When she declared to the nation that the Rudd government had “lost its way” and its leader had to be deposed, Ms. Gillard was surely not referring to its substantive decisions or even the way they were delivered, however incompetent and however profligate.
After all she was a party to each and every one of them. She must have been referring to his authoritarian style. So if the Gillard government were expected to do anything, it was to stop treating the Parliament and the nation with contempt and to observe the proper constitutional processes.
It was expected to table proposals, to allow debate, to consult with those most interested, to allow discussion in the electorate, to involve the media and to allow the Australian people to be involved in the formulation of policy.
Almost everyone now agrees that the process adopted by the Rudd government was undemocratic and dismissive of our parliamentary democracy, and this process had led to a series of botched decisions culminating in the impossible super profits tax.
How surprising then that in the middle of the East Timor debacle the Gillard government surreptitiously furthered its agenda for fundamental constitutional change. The East Timor announcement itself indicated that little had changed. It was unfortunately yet another example of ill thought out policy suddenly announced without the opportunity of Parliament debating it and the potential for wiser minds there and in the country to give advice and counsel caution.
The surreptitious measure adopted was to advance the agenda to remove one of the fundamental pillars of our nation, described in the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act as an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown and under the Constitution.
The Crown, fully Australianised and according to the High Court separate from the British, New Zealand, Canadian and other Crowns, is our oldest institution. It is central to our system, straddling the Federal-State divide, and providing leadership above politics. This is not only as a constitutional guardian, but also as leader, through allegiance and example, to the other institutions which are also beyond politics, including the armed forces, the public service and the courts.
The Crown remains an obstacle to the agenda of the elites to march through all of the institutions, and to politicise them. The 1999 proposal for a politicians’ republic demonstrated precisely that, some of its supporters even openly admitting its flaws.But the 1999 proposal was the best model the republicans could devise. It had the overwhelming support of the republican delegates at the Constitutional Convention. It was supported by two thirds of the sitting politicians and most of the mainline media. But it was overwhelmingly rejected by the rank and file, nationally, in every state and 72% of electorates.
...the people must keep on voting until they get it right…
The elites remain committed not to just any republic- we are, after all, a crowned republic. What they crave for is a politicians’ republic, where all the state institutions are politicised. Had the Vote No campaign lost in 1999, any move to restore the Crown would have been treated at best as an amusing eccentricity.
Yet the republican politicians do not accept the landslide defeat of what was after all the best model their best minds could devise. Their reaction is the same as that adopted by rebuffed European Union politicians – “the people must keep on voting until they get it right.” (In Europe they are able to circumvent or dispense with a referendum in most countries.)But the politicians know another referendum here would face a bigger defeat than in 1999, and that polling trends show little support for a politicians’ republic among all ages including the young.
So, pending a reversal in public opinion, they hope to soften up the people by a campaign of creeping republicanism. An early practitioner, Bob Carr, claimed the reason for his expulsion of the NSW governors from Government House was cost, and making the office of governor more accessible and part time.
After he retired he admitted it had to do with the reserve powers.
Creeping republicanism is of course sometimes ludicrous. When Meredith Bergmann became President of the NSW Legislative Council, a photographer from The Sydney Morning Herald just happened to be passing her suite and photographed her taking down the portrait of The Queen.
She was also involved in the removal of The Queen’s portrait from the Strangers' Room, the Parliamentary dining room, for reasons claimed to be related to occupational health and safety. The portrait was also removed from the foyer where it was claimed it was being damaged by sunlight.
We should not allow the silliness of these antics to distract us from the underlying agenda of those involved. This is to persuade the people to accept the significant constitutional change they so overwhelmingly rejected ten years ago.
…. Constitution Day too….
So on the eve of Constitution Day, the government let slip the news that it had in its first fortnight also prosecuted the policy of creeping republicanism. The office of Queen’s Counsel had been abolished.
Now Constitution Day is the day when Queen Victoria assented to the legislation establishing the Commonwealth of Australia – a day surely when constitutional proprieties would be respected.
But no, in a move designed to undermine our oldest and central constitutional institution, the decision of the Prime Minister was announced surreptitiously in the very last line of a media release of the Attorney General. Where was Parliament? Where was the consultation with the judges and the legal profession and the opportunity for the public to discuss this?
Certainly, whatever radical lawyers may say, senior lawyers have voted with their feet. There is no example of a QC downgrading to the rank of Senior Counsel. And it is a downgrade in the eyes of the public, and also in foreign and international courts and arbitral tribunals.
…revenge, jealousy, political agenda…
This was all started as part of the “reform” of the legal profession by the NSW Coalition Fahey government, which seems to have mainly involved changing the names of solicitors , proctors, attorneys and barristers to lawyers. I happened to be at a meeting with a group of editors and senior journalists when the decision on QC's was announced. My recollection is that this too was done without consuting parliament or indeed anyone else.
The editors and journalists were beside themselves with glee – some no doubt recalling being subjected to rigorous cross examination by some hostile silk.
But neither revenge, nor jealousy nor a political agenda are enough for such change.
Once NSW did it, other politicians followed. After all they have to show they have done something while in office.
The New Zealanders initially copied this fashion, but realising it is counterproductive, they have reversed it. As they have done with titles. They gave the recipients the opportunity of upgrading. Those with international experience – including scientists and artists – pointed to the issue of recognition.
The overwhelming number of recipients of the highest NZ but universally unknown and unrecognizable order chose to be recognized internationally.
It is not only the decision of the Gillard government which is objectionable, indeed pointless and counterproductive. It is the surreptitious and arrogant way in which it was delivered.
The Rudd government may have lost its way; within two weeks Ms. Gillard demonstrated that she had absorbed nothing from the lecture she had so publicly delivered to her erstwhile colleague and leader Kevin Rudd.
[This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on 23 July, 2010]