THE republic debate has been trickling along at the same time as dissatisfaction with democracy and political elites grows and voters show a predilection for outsiders. Along with marriage equality, it is another example of political paralysis. A majority of people and parliamentarians favour both, but our politicians seems incapable of delivering either.
The do-nothing option prevails. Our avowedly republican Prime Minister prefers to wait until the Queen is dead before anything is done. He also prefers a plebiscite first on whether the Australian Head of State should be elected directly by the people or indirectly by Parliament.
Both proposition lack merit.
The first is a gratuitous insult to Prince Charles and is illogical because the timing of an Australian republic should not be dependent on who happens to be monarch at the time.
The second proposition invites a boycott by monarchists on the argument, “Who said we wanted a republic, anyway.” Rather than exclude the monarchists from the debate it would be better to have a plebiscite on whether Australia should be a republic first. When that is decided and accepted, a second plebiscite would be held on whether the head of state is elected by the people or the Parliament.
The message to monarchists would be: “Look, the people have decided they want a republic. That being the case, how about you stop the old 1999 divide-and-rule tactics and join in to decide what sort of republic.”
That choice would then have to be approved in a referendum to change the Constitution.
All or some of those votes could be held with elections to reduce cost. And the marriage plebiscite could be abandoned in favour of the Parliament doing the job with the power it was given in the Constitution “to make laws with respect to marriage”, among other things.
As things stand, the Prime Minister has an utterly unfettered power to propose to the monarch in London whomever he or she likes to be Governor-General of Australia. Son, daughter, union mate. big corporate donor, political nuisance to be got out of the way, quirky thought bubble of the moment, a British aristocrat, or occasionally, a passable legal or military identity. Highly elitist stuff.
Some of these have happened.
Surely we can now capture the anti-elitist sentiment of Brexit and Trump to dump this most elite institution in Australia – the hereditary British monarchy.
As a first step we could restrict this huge ambit power of the Prime Minister to appoint anyone he or she likes to be Governor-General?
As a first step, Parliament could pass a law saying that the Prime Minister can only recommend to the monarch in London that an Australian citizen be Governor-General. Penalty for breach: up to one year’s jail – so a breaching Prime Minister would be disqualified from sitting in Parliament.
When such a law proves innocuous, we could go further.
Parliament could pass a law saying that there will be a process to determine who the Prime Minister can recommend to the Queen to be Governor-General.
The process could demand that the people or the people’s representatives – not just he Prime Minister – get a say.
It would even be a hybrid system. The Prime Minister could nominate someone to be Governor-General and if no-one else nominates that person would become Governor-General upon approval of a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of Parliament. Otherwise there would be an election.
In these populist times, it is difficult to see much support for a purely indirectly elected President. But in these populist times many people might see some danger in a directly elected President. What if some narcissistic demagogue stands and gets elected? What if that person ignores the convention that the Governor-General stays out of politics and gives the words of the Constitution their literal meaning – that the Governor-General choses and sacks ministers, sets election dates, and approves or disapproves laws passed by Parliament?
Another difficulty with a direct election is that many good people – particularly former judges and military people – will not take part. Further, each political party would probably stand a candidate, politicising the whole process.
But all that said, ultimately it is a democracy, so the people should choose. Moreover, the words “directly chosen by the people” are the words used in our Constitution for the election of Members of Parliament.
Further, direct election for the President has worked well in the parliamentary democracy of Ireland.
It can be done.
It would be a good idea to harness this anti-elite populism to point out that all ordinary Australians are excluded from the possibility of being Australia’s Head of State. Pauline Hanson cannot be Australia’s Head of State.
Further, ordinary Australians get no say in choosing the Governor-General, the monarch’s representative in Australia.
And at the apex of our system of government is the British monarchy, one of the most elitist and wealthiest institutions on earth.
Australians should revolt against this.
There are signs of that happening. Former Howard Government Minister Amanda Vanstone wrote a spirited piece this week denouncing the monarchist right of her own party for assuming everyone should think the way they do.
Expect more. And also expect some early disillusionment among people who have supported people espousing simplistic, insular solutions to economic problems or who ignore and deny the existence of profound environmental problems.
On the subject of big ideas in politics, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke called this week for the abolition of the states.
Bizarrely, this idea is usually propounded by the left in Australia. But conservatives have been in government federally for more years than Labor, and the states have often been a voice against them.
Moreover, state government have been responsible for a lot of progressive and reformist measures in the past century or so – measures that would have either not been done or come much later if there had been no states.
Victoria’s euthanasia proposal is about to become another example.
This article appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 7 January 2017.