February 22

State visit to Jakarta: Sir David reveals what really happened


There could better authority in the nation on the office of Governor-General than Sir David Smith, whose book Head of State, reviewed here on 11 April 2006, is a rich source of information and material.

Sir David has now sent us more information concerning the diplomatic incident when General Suharto decided that the Governor-General was not the Australian Head of State.

…Diplomatic blunder…

This related to our column “Head of State: Diplomatic Blunder,” on 20 February, 2008. This column was not about the term head of state as such; it was about an attempt by a republican to misuse the issue.

This was about a paragraph in a piece by Richard Woolcott, the former diplomat and passionate republican, “Suharto as I knew him,” published in The Australian on 28 January, 2008:

 “Probably because of his army training, Suharto was somewhat hierarchical and conscious of status. For example, he declined, as head of state of Indonesia, to receive Sir Ninian Stephen when he wanted to visit Indonesia in 1986. Suharto acknowledged Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's head of state, not the governor-general. In Suharto's eyes, Sir Ninian was her representative.”

The term head of state comes from diplomatic usage. Who is a head of state then, is determined by international law. According to international law, there could have been no doubt that Sir Ninian was head of state: see The Cane Toad Republic, 1999, chapter 3.

We objected because this was only half the story.  A reader, we said, would think that the Australian constitutional system causes us problems overseas. This is of course the republican strategy.

We should not forget that several leading Australians argued this in the campaign leading up to the referendum. The question who was head of state became a central issue in the campaign.

But as we suggested in this column, the republicans tend to overshoot their arguments. The very idea that a foreign dictator should instruct the people of this old democracy how to run our affairs, and who to send as head of state, is offensive to all Australians.

…Sir David corrects  the record…

Sir David Smith has revealed what actually happened. He writes:

“In 1987, Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen, acting on the advice of the Australian Government, cancelled a proposed visit Indonesia because President Suharto had said that he would not be present at the welcome ceremony, but would instead send his Vice-President.

“That year Sir Ninian made State visits to Thailand, China, Malaysia and Singapore.   In each of these countries the Governor-General was received as a Head of State.   Shortly after the Malaysia and Singapore visits, the Indonesian Government admitted that it had made a wrong decision, claimed that it had been wrongly advised by its officials, and said that it would treat our Governor-General as a Head of State on any future visit.

“That promise was honoured in 1995 during a State visit to Indonesia by Governor-General Mr. Bill Hayden.”


…Head of State argument central to the debate …

 The ARM itself declares that it was established “around the central aim that Australia's Head of State would be an Australian citizen chosen by Australians.” 

Constitutional monarchists will of course note that carefully. It is the republican's central aim.

When Prime Minster Keating threatened to ask the Australian people to vote on whether an Australian should be Head of State, the ACM responded with the simple answer that we already had one.

Mounting evidence has confirmed that ACM is entirely justified in taking this line.

This has recently been confirmed by research ( see this column of 9 January, 2007) which reveals a High Court bench consisting of pre-eminent founding fathers of the Commonwealth designated the governors as constitutional heads of state and the governor- general as the constitutional head of the Commonwealth.

 The republicans still use the line that only under a republic will we have an Australian as head of state. They argued it vigorously in the referendum campaign. It was the subject of many questions from the public in meetings, personal encounters  and on talkback. They will continue to do this.

They have little else.

It is entirely probable that the question in any plebiscite or referendum will feature the proposition or implication that we do not have an Australian as head of state. ACM will of course continue to provide overwhelming evidence that this is not so.

…no inconsistency… 

This ACM position does not in any way denigrate or lessen the role of The Queen who remains central to the Australian constitutional system, a position ACM has never abandoned and always maintained.

This is not merely based on sentiment, and the very great respect we have for Her Majesty. It is grounded in   the very heart and the continuing integrity of the Australian constitutional system.  

In his piece published in The Age on 29 November, 2006, “ Monarchy is the tie that binds us together,” the Honourable Tony  Abbott wrote:

 “In his forthcoming book on the Queen, Professor David Flint does not just lay out the now well understood arguments against Australia becoming a republic but also articulates reasons for its remaining a monarchy.”


That monograph has now been posted to this site.

It demonstrates, we believe, that there is absolutely no contradiction or inconsistency between the roles of the governor-general as provided in the Constitution and envisaged under the Balfour Declaration, and the centrality and indispensability of the Australian Crown in our constitutional system.



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