July 4

Quadrant: Head of State debate resolved


Paul Keating once announced that he would hold a republican plebiscite. The question would be whether the people wanted an Australian as Head of State.

It was left to Mr Lloyd Waddy, as the learned judge then was, to deliver the coup de grâce.

As ACM’s National Convener, he informed an intrigued media  that he would advise his supporters to vote Yes.

But why, they asked.

Mr. Waddy replied along these lines: “ Because  they already have, in the person of His Excellency the Governor-General, an Australian as Head of State.”

The journalists duly reported these words.  Mr. Keating was, unusually, reduced to complete silence.

Never again was the word “plebiscite” to fall from those grim lips.

Instead he appointed the Republic Advisory Committee consisting only of republicans, including the future co-chairman of the 2020 Summit, Dr Glyn Davis.

They went on a grand tour of the country to hear from a clamouring public about their no doubt excited reaction to the Keating proposal to free them from monarchist tyranny.


But as Tony Abbott said, some of their public meetings   could  have been held ….in a phone booth.

…curing the brain drain.. 

Then leading republicans began to make a series of “spontaneous” statements to the media about the benefits Australians would receive from a republic.

Only a conspiracy theorist would have thought these had been orchestrated by the republican high command.

But almost every week a new and astounding claim would be made.

It was like those old television campaigns where with, say, the rowing machine, you would get a set of steak knives, but if you phoned in now, a ticket for a healthy fat free hamburger, and then the presenter would say  “And that’s not all…..today we are offering each purchaser a toaster.”

Quite clearly, the republicans have been going to the same advertising agency. Do you remember the stunning effect of the recent Mate for a Head of State campaign that swept the country?  ( See “SPECIAL REPORT:The republicans' major campaign in 2006-  A Mate for Head of State,"   13 August 2006.)

Well in the earlier “ spontaneous” campaign, Australians were offered a series of benefits they would get if they bought the vague notion of some sort of yet to be defined republic.

We were told, week by week, by some republican grandee that a republic would boost employment, immigration, trade, investment, and diplomatic status, free our artists, save the Indonesian and French foreign offices from confusion, and stop Australian expatriates from being confused by Americans for Britons.

Then when the republicans finally worked out what they wanted, we were told by Robert Hughes that anyone who voted No in 1999 was stupid. That’s it… stupid.

And if we disobeyed this injunction, and did vote No, the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Gilbert, said we would be the laughing stock of Asia.

We subsequently received considerable praise in Asia because of the roles we played in the Asian financial meltdown, the liberation of East Timor, and for the victims of the tsunami.

(If you wish to know who made most of these claims, consult the authority on these matters : Sir David Smith, Head of State, Macleay Press, 2005, reviewed  in this column 0n 12 April, 2006, pages 190- 192, with some additions in The Cane Toad Republic, 1999, pages 25-28:“The republic will stop the brain drain, arthritis, etc.”)

….the Mugabe model… 

But the principal reason advanced by republicans for what an ARM leader said would be the biggest structural change to the Constitution since Federation was to have an Australian as Head of State.

During the Corowa Republican Conference in 2001, a Zimbabwean-born academician, Dr. Bede Harris, said the reason he wanted Australia to become a republic was that his young daughter could aspire to be  head of state.

 John Paul, who was sitting next to me, interjected in a loud voice, to peals of laughter, “We already know of the McGarvie model; now we have the Mugabe model.”


Dr Barry Jones, the chairman allowed a feline smile.  Mr. Justice McGarvie laughed heartily. But from his querulous look, Dr. Harris clearly did not appreciate the resounding roars of laughter which had met his statement of what all bien pensants  would surely hope to be the fate of  his or her offspring.

 …debate resolved…


Now an article in the latest issue of Quadrant, “The Head of State Debate Resolved,” argues that an authoritative ruling by the High Court has finally settled the debate. This is in the July- August 2008 issue of Quadrant, one of Australia’s leading intellectual magazines.

I must admit, in all modesty, that I am the author of that piece.

In doing so, I recall the words of Winston Churchill when Clement Atlee was described as a modest man.

Churchill added, “and with much to be modest about.”

(For those who are not aware of the singular role Quadrant plays in Australia, it is edited by the noted author and historian, Keith Windschuttle who was recently appointed to succeed the late PP McGuiness, and with Les Murray as literary editor.

Available, as they say, in “all good news agents,” price $8.50, the issue  also contains contributions from Dr. Brendan Nelson, Dame Leonie Kramer, Cardinal Pell, Dr. Sophie Masson Hal Colebatch,  Paul Monk, John Stone, Bishop Tom Frame, Les Murray, Frank Devine, Peter Ryan etc.)

The point is that if there is a plebiscite, the spin doctors would have been tempted to centre it on an Australian as Head of a State.

There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that diplomatically, and under international law, the Governor-General is Head of State. 

Sir David Smith has published a powerful argument that the Governor-General is also the Constitutional Head of State.


There has been no serous argument disputing this. Saying it is “nonsense” or a “fraud” or a “lie” as some academicians and lawyers have said is not an argument.

Indeed some republicans have long realised that the debate does not advantage their cause. As Professor George Winterton observed in 2004, this is an arid an increasingly irrelevant battle over nomenclature.  (See this column, “2004 Neville Bonner Oration, “5 November 2004).

But now, we have found a decision of the High Court, the ultimate authority on the Constitution, which is on all fours with the monarchist position that the Governor-General is Head of State.
The decision was unanimous. It has been referred to since and in no way has the High Court  resiled from it. It was by a formidable bench, made up of our Founding Fathers, all of whom had played a major role in the political life of our country.

According to the Court, the State Governor is a “constitutional head of state” and the Governor- General is the “constitutional head of the Commonwealth”.

 The Court even uses the same language constitutional monarchists use in explaining the place of The Queen or The King.

 She or he is “the Sovereign.”

The game is up.

Our republicans will have to find another reason for a republic.

A cure for arthritis, or scabies, perhaps?

  …vulgar abuse… 

It is extraordinary then that one of the 2020 Summit delegates, Professor Robert Manne, with Dr. Mark McKenna, recently employed language not usually used in debate in the academy to  denounce  the constitutional monarchists conclusion that, both diplomatically and constitutionally , the Governor-General is Head of State ( this column,” 2020 Summit blunder: governance experts wrong,”  30 March 2008).

Dr McKenna’s involvement is curious. He has previously admitted Australians are not (and never have been) anti-monarchical.

In 2005, he wrote that the head of state argument is “the chief flaw in the arguments for a republic.”  ( See this column, “[Princess] Mary's Visit A Disaster For Republicans,”  13 March, 2005 

An Australian head of state alone is not enough to get the republic over the line, he wrote.

“An Australian head of state is a consequence of becoming a republic, not the reason for change.”

 Republicans, he says, can say what they will about the anachronism of monarchy. “But for more than 150 years the monarchy provided a powerful form of symbolism and served as an embodiment of our most cherished civic values,” he conceded.  

The monarchy, he said,  was the central symbolic force in our Constitution and our public culture. And he admits that republicans have not found an argument for change of similar depth and purpose. He argues for other more radical reasons for a republic.

So why has he joined Professor Manne in abusing monarchists for holding an intellectually defensible position, consistent with a powerful and unanimous High Court opinion?   

As I said in the Quadrant article , “vulgarity is of course no substitute for scholarship and research.”




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