The Morgan survey released at the ACM National conference just before the Queen’s visit confirmed three matters:
- support for a republic is trending down
- in terms of age, both older and younger voters record lower support for change to a republic
- as a percentage support is now in the thirties
This survey was frequently mentioned in media reports of the Royal visit.
This country has spent the better part of the last two decades reacting to proposals to make Australia a republic. Or, as some of us would say, a politician’s republic. (Michael Kirby, John Howard, Tony Abbot and Justice Ken Handley say we are already republic, a crowned republic.)
Eventually, we had the 1998 Constitutional Convention which, unlike the 1993 Republic Advisory Committee and the 2020 Summit, was not gerrymandered. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of appointed members to the Convention were republicans. Republicans were absolutely free to choose their own model. They chose one and then they changed it.
The legislation to give effect to this was drafted by a republican attorney-general. The referendum question was approved by a parliament two-thirds of the members of which were in favour for a republic.
After a campaign, in which the republicans were very well funded, the people rejected the model with only 42.6% of the voters being in favour of the preferred Keating Turnbull republican model. It was rejected in all states and by the electors in 72% of federal electorates.
For the last two decades we have seen 12 official enquiries and votes on a republic, seven since the referendum. Not only does this involve a considerable diversion of taxpayers’ funds, it is a significant distraction for our politicians. And with the greatest respect for them, they haven’t exactly performed at the highest level in terms of efficiency and the careful husbandry of public money. It’s not as though they have the spare time to engage endlessly trying to find some way to impose a republic on a reluctant nation.
In fact, most of the republican politicians, except Senator Bob Brown, have more recently put this off until the end of the reign – when they probably will no longer be in office. Not only are their focus groups and polling telling them that it would be defeated, I suspect that they are also telling them that if they were to raise this issue the public would react with distinct hostility.
Now until recently, I thought I had heard every reason for a republic. The only one which appeared in the official yes/no booklet in the referendum campaign was that only under a republic could we have an Australian as head of state. This was repeated nine times.
But the term head of state is a diplomatic term and therefore governed by international law. There is no doubt that under international law, no doubt whatsoever, that the governor-general is an Australian head of state. The term‘ head of state’ is not to be found in the constitution. But in 1907 the High Court, consisting of leading founding fathers, unanimously used this formula: the King is sovereign, the governor-general is the constitutional head of the Commonwealth, and the governors are the constitutional heads of state.
Sir David Smith has assembled many of the other arguments for a republic advanced during the campaign by very senior republicans. Thes include the argument that a republic would:
- End the recession ( Al Grassby)
- Stop the brain drain ( Al Grassby)
- Free artists ( Michael Lynch)
- Counter Bodyline Cricket 1932-33 ( Sir Anthony Mason)
- Make us independent ( Janet Holmes a Court)
- Stop Indonesian govt. confusion ( Richard Woollcott)
- Give marketing opportunities( Bill Ferris)
- Allow rebadging( Lindsay Fox)
- Increase jobs( Neville Wran)
- Invigorate spirits ( Neville Wran)
- Stop expatriates being confused with the English (Simone Young)
- Follow the Spanish example in Argentina (Richard Woolcott)
- Boost immigration (Henry Tsang)
- Boost citizenship applications ( Henry Tsiang)
- Allow the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald to become a citizen ( Paul McGeoch)
- Stop us being a laughing stock in Asia and the world ( Vice Chancellor Professor Alan Gilbert)
- Stop Robert Hughes saying “Any Australian who votes No is stupid.”
But now Paul Keating has declared to an adoring audience at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2011 that “geologic changes” to the North mandate that we must become a republic and get rid of our “embarrassing little flag”, as he puts it.These geologic changes require us to disassociate ourselves from our “tired and worn out monarchy”, as he puts it.
I am not sure of the geologic changes that Mr Keating is talking about. Are the continents moving together? Have there been changes below the earth?
This will join the list of extraordinary examples given by republicans for change. Geologic changes indeed.
One thing stands out in this decade. At no time was the proposal to make Australia a politicians’ republic in any way related to improving the government of Australia. Indeed the 1999 model would have increased the powers of the political class and of the Prime Minister. It would be the only republic in history where it would have been easier for the Prime Minister to dismiss the president and his cook. The president could be dismissed at any time – without notice, without reasons and without any effective appeal.
Given the weaknesses in our representative democracy which have greatly diminished the ability of our politicians to offer and to act on their own opinion rather than acting on party instructions, this would seem to be an area of our constitutional system most in need of some reform. Another is increasing centralism.
There has been no proposal to empower people through for example, the right to recall their representatives and governments. There has been no suggestion, as there was in 1891, to allow for a people’s veto of legislation.. There has been no proposal to reintroduce and effectively use that old English institution which survives so effectively in the United States, the grand jury.
ACM has no position on any such proposals. I merely make the observation that republicanism in Australia has had nothing to do with improving governance nor with making government more accountable.
All we have seen is a dislike of the Crown and in particular, a dislike of the family from which the sovereign is chosen.
It is not surprising that this republicanism, which is only about increasing power of politicians, has had little attraction not only for the general mass of Australians but also for the young.