The case for continuing Australia's Constitutional Monarchy, Griffith University Debate
| 4th July, 1994
I must begin by taking issue with the title for this debate which seems to imply that Australia is not a true democracy because we do not elect our Head of State. |
Does anyone seriously suggest that Australia is less of a democracy than countries like Ireland, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa just because they have an elected President? Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin were elected Heads of State and they were home grown products too.
The Leaders of the old Soviet Union, North Korea and most of the Banana Republics have all been through some kind of electoral process but that has not saved these nations from totalitarian dictatorship.
The worth of our democracy is not determined by the number of elections held but by the quality of our representative decision making processes.
Suggestions that Australia should become a republic are not new. John Lang thought a republic was inevitable in 1851. “The Bulletin” was an advocate of a republic in the 1800s but had recanted by 1900. Henry Lawson spoke of a republic as being inevitable in the 1890s but died a strong supporter of the Constitutional Monarchy.
Bursts of republican sentiment generally have been associated with specific events such as the high level of casualties in World War 1, the conflict in Ireland, body line bowling in the 1932-33 Test series, the conflict with Britain over the return of Australian troops during World War 2 and over more recent times, the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General and the marital infidelity of some members of the Royal family.
However once these emotional moments pass, people quickly realise that our system of Constitutional Monarchy has served this country well. Our country has grown and prospered from the most unlikely beginnings. We have enjoyed peace and harmony unparalleled in the world. Our continent remains the only one in the world not to be artificially divided into multiple countries with different laws, languages, cultures and religion.
Indeed this country is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. Only Britain, the United States of America, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden have known longer periods of democratic rule uninterrupted by dictatorships of the left or right or by foreign conquest and occupation. It is interesting to note that of the six oldest continuous democratic nations, four are constitutional monarchies.
I do not argue that our Constitution is perfect or that our system of government should never change. There will from time to time be a need to do things differently to meet the needs of changed circumstances.
It is clearly beyond dispute that our current system has served us well. It should not be changed because of prejudice or petty revenge or to record a place in the history books for a failing Prime Minister. We should change our constitutional monarchy only if it can be proved that an alternative system is significantly superior and will deliver improved opportunities and a better lifestyle for Australians.
This is where the Republican movement has always failed. Our current system has its faults but the republicans have never been able to present a model that offers real benefits to Australia. The small faults they seek to correct in our current system are inevitably replaced in their alternatives by a recipe for conflict, complexity, and a system which is soon seen to be grossly inferior to what they seek to replace. It is proving to be far easier to criticise the status quo than to devise an alternate model.
Even the so-called 'minimalist' position would involve massive change to our Federal Constitution. Professor George Winterton, one of the members of the Republican Advisory Committee, when he drafted and published a constitution which he believed did the bare minimum necessary to establish Australia as a Republic, had to change 72 of the 128 clauses of our existing constitution.
It is often said that the great strength of a monarchy is not the power that it grants to an individual but the power that it denies to others. An hereditary monarchy, even one like Australia's, which possesses only the most restricted of reserve powers, limits the capacity of any individual no matter what popularity he may enjoy, to usurp absolute power and institute a dictatorial regime.
Under our system, the Crown in the person of the Governor-General is commander-in-¬chief of our Armed Forces, is the only one who can order an election, and then decides who will be invited to form the government. No law is passed unless the Governor-General assents to it. In cases of disagreement between the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Governor-General may in certain circumstances dissolve both Houses.
Almost invariably, these powers are exercised by the Governor-General on the advice of his or her Ministers, but the Constitution does not require the Governor-General to act in accordance with such advice. He does so in conformity with constitutional convention and rules of practice which date back to the 17th century. Of course even Governor-Generals have been chosen for political reasons although those appointed have always scrupulously observed the conventions which govern their office. If this reserve authority did not exist, there would be no checks and balances on a rampant Prime Minister or Premier who chose to suspend Parliament, ride roughshod over election results, or even abandon our constitution.
