YESTERDAY was the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the referendum on the republic. If successful, the referendum would have ended the last vestige of legal discrimination against Catholics and women in the Australian political system.
The republic referendum belittled Australia. It left in place the Queen or King of England as the monarch of Australia, and under English law no Catholic can be monarch. Further, male children of the monarch take precedent over older female children in inheriting the position.
These are three of five powerful objections to using the English monarch as our monarch: religious discrimination; sexual discrimination; and qualification for office based on birth, not merit, which offends the principle of equality.
The other two are: first, that Australia suffers from the monarch’s conflict of interest. The British monarch and British royal family put Britain first in soft trade; and second, that a monarchy has the potential to violate the principle that the people, and only the people, have the right to elect and remove governments. In 1975, the unelected representative of the monarch dismissed an elected government.
Should we continue with this?
We have now moved to a new stage of political cowardice and mediocrity. The leaders of the major parties and great majorities in all the parliaments of Australia are in favour of ending Australia having the British monarch as our monarch and a non-Australian at the apex of our political system.
And let’s put aside all the mendacious sophistry of constitutional monarchists who say the Governor-General is the head of state or that we have a “crowned republic”. It is pap. The Australian Constitution refers to “the Queen” who lives in London.
The symbolism is anachronistic and belittling. Ten years ago we were either too stupid to get the republic model right; or we were duped; or a majority did not have the courage to adopt change.
What is to be done?
The leaders of both parties are avowed republicans. But they have become do-nothing republicans. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on this, like other issues, sees risk in alienating those conservatives whose votes he got last time and no risk in offending republicans who he thinks have nowhere else to go.
The ALP national platform taken to the last election said:
“Labor believes that modernising Australia’s Constitution also entails a transition to an Australian Republic, with an Australian head of state, who can fully represent our traditions, values and aspirations as a nation.
“Labor is committed to consulting with the Australian people, other political parties, the states and the territories as to the form that the Republic should take. Labor will promote community debate about the advantages and disadvantages of the various republican models.
“Labor will conduct plebiscites to establish support for an Australian head of state and the preference for different forms of a Republic. When a preference has emerged Labor will initiate an appropriate referendum under section 128 of the Constitution.”
Alas there is no mention of when. Moreover, the word “republic” did not appear in Rudd’s campaign launch.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull headed the Australian Republican Movement and pushed for the constitutional convention that led to the 1999 referendum.
But the Liberal Party platform remains as it was in 2002. It says: “We believe . . . in a constitutional head of state as a symbol of unity and continuity.” What a fatuous two-bob-one-way-two-shillings-the-other sort of statement that is. It tries to be all things to everybody, but is really nothing to anybody.
Turnbull suggests we should wait until the Queen dies before doing anything. John Howard could not have devised a better plan for prolonging the monarchy. Upon the Queen’s death constitutional principle will be swamped by nostalgia followed by an Aussie urge to at least give the new bloke a fair go.
The issue has nothing to do with the character of one or other monarchs. As monarchs go, Queen Elizabeth II has be among the very best. But you could also get a Richard III. That’s the very point. You have to take what comes. Merit does not enter into it.
Also, how does Turnbull justify setting the timing for Australian constitutional change upon the longevity of someone born to office who lives for the most part in a foreign country. Isn’t that the very thing republicans want to break free of?
One thing republicans should make clear, particularly to a Labor Government, is that they will campaign against any attempt to have any referendum on any other topic before the republic plebiscites are under way. As it is, presuming the two plebiscites and the final referendums are to run concurrently with a federal election, 2016 is the earliest Australia could become a republic: a plebiscite next year on the question of whether Australia is to be a republic; a plebiscite in 2013 to determine what sort of republic (direct or indirect election and so on) and a referendum to change the Constitution in 2016.
It seems fairly clear that public opinion sits in the mid-50s for a republic and that if there is to be a republic that about 80 per cent say the head of state should be directly elected. It seems that it would be easier for people in the broad republican movement to find a workable direct-election model than it would ever be for them to persuade the broad mass of people that they cannot directly elect their president, or governor-general or whatever we name the office.
There is an alternative interim step. One could hardly expect anything courageous from Kevin Rudd, but rather than having three votes over more than six years he could simply legislate for an elected Governor-General. All the legislation need say is that the Prime Minister shall not nominate anyone to the Queen of Australia (and Britain) as Governor-General unless that person has won an election for the position. The legislation could fill in the election details.
How unAustralian could you get? Ordinary people electing their (albeit nominal) head of state.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 7 November 2009