John Howard’s recent Neville Bonner Oration, “The Crowned Republic” was the subject of a comment by Greg Melleuish, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wollongong. This was published as “ Politics is not a dirty word” in The Australian on 17 November, 2009.
He says that politicians of all persuasions love to praise democracy and the great success of Australian democracy. “If there is a key to what democracy is really about then it is the belief that the ordinary people possess a great deal of common sense and that generally they get things right. Howard expressed this idea with regard to the 1999 republican referendum.”
Professor Melleuish points out there are other views of democracy. “One is that the people are really not too bright, that they are amenable to manipulation and therefore cannot be trusted to make good decisions. That is one republican interpretation of why that cause failed so badly in 1999.”
He says that is why one republican faction will not allow the people to choose the president. They think the people are too stupid to make a wise choice. This confirms that the republicans will never agree among themselves as to what sort of politicians’ republic they prefer.
John Howard rejects the view which emerged among some republicans in 1999 that the people were too stupid to accept the constitutional change proposed then. In the Neville Bonner Oration he said that the 1999 referendum represented the victory of the people and Australian democracy over the elites.
“Another view of democracy,” says Professor Melleuish “is that politicians, the people's representatives, engage in what is termed politics and cannot be trusted to make good decisions. In our public life praise of democracy is very often combined with a condemnation of politics as if it were possible to have one without the other. Of course democratically elected politicians engage in politics. The people who elect them are never of one mind; politics is about negotiating between conflicting interests.”
The denigration of politics, and its association with our leaders and elected representatives, he says, has some dire consequences for our democracy.
“For one thing it maps out a path that Plato would have liked democracy to move in ancient Athens. Plato hated the idea that ordinary people might have the capacity to run their own affairs. He much preferred a system in which individuals who had been educated for their role, the so-called guardians, ran society in what they believed to be the best interests of everyone.”
Because ACM argued in 1999 against a politicians’ republic, as we do today, some republicans say we do not trust politicians.
Rather our position is that we see the constitutional system as providing checks and balances against the political institutions, and that central to these is the Australian Crown which provides leadership beyond politics. in other words, politicans have an important role to play in our system.
We object to this role being vastly extended by the removal of the Crown.