The fact that the Head of State is outside politics, attracts loyalty from all people and is a unifying bond when the nation is divided over political or other issues. Minorities have the confidence that there is the potential to intervene if a despotic regime seeks to oppress or trample on their rights and interests. It has been particularly in times of trouble and national disaster that the presence of a Head of State, untouched by divisive political in-fighting can have an important benefit on our progress towards national unity. A distinguished English lawyer expressed it this way. "One can be a loyal subject to the Crown while regarding the Prime Minister and his party as a national disaster". A Head of State who is apart from party politics but who is able to provide a rallying point offers one of the few symbols of unity which modern life has left.
An hereditary system may not always produce the perfect Head of State but it is preferable because the Head of State owes no political allegiance and cannot be removed by the Executive. An Executive which sought to breach the constitution or subvert the electoral system could not force the compliance of the Head of State in implementing its plans. Even a High Court would be powerless to resist a Government in command of the Armed Forces determined to inflict itself on an unwilling population.
One of the major rocks upon which the republican argument has always perished has been the debate over how a President should be chosen. Public opinion polls demonstrate overwhelmingly that those who support a republic want their President chosen by popular poll. If is difficult to imagine that any individual would have the resources to mount a nation wide campaign capable of winning a presidential election without the support of one of the political parties. Only they have the organisation and network to manage a campaign, man polling booths, distribute literature and lobby support. Even if the office was theoretically supposed to be non-party political it is just inevitable that whoever was chosen would be there as the result of the patronage of one of the political parties and beholden to their interests.
The new President elected by popular majority would then rightly feel that he had a mandate to achieve things for those who elected him. He would be anxious to deliver on his election promises even if they are opposite to the Government of the day. Indeed a public ever suspicious of politicians may well even seek to elect a President 'to keep the bastards honest'. He is certainly also going to want to take popular decisions to help his own re-election.
This President with his own mandate and who is in command of the Armed Forces would have the right to form and dismiss governments, approve legislation and appoint public servants, and would soon come into conflict with the elected Prime Minister and his Government. This is the model of the new Russia where Parliaments have been dissolved and chaos guaranteed. Such a President has all the powers necessary to become a dictator but to strip him of those powers or to limit them would mean he would cease to be a real head of state and those powers would have to be given to someone else. Our Governor General has all those powers but were he to seek to use them unjustly his commission can be revoked by request to the Queen.
The way in which our system divides and shares power is one of its great strengths and the best guarantee we can have that ultimate power will not be abused.
Most republicans who have thought this matter through then seek to advocate some kind of appointed President. A President could be chosen by the Prime Minister or Government of the day - one of their mates like Ros Kelly or Leo McLeay. The South Australian Labor Party in their state magazine when advocating a republic suggested Bob Hawke as the first president and listed as the reason for his selection the fact that he was once a beer drinking champion. I wonder whether Prime Minister Keating would be so happy now if the Government had chosen Bob Hawke as his first President.
On the other hand, a party hack would provide no real checks or balances for the Government and make the reserve power redundant. He would always be aware that his future in the office was dependent on doing the Government's bidding.
Others have suggested that to avoid the President being chosen merely to be subservient to the Prime Minister that the office should be filled by someone appointed by a two-thirds majority of the Federal Parliament or even a meeting of all Parliamentarians around Australia. It is difficult to imagine how anyone person could earn a two-thirds majority among the party political Parliamentarians of Australia. Then what procedures would be followed if no-one obtained the required majority.
Any selection system of this nature would also expose potential candidates to detailed scrutiny of their past business and personal lives, their views on political issues and how they fit the politically correct agenda of the day. United States Congressional appointment hearings would have nothing on the divisive national debate which would surround the choice of a new President in such an atmosphere.
Who would want to volunteer for such an inquisition? If the political machines could finally agree upon an individual, the processes would have so damaged his reputation and public standing that his effectiveness in the office will have been destroyed and the office itself seriously diminished.
