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
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
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
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
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
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