page story. (A contrary response by other eminent lawyers did not receive equal treatment. This was then followed by a letter by ten academic lawyers all certifying that the model was safe.) At this time Sir Zelman  strongly warned of the dangers of a popularly elected president.


While he still holds "serious reservations" about popular election, he says:  "I now, however, think that an Australian head of state is so desirable that, if popular election is the only way of achieving this outcome, I would reluctantly support it. Australia’s sense of national identity has evolved to the point where the position of the British monarch as Queen of Australia is incompatible with our independent status".( A number of leading republicans, including Mr. Turnbull and Professor Craven think this model would suffer a greater defeat than in 1999.)


As Ms. Grattan observed, Sir Zelman’s reason for endorsing this model constitutes a “strong statement for one who had been the Queen’s man.” And also, a most surprising one.




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