August 21

“Ladies & Gentlemen, The President…” Part 6


"You’re not a republican?" I am sometimes asked. "Why not?" Some say insistently. Not just because my grandparents and my mother came in the early days of Federation from Indonesia (then the Dutch Indies) to what was one of the world’s most advanced democracies. Certainly not because of my age. And not just because I have twice sworn an oath of allegiance. (How could I ever again swear to tell the truth if my oath could be so easily broken?) The fundamental reason I am not a republican is that my studies of, and experience in many other countries has confirmed one thing. We are blessed with our present constitutional and political arrangements. We leave most countries behind in enjoying a long and unbroken tradition as a democracy& In fact, we are one of a select group of seven countries that can say that-and five are constitutional monarchies! And Elizabeth II is Queen of four! Sixteen countries have the Queen as Sovereign (Fiji may soon join us). The older ones, Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand form a unique and similar group of countries. Incidentally, some republican critics just don’t know modem Britain. They think it’s an old Anglo-Celtic country. Wrong. It’s now a multi-cultural, multi-racial country. As the eminent French expert, Professor Emmanuel Todd’s research demonstrates, she has been more successful in this than most of the larger European countries, or indeed the US. The Queen herself is resolutely committed to a multi-cultural and multi-racial country. Her difference with Margaret Thatcher over Zimbabwe was so substantial, she was dubbed "The African Queen".

Republicanism is alien to Australia. It has nothing to do with our history or our culture. There was a move at federation to have the Governor-General elected. The Founders of this nation rejected that. They knew the Westminster system makes government more accountable, and they did not want a presidential style figure competing with parliament. We often hear our Federal constitution described in disparaging terms. A "horse and buggy" constitution. No American does that with theirs, although it still bears the stamp of a slave owning society. Yet theirs is twice as old.
Our Federal constitution was a remarkable achievement. In four years our forefathers drafted a constitution that met with the approval of the people in each of the states. They arranged for referendums, and then for the British Parliament to act. By 1901 it was proclaimed. And they had no computers, faxes or aeroplanes! Achieving our "indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown" was also remarkable for another more important reason. As Founding Fathers Quick and Garran wrote, never before had a group of self-governing communities, without external pressure of any kind, deliberately chosen of their own free will to unite. Why? A "simple and intellectual conviction of the folly of disunion and the advantages of nationhood".

The Crown is central to our Constitution. This institution is important not so much because of the current Sovereign, whose behaviour has been impeccable. It is important because of the power it denies others. The Crown is as it were the constitutional auditor and sometimes the umpire. If you throw the Crown out and give its powers to a President, they become political powers in the hands of yet another politician. Presidents in every republic are always politicians. In a republic, you would replace the Queen, the Governor-General and the Governors with politicians.

Of course we could have a republic and strip the President of some or all of the Governor-General’s powers. This is called codifying his powers. But power doesn’t stay in a vacuum. In effect you would move those powers into the hands of the other politicians.
Republicans do not claim that they will improve the constitution. Nor can they point to any real problem with the Queen, the Governor-General or the Governors.

In the 1930s, the nation did have a problem. Our sugar cane crop was being destroyed by the Greyback Beetle. The Queensland authorities decided to release a sackload of the Hawaiian Bufo Marinus into the canefields. They would deal with the Greyback Beetle.
The solution was not well thought out. It was worse than the problem.
For the Bufo Marinus liked Queensland. It ate everything except the Greyback Beetle. Why? The Greyback Beetle can fly. And Bufo can’t.
This was the beginning of the Queensland cane toad disaster.
Today, we don’t even have a problem. Yet, we are told we must amend the one part of the Constitution which works, and works well.
(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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