Forced to face all of these difficulties some republicans abandon the 'minimalist' position altogether and say we must rewrite the Constitution entirely. Then come out all the old hoary chestnuts like abolishing the States, curbing the powers or abolishing the Senate, changing the tax mix, establishing regions, entrenching rights.
Unfortunately the republicans are keen to avoid putting the details of their proposals into writing where they can be subject to public scrutiny. Whenever something is committed on paper, it is easily torn to shreds, not only by those who support our current system but by their fellow republicans.
Last year the Federal Government appointed the high profile Republic Advisory Committee to recommend a suitable republican alternative to our Constitutional Monarchy. Malcolm Turnbull's Committee spent more than $600,000, travelled around the country addressing empty halls and finally produced a report running to 500 pages, and that was only on the 'minimalist' position. Already that report and its recommendations have disappeared onto dusty shelves condemned as much by republicans as monarchists.
One of my constituents wrote to the Queensland Branch of the Australian Republican Movement asking for details of what sort of an Australian Republic they proposed. In reply he received a three page tirade of abuse from the Executive Officer, Mr Roy McKeen, in which our Monarchy was described as an obscenity, religiously bigoted, anti-semitic, adulterous, archaic and wretched. He went on to call those who oppose his views as a ''fore-lock tugging, arse licking, cringing, crawling group of Australians. In amongst all this abuse, all he could say about what was proposed was that it would be “an Australian Republic” and later that it would be inappropriate “to spell out exactly what processes should be followed”.
Mr McKeen said in his letter that “the goal of the Australian Republican Movement is to overthrow the Monarchy”. If that objective is to be achieved peacefully and lawfully it will require amendments to the Australian Constitution - almost certainly massive amendments. Historically, Australians have been reluctant to support referendums which propose even minor change. For the republican movement to win a referendum, it will not only require a detailed proposal but also powerful and overwhelming arguments to persuade the Australian people that these changes should be embraced. Former Chief Justice, Sir Harry Gibbs, is among those many legal experts who believe that to get rid of our Constitutional Monarchy will effectively require a referendum carried not just by the majority of electors in the majority of States, but by the majority of electors in every State. The position of State Governors is entrenched by the Australia Act and that Act can only be amended by an Act passed with the concurrence of every State.
There will, therefore, have to be overwhelming and broad-based community support for a republic before such change could ever be contemplated. There are such strong feelings and entrenched loyalties on the issue, that just to press the matter to a conclusion as early as the year 2000 would risk such division and anger that the peace, good order, stability and very unity of our Commonwealth would be endangered.
Unless some unforeseen and quite significant event intervenes Australians are simply unlikely to gamble on change particularly when the arguments advanced in support of a republic are so lacking in pressing merit.
Australia does not need to become a republic to demonstrate to the world that we are a free and independent and democratic country. In 1985 the Hawke/Keating Government set up a Constitutional Commission of three very distinguished constitutional lawyers and two former heads of government including the Hon EG Whitlam to report on the revision of our Constitution to “adequately reflect Australia's status as an independent nation”. In its final report presented in our bicentennial year, the Commission concluded that “between 1926 and the end of WWII Australia had achieved full independence as a sovereign state of the world. The British ceased to have any responsibility in relation to matters coming within the area of responsibility of the Federal Government and Parliament”. As a result the Commission found ''the development of Australian nationhood did not require any change to the Australian Constitution”.
Yet we still have people such as our current Prime Minister saying we should sever these non-existent legal ties to Britain. Ironically, this is the same man who heads the Government which has seized every available opportunity to make our laws subservient to a whole range of United Nations Conventions and even the whims of the International Labor Organisation. We long ago abandoned appeals to the Privy Council but now Australians can appeal our laws to unelected and unrepresentative United Nations Committees often run by people from countries which have made no commitment to this process themselves and with appalling records of human rights abuses and undemocratic behaviour.
