||Issue No. 131||12 April 2002|
Interview: Cross Wires
International: Two Tribes
Activists: Beneath the Veil
Unions: Terror Australis
History: A Labor Footnote To The Royal Funeral
Economics: Private Affluence, Public Rip-Off
Review: The Great Hall of the People
Poetry: Waiting for the Living Wage
Satire: Israel Recruits NAB To Close West Bank
The Locker Room
Week in Review
A Voice for the Shareholders
Noses in the Trough
Memo: Carmen Lawrence
Police: Make the Boss a Woman
Baby Faced Brogden
Workers Online - Aoteroa
The Great Hall of the People
In 1999 the republican referendum suffered a comprehensive defeat. And yet less than two years later, discussion of an Australian republic has irrepressibly bubbled up to the surface once more.
I'd like to talk about the symbolism and the office of head of state, the moral exhaustion of the monarchist cause in Australia and the changes taking place within the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). I'd also like to offer some suggestions as to how a Labor government might help establish an Australian head of state and avoid another republican stalemate.
Republicanism and Democracy
I was a strong supporter of a Yes vote in 1999, but my higher preference is that the people should elect our head of state. My thinking on this issue became clearer to me during the campaign.
I've always been a republican. The British monarchy has always struck me as being a bit like a mouldy old gingerbread house with no windows, enclosed by a 16 foot high electric fence.
When the issue flared into life in the early 1990s, I was, as it turns out, living in the United Kingdom, and I assumed we were all talking about electing the president.
In 1994 I returned to Australia and read Malcolm Turnbull's The Reluctant Republic, in which he argued that while direct election had emotional resonance, we'd find it very tricky to safely graft an elected president onto our current system.
I read all this, and was persuaded by the argument for having a president appointed by Parliament, and campaigned for it. But it was a bit of a let-down. It seemed a little boring, and it seemed to lack the sizzle of real democracy.
As the campaign wore on, my initial preference, for electing the president, took a firmer hold, with the simple realisation that if we're going to replace the Crown, we should replace it with a symbol of the sovereignty of the people.
We are, after all, republicans precisely because the symbolism of the Crown - remote, undemocratic, aristocratic, sexist, sectarian and closed - is so completely wrong for a new world nation like Australia. The office of president will be largely of symbolic significance. It follows that the symbolism of how we choose the president is particularly important. By the process of popular election we invest the office of head of state with a richer democratic meaning.
Put another way, as we try to marry the ideals of democracy and republicanism, it would be best to place a symbol of democracy at the apex of that republic.
The issue is becoming more pressing because there is a growing vacuum at the top: the Crown's symbolic importance has shrivelled, like a 6-day-old kiddie's birthday balloon. Ironically, some of the prime culprits here are the monarchists themselves.
The End Of Australian Monarchism
Supporters of a Yes vote in 1999 were disgusted at the cheap tactics the monarchists deployed to railroad the referendum debate - the falsehoods, scare campaigns and their willingness to cynically (and hypocritically) trade on popular discontent with politicians as a class with their slogan, 'Vote No to the politicians' republic'.
So spare a thought for strident monarchist campaigner and constitutional convention delegate Sophie Panopoulous, who, seemingly through no fault of her own, woke up one day and discovered that she'd somehow copped Liberal preselection for the seat of Indi. It seems Sophie gazed into the abyss for too long, and the abyss gazed back and thrust preselection upon her. Perhaps if elected she plans to do a Gerry Adams and not take her seat in Parliament on principle. Kerry Jones, former leader of the monarchist cause, has also sought Liberal preselection for the NSW Upper House, but her attempt failed.
Others who campaigned against 'the politicians' republic', such as Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop, found themselves to be politicians in very republican seats. Despite their efforts, the electors of Mackellar and Warringah returned solid Yes votes in the referendum. I imagine Abbott and Bishop will be a lot quieter in future campaigns. Tony Abott's avowed commitment to our horse-and-buggy Constitution will increasingly complicate his bid to been seen as a plausible leader for the 21st century. Expect to see a Nixon-in-China type conversion to soft republicanism from him in the next few years.
The noisy reactionary blather of these monarchists sits uneasily alongside their attitude towards their sovereign, which seems to be much more low-key, and one of ongoing deep embarrassment.
