The Republican debate back on the agenda?

The election of Malcolm Turnbull this week to the leadership of the Federal Coalition represents a potentially significant milestone in the development of the republican movement in Australia. This comes about since both parliamentary leaders, Mr Rudd (as Prime minister) and Mr Turnbull (as Leader of the Opposition) are on the record as supporting Australia becoming a republic. More on that in a moment.

This turn of events is particularly significant with respect to the Coalition, since the former leader (ignoring Brendan Nelson’s brief stint as Coalition Leader) John Howard was an avowed monarchist. This is compared with Mr Turnbull’s position as de facto leader of the republican movement during the 1999 referendum campaign on this issue. Consequently, this week’s events represent a significant watershed in the direction of Coalition leadership on the republic issue.

Returning to the matter of bipartisan support, it is generally accepted that Australia’s Constitution needs to be amended via the process set out in s 128 in order for Australia to become a republic. This process includes a popular referendum in which the general electorate votes on the specific question at hand. Since federation, only eight of the 44 referenda held under the s 128 process have been passed (resulting in the proposed alteration to the Constitution). It has sometimes been said that a good predictor of the success of a referendum proposal is whether that proposal enjoys bipartisan support.

Mr Howard has sometimes been “blamed” for the failure of the 1999 republican referendum. Regardless of any merits to this claim, it is a fact that, despite initiating the referendum (as Prime Minister of the day), Mr Howard did explicitly campaign against the proposal. Now that both the Government and Opposition leaders are apparently in favour of Australia becoming a republic, on this theory at least, the chances of success of any new vote on this matter must be substantially greater.

Given the likelihood of the re-emergence of the republic as a viable issue, my thoughts swung back to the 1999 referendum. Back then, I was at the tail-end of my undergraduate days and involved in one of the student groups on campus. As part of my contribution to that group, I organised former High Court Justice Sir Daryl Dawson to make an address at one of their functions. Being the topical issue of the day, Sir Daryl’s talk was on the republican referendum.

Sir Daryl was kind enough to give me his speaker’s notes at the end of the evening. Going through these, several points were made that are still just as relevant almost a decade later. The basic crux of Sir Daryl’s message was that there is no rush for Australia to become a republic, so, assuming that we will eventually go down this path, we need to take our time to make sure, as far as possible, that whatever model we settle on for a new constitution adequately deals with as many problems as possible.

There are a number of aspects to this central point. Firstly, it assumes that a majority of Australians prefer Australia to become a republic. Back in 1999, this indeed seemed to be the case; a majority of Australians participating in popular polls indicated as such. These results were produced consistently leading up to the referendum. This would lead one to conclude that the failure of the 1999 referendum did not so much reflect that a majority of Australians did not want to become a republic, but, rather, those wishing to become a republic could not agree on the specifics of the republican model to be adopted. Contemporaneous and subsequent polling data in 1999 is consistent with this interpretation. Relating to today, there is nothing to suggest that Australians feel any less strongly about becoming a republic (generally), so one may assume that this general feeling continues to subsist.

Secondly, there is no actual urgency to become a republic. It is difficult to argue otherwise in the current climate. The primary (and usually only) example that republicans point to in order to substantiate any claim that the current Constitution is inadequate are events that occurred almost a third of a century ago. If these problems are so significant, one needs to ask a) why did it take until 1975 for this problem to become apparent, and b) why has it not happened since? These two observations establish the argument that, while the present system may not be perfect, the imperfections are not such that our government is in danger of collapsing any time soon.

Further to this point, in terms of breaking all remaining formal ties with Great Britain, there is no urgency in this regard either. It is not as if the monarchy is levying burdensome (or, actually, any) taxes on the Australian populace. The monarchy is not imposing any sort of oppression on the Australian public. Nor is Great Britain stripping Australia of its resources for her own benefit. The traditional reasons for breaking away from a monarchical power are not present in this debate. Australia is, for all intents and purposes, de facto independent of Great Britain. In fact, this forms one of the primary arguments that republicans put forward: becoming a republic will give form to what already exists in substance (interestingly, it also forms the basis of the one of the primary monarchist arguments: why go to all the trouble and expense of becoming a republic when it will make no substantive difference? Especially when Australia is facing many other more pressing concerns).

If one accepts a) that a majority of Australians want to become a republic (perhaps a debateable point, but one that will be put off until another time), and b) there is no actual urgent requirement to do so, Sir Daryl’s point from 1999 is still just as relevant today. Let’s take our time and get the model as right as possible before actually adopting it.

Sir Daryl’s speech went into a number of details of the model that was put to the electorate in 1999. I won’t waste too much space here examining these arguments, suffice to say that there were predictable problems that would arise if a new constitution was adopted of the form put forward in 1999. One particular example highlighted was the issue of replacing (the parliamentarily appointed) President. The specific procedures put into place could conceivably result in no individual holding this office, resulting in the formal mechanisms of government breaking down. This flaw was particularly problematic as an alternative mechanism was presented at the conventions that would resolve this issue, but which was not incorporated in the model that was put to a popular vote.

This particular example highlights what Sir Daryl’s expressed concern was (and, most likely, still is): that we should not adopt a model with identifiable and predictable problems when there is no urgency for change. To be sure, none of us will be able to predict all the problems that are likely to arise. It is unlikely that the drafters of the present Constitution could have foreseen the events of 1975. That in itself should not be a bar to becoming a republic. But where the problems are identifiable from the outset and there are mechanisms by which such problems can be resolved, it is not harsh to describe as foolhardy anyone advocating to rush into change on nothing more substantial than a cry of “change is needed”.

Perhaps the position is best summed up by Sir Daryl’s closing remarks:

“We are one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the world. But the evolution of the nation which is Australia has rendered the monarchy irrelevant in the eyes of most Australians and change is necessary. The change should not, however, be allowed to endanger our achievements as a nation. The time has come to turn the pages of history, not to tear them up.”

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  1. adrien says:

    In the event of a referendum, would the Australian people be asked whether they are in favor of the principle of turning Australia into a Republic or on whether they are in favor of a particular form of Republic, worked out beforehand by a political body? If both these options are available, it would seem wise, in light of the endless trouble the Europeans have had in adopting their latest "constitutional treaty", to choose the first option.

  2. Syma RC Helicopter says:

    whether they are in favor of the principle of turning Australia into a Republic or on whether they are in favor of a particular form of Republic, worked out beforehand by a political body? If both these options are available, it would seem wise, in light of the endless trouble the Europeans have had in adopting their latest "constitutional treaty", to choose the first option.


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