Republicans like to refer to our Queen as foreign and our system as un-Australian. The reality is our Monarchy is not a British one. It is Australian. Before the Queen's Coronation, Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed that each Commonwealth country might adopt its own royal style and titles for the Sovereign. As a result, necessary legislation to give the Sovereign the legal title of “Queen of Australia” was introduced into the Australian Parliament by Prime Minister Menzies 40 years ago. (Royal Styles and Titles Act 1953). Similar sentiments form the basis for the Australia Act passed in the Hawke era. The Monarchy is entrenched in an Australian Constitution written by Australians and voted on by Australians.
They also say that we should have an Australian carrying out the duties of Australian Head of State. The Prime Minister has said that our affairs should not be presided over by the Queen of another country. The fact is they are not. Our Governors-General have been Australian for decades and presumably always will be. Former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, has said publicly that the Sovereign's constitutional duties are limited to appointing the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, so the case for removing her from the system of Government can hardly be based on excessive interference. The Queen did not intervene when Prime Minister Whitlam was dismissed. She has never intervened when Australian Governments have engaged in the ultimate exercise of power - committing Australian troops to war. The Monarch did not even intervene when the Queensland Government abolished the Upper House of Parliament in spite of the results of a referendum.
We frequently refer to the Governor General as the Queen's representative and our Constitution does contain that description. But we must also remember that in carrying out his constitution duty, the Governor General is not a Sovereign surrogate but is in fact discharging responsibilities which our Constitution places fairly and squarely with him rather than the Monarch.
It is also suggested by some that our Asian neighbours cannot understand our Constitutional Monarchy and that this strains our relationship with them. This has to be the stupidest argument of all. Several leading Asian nations including Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia have their own hereditary monarchs and from my observations the people of those countries display much more devoted and unquestioning loyalty to their kings and emperors than does anyone in the British Commonwealth. Indeed, if there is any offence or lack of understanding caused to our Asian neighbours, it is the fact our media and political leaders are so publicly critical of our Royal family and so ready to highlight any imperfections, something they would never consider. I sometimes wonder where those republicans who are so quick to seek advantage for their cause from the marital and other problems in the Royal family will be able to find the perfect saintly Head of State to lead their pure new republic.
Over the past 22 years our Governors-General have made 28 State and official visits to 20 countries, mostly in the Asia or Asia Pacific region. Former Secretary to Governors-General, Sir David Smith who participated in most of these visits has said that every host country “received and treated” our Governor General as “Australia's Head of State”.
Sharing a symbolic Head of State with around 50 other countries is hardly a liability. The Queen provides the symbol of an especially close relationship between the British Commonwealth of Nations spread right around the world, a microcosm of the global family. This close relationship strengthens our trading relationship and provides a spirit of goodwill and familiarity wherever we travel in the world.
Some people are irritated that the succession in our Monarchy gives priority to sons. With Australia's history that argument is little more than a sychophantic technicality. In the history of Australia we have had a Queen as much as we have had a King. If everything goes according to plan the next two successions will be to eldest sons anyway. However, these rules should not be immutable and by the time the issue arises again they could be changed rather than abandoning the system altogether.
Our Constitution created a free and democratic system of government. The institution of the Monarchy provides a powerful unifying force for our nation, particularly in times of trouble. It offers inspiration and a sense of security and permanence. It stabilises our political system and helps to guarantee that power will not be abused.
Greg Craven, Reader in Law, at the University of Melbourne has described our founding fathers as legitimate constitutional heroes -men who struggled against depressing odds to achieve a remarkable triumph. Their number included three who became Prime Ministers and 33 who were Premiers. They crafted a Constitution for a democratic and independent nation. It will soon be a hundred years old and some of its provisions may no longer be relevant. But it will not dramatically reach a use-by date in the year 2000. The United States Constitution from which we borrowed much of the philosophy for our own is well over 200 years old and they have made on average even less amendments than we.
The current system has justified itself simply by having served our nation so well. It has guided a vigorous and free society but has been flexible enough to enable this nation to change and progress with the times. There is no reason why Australia could not successfully continue as a nation with a largely unchanged Constitution. It is entirely, therefore, a matter for those who wish to make fundamental change to detail precisely what changes they want and then to prove their case.
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