August 21

“Ladies & Gentlemen, The President…” Part 2


The Head of State? Search the Constitution and you wont find it. Only diplomats worry about it, and then only to make sure nobody is slighted. Whether or not to give a twenty-one gun salute is not something the average Australian worries about.

But republicans do want Australians to lie awake at night worrying about this. They told us to cringe when President Clinton toasted the Queen. But he is quite used to doing this. Especially for ten of his neighbours, including his major NATO, G8 and NAFTA ally, Canada. Not so long ago, I asked a prominent woman from Quebec who was the Canadian Head of State. Without pausing to think, she said in her beautiful French accent, "The Governor-General, of course."

There is no single model for a Head of State. Some countries give the job to the head of the government, some even to a committee. In Sweden, the Speaker exercises some of the powers we think belong to the Head of State, and that has turned his job into a political plum. Andorra once had two, the French King or Emperor or President (they change their constitution regularly) and a Spanish Bishop! As I say, the concept is only for diplomats.
But some people say a President will make us independent. But when the former Labor Party Attorney-General Lionel Murphy sat on the High Court, he ruled that we became independent in 1901! Anyone who hints we are not a politically independent country should do a course in elementary civics. Others say it will improve trade, or our relations with Asia. That wise old Singaporean, Lee Kuan Yew, has effectively told us not to depend on it! You only have to look to Canada to see a country more successful in trade, education and migration than we are. Yet no one seriously proposes Canada create yet another job for its politicians to just improve its position in Asia. Or that it would make Canadians feel more Canadian.

The "official" republicans say their formula ensures there will be no change from the present system which work so well. Well then, why do it? Especially if there is a risk. And there is a strong body of opinion that you have to make substantial changes to the Constitution if you want to ensure the President behaves himself. Donald Horne, the father of modern republicanism, takes this line. (Incidentally, do you know who is the mother of modern republicanism? According to the republican historian, Mark McKenna, the Australian Republican Movement is the "brainchild" of Franca Arena!)

The point is, a republic is an alien institution. It has nothing to do with Australia. But if after careful consideration the people decide they want a republic, we ought to do it properly Write a new republican constitution. Have the people elect the president. Of course the president will be a politician. But don’t kid ourselves that in a minimalist republic, where the politicians doing a deal then approving the single candidate, anyone else but a politician will get the job. And remember what happened to some countries which removed the Crown from their Westminster constitutions. When Mrs Ghandi wanted to declare an emergency and take on dictatorial powers, the Indian President hesitated. Reminding him that he owed his place to her party, she stood over him and he signed. A Governor-General would not have so readily signed the document. Governors -General owe their formal appointment and their allegiance to the Crown. They must behave according to the conventions. Their powers are held in trust for the people.
Why change that part of our seven constitutions which work so well? And do we really need seven more politicians in seven presidential palaces travelling in presidential planes, all with twenty-one gun salutes?

Just as we keep politicians out of the courts, let’s keep them out of our Government Houses.
(Note: These papers were prepared in the context of the first version of the Keating-Turnbull republic 1993-1998. This model was superseded by the second version which was unveiled in the last days of the 1998 Constitutional Convention.)


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