If you look around the world, at almost any time, there always seems to be some problem with some president somewhere. Today it's in Sri Lanka, and in Georgia. Then there is Serbia, where on three occasions the people have shown their contempt for their republic by boycotting the election for a president. Not once, but three times! I have been attacked for saying that Australians are not interested in their nation becoming a republic. But in doing so, I have merely been quoting the words of the republican leader, Malcolm Tumbull, who wrote precisely that in his diary a few months before the 1999 referendum. Pity he didn't tell us beforehand – we could have called it off and saved the taxpayer millions of dollars. I was reminded of the problems with presidents because of recent events in the Australian Labor Party. Now it was always obvious than the Labor Party had at most a lukewarm interest in a republic. It was slipped into the platform at one of those interminable conferences when many of the delegates had gone home. But Paul Keating certainly found it a useful issue to distract us from his abandoning traditional Labor policies, especially in selling off the crown jewels, particularly the commonwealth Bank. And by threatening it, with the adulation of the commentarariat, he was able to make some nervous coalition politicians take fright and think they had better look modem and be relevant and join this winning bandwagon. As the stalwart ones would not, he then hoped to sit back and enjoy the divisions in their ranks.
But the ALP was never really interested, and even their participation in the referendum in 1999 was more to enjoy divisions in the coalition ranks and to treat a "Yes" vote as a vote of no confidence in John Howard. But the Labor rank and file – not the cafe latte set – solidly voted "No". Then why, oh why, did the ALP change its constitution to provide for a president elected by the rank and file? Was it because they had spent too much time reading the terms of the first Keating Tumbull republic? As Justice Ken Handley has demonstrated from an actual case study, this has the potential of producing two competing politicians trying to govern the country. It would have been better for the ALP to have had the Leader elected by the rank and file, as the Democrats do and, inexplicably, the British Tories do in certain cases. It is not a good idea – it is obviously better for the MPs to choose the person they know to lead them. But it would be infinitely better than having what the public – in confusion – and the media – in delight – will see as not one leader, but two. It will make the ALP less attractive to the voter. And for this role the ALP could not have chosen a more appropriate first president, the former front bencher and Premier of Western Australia, Dr Carmen Lawrence. Not only is her memory apparently restored, she has a self-proclaimed ability to distil what are rank-and-file views – and then to proclaim them from the rooftops. This is particularly so in relation to Labor's Achilles heel, border protection. Her views there are closer to the Greens, and a long way from those of the Leader of the Opposition.
Whenever the smugglers try to land their clients, and the government reacts, there will be the usual condemnation of the government by the Greens, the Democrats, and a distancing by parliamentary Labor. But in addition there will be a very newsworthy story – the ALP president and the Greens will be singing from the same hymn sheet. That itself will be the story, along with divisions in the ALP. And not only will this occur on this issue – Dr Lawrence has only one year to make or remake her mark – and she will use it. And she is not short of views. Why did the ALP get itself into this mess? But there is an answer; consistent with modern ALP policy. In determining parliamentary representation, the ALP today seems more and more attracted to, if not the hereditary, at least an aristocratic principle. Under this an increasing proportion of parliamentary representation is being reserved to the great aristocratic Labor families. If they are prepared to forgive a former inoffensive president, Dr Barry Jones, his very complete but complicated diagrammatic representation of Labor's education policy for the last election – which was immortally panned by some wag as "meatballs and spaghetti" – he could be part of the answer. They could then vest the federal presidency in Dr Jones, his heirs and successors according to law! No more elections, and no more According to the Weekend Australian of 22-23 November 2003, the new administrator of the Northern Territory, Mr Ted Egan, once featured in a republican advertisement Mr Egan has an unusual background for this position; he was once a bush song man, then a poet, filmmaker and champion of Aboriginal reconciliation.
He says he was humbled by the appointment On a republic he said: "I think there'll be a republic in Australia one day, but it's not on the cards now – if it comes, I'll go along with it."For those who believe that our constitutional system and our Flag are an intrinsic part of the Australian story, that is, most Australians, this aspect of Mr Egan's appointment, and more importantly, his most recent comment, may make some of us uneasy. But he was appointed in the way most of us prefer. In the absence of evidence that an appointee is unworthy, particularly if he or she does not take the Oath of Allegiance honestly, we should not rush to denounce the appointment. The opposition of the day recorded its unhappiness about the choice of both Sir William Mckell, and Mr Bill Hayden as Governor General of The Commonwealth. Nevertheless, both turned out to be excellent appointments. Although both had been politicians, they demonstrated that they were able to observe the conventions and fulfil the duties of a representative of that core institution above politics, the Australian Crown, guided no doubt in no small way by the example of the Sovereign. Let us assume – and there is absolutely no evidence to the contrary – that Mr Egan is an honourable man, and will acquit his duties with distinction. We wish him well, as representative of his Sovereign, and therefore responsible to the people to maintain the traditions of his most important office, and above all to do his duty.
This article was first published in the Australian's for a Constitutional Monarchy e-newsletter Hot News on 28 November, 2003.
Professor David Flint is Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, Convenor of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy and Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney. He is author of The Twilight of the Elites, (Freedom Publishing).
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