This letter from our Victorian Convenor, Brett Hogan, appeared in a slightly edited version in the Herald Sun of 28 June, 2006:
"Sir,While the East Timorese political impasse appears finally over with the resignation of the Prime Minister, there is a lesson for Australia.The East Timorese republic is the model favoured by most Australian republicans with a popularly elected ‘figurehead’ President existing alongside a Prime Minister who is selected by the parliament based on the party that wins a majority of seats.
As in many other republics, this model sets up two potentially conflicting sources of political power who blame each other when something goes wrong however unlike with the Australian Governor General and Prime Minister there isn’t a dismissal or election circuit breaker available to resolve the deadlock.The world is littered with constitutions that look pretty but don’t work – no East Timorese republic for Australia! Yours etc”
And now, even with the resignation of the prime minister, peace has not returned to the East Timorese republic, and a new wave of violence followed the former prime minister’s broadcast speech. In Dili, Lindsay Murdoch sent this report to The Sydney Morning Herald on 29 June 2006:
“Their bodies trembled with fear. They sobbed. They stared wide-eyed, heads bowed. They were mostly women and children, huddled at the gate of Dili’s main wharf yesterday. They had been chased there by anti-Alkatiri rioters who then stood on the road 20 metres away, screaming threats. ‘We’re going to kill you all,’ a mob leader yelled. ‘You are all dead.’
All that mattered to the rioters, who were frothing at the mouth and screaming incoherently, was that they believed the petrified women and children they had bailed up were from East Timor’s east.That’s how far East Timor’s conflict has gone: Timorese attacking strangers because of where they were born.”
The Herald Sun, which enjoys the largest circulation of all of the Australian daily press, sees the dangers of following the East Timorese constitutional model in Australia. ( It is diffificult to understand why any body actually thinks we should follow the East Timorese model.) The newspaper declares in its editorial on 29 June, 2006: “East Timor is a chaotic example of just how difficult it is to design a democratic republic in which the president and the prime minister have clearly defined powers.”
In the light of these dreadful events, it is impossible not to be astounded by the speech by the Opposition shadow Attorney General, Nicola Roxon which we reported in this column on 9 June, and again on 24 June, 2006 . In her call for republicans to apply the “intellectual blowtorch” to constitutional monarchy, she clearly compared our constitutional system unfavourably with that of East Timor. She said:
“Having thrown off the yoke of foreign occupation the East Timorese were never going to accept any system that wasn’t entirely democratic. Mischievous monarchists will probably point the finger at republicanism for the current strife in East Timor, but let’s for a moment consider the counter-factual of East Timor as a constitutional monarchy. Paul Kelly recently made the point that East Timor is currently going through something like the crisis we had in 1975 – a political tussle between the President and Prime Minister. Of course, the stakes are even higher in East Timor because there has also been a breakdown in law and order and a split within the armed forces – but at the political level there are real comparisons with November 1975. In that respect, East Timor is better served by being a republic. This power struggle can be resolved according to written constitutional laws, not unwritten conventions. And, because he has been chosen by the people, they have a head of state who commands genuine respect, affection and legitimacy and is therefore a person best placed to calm the situation. Imagine if instead of Xanana Gusmao the East Timorese had to rely on Sir John Kerr, as the representative of a distant foreign monarch, to restore order. One shudders at the thought.”
Well, Ms. Roxon, perhaps those whose dear ones were murdered, or those that have been seriously injured, or had their homes torched , would not have “shuddered’ if they had had the benefits of the Australian way of dealing with what was a political crisis and remained as such. It was never a constitutional crisis, and no blood was shed, no one murdered and no homes torched. The issue was referred to the people. Whatever you think of Malcolm Fraser’s action in blocking supply, the point is that Mr. Whitlam’s attempts to govern without supply, even trying to borrow money, were unconstitutional. That Mr Whitlam knew this, and that he and his Attorney General had frequently argued this is indisputable , and documented in detail in Sir David Smith’s authoritative book , Head of State, reviewed in this column on 11 April, 2006. No one has even attempted a rebuttal of the principal themes of that book.
Surely it is time for Ms. Roxon and the republican movement to withdraw any suggestion that we throw out our Australian Constitution and replace it with the East Timorese model?
(Ms Roxon’s “ blowtorch” speech ‘Where to from here?’ was delivered in Canberra to a republican movement function on 3 June,2006)