The sovereign herself might wonder what use these monarchists are who are too embarrassed to let her anywhere near the Olympic Games or the centenary of Federation; these monarchists who insist she is somehow not our head of state. It's likely she finds these carking anti-elitists in Commonwealth cars as irritating as we do.
The point I'm making here is that although the status quo still holds, the monarchist cause is finished. In 1999 they succeeded in burning down our house, but in doing so, they burnt down their house too. Their campaign tacitly acknowledged the truth of the republican argument, that the British hereditary monarchy's hold on our highest office is indefensible, and that Australia is now predominantly republican in sentiment.
While the republican movement is energetically rebuilding a bigger house, the monarchists are walking around the charred embers of their own, insisting that there's nothing wrong with the place that a lick of paint won't fix. They are a constitutional Flat Earth Society and they know it.
A new Australian Republican Movement
This is why, although the politics of building an Australian republic is tricky, we are picking up momentum again.
Since 1999 the ARM has regrouped and transformed itself into a democratically elected body, with its national and State committee members elected by the membership. This has unleashed a fair bit of democratic energy, and despite the referendum defeat, the organisation feels livelier than ever.
The ARM no longer upholds any one republican model and the national committee now includes direct electionists such as Dorothy McRae-McMahon (NSW ARM convenor), Tim Costello and myself, as well as republicans who would prefer a less radical change. The bitter rift between the ARM and those republicans who campaigned for a No vote is quietly being healed.
The ARM's constitutional subcommittee is in the process of developing a paper containing several models for public discussion.
One will be an ultra-minimalist model, merely substituting a president for the role of Queen and Governor-General. A tweaked version of the 1999 bipartisan model will also be outlined, along with several popular election models: one a 'full-blown' form of direct election, another two where the Parliament or an elected college tempers a direct vote and, for the sake of inclusion, a US-style republic with an executive presidency. Once again, the ARM has no preference for any one model.
Leaving aside for a moment the constitutional and political ins and outs, which model is the most likely to be carried in a referendum? Which promises to eventually carry the largest coalition of support? Most likely it'll be one of the tempered forms of popular election.
The ultra-minimalist and the US-style models seem unlikely to ever be put to the people or carried by them. The first would be less democratic than the 1999 bipartisan model, restricting the power of presidential appointment to just one person - the prime minister of the day. And we hear very few voices in favour of a move to a US-style system.
The old bipartisan model could hardly be presented to the people again after it was defeated comprehensively in all states. Do we propose to keep putting it to the people repeatedly until they give us the 'right' answer? Prime Minister Billy Hughes put the same conscription question to the people twice during World War I and failed by a bigger margin the second time.1
Another possibility is open direct election in which any citizen can be nominated as long as the nomination is accompanied by a set number of signatures. This would require the presidential powers to be satisfactorily codified, and the Senate's powers to block supply may need to be amended as well (no mean feat).2
While this would deliver a very democratic republic, there's little hope as it now stands of having conservative support for such major constitutional change. Both Peter Costello and that well-known Tory Bob Carr have said they would oppose such a model (Steketee 2001, p. 1). Another split would doom any referendum proposal. Direct electionists are obliged to confront these substantial political impediments.
The best option would seem to be a form of popular election that conservative republicans can be persuaded to live with, even if they can't bring themselves to enthusiastically campaign for it.
This might be a rejigged version of a system proposed by Geoff Gallop at the Constitutional Convention, in which candidates for the presidency are directly nominated by the people and seven of those nominated are selected by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of both Houses of the federal Parliament followed by popular election (Gallop 1998).
This would go some way, I believe, to assuaging conservative fears (unfounded, I think, but still very real) of a President Kylie or Kerry. In reality it would most likely produce a Labor candidate, a conservative candidate, a Democrat and some independents.
Another form of tempered direct election proposes an electoral college, elected by the people, that would then choose the president from a list of candidates. This would have the benefit of being more participatory than the bipartisan model and would avoid the dangers of a presidential political mandate, which rightly troubles the conservatives. As with all compromises, these models may achieve consensus or they may satisfy no one.
Labor and the Republic
Given that it seems politically unfeasible to once again propose a minimalist republic, how might a Labor government successfully manage the process of getting the debate back on track and avoiding another republican stalemate?
If elected, Labor is committed to introducing a plebiscite, at the end of its first term, on the threshold question, 'do we want a republic in which an Australian is the head of state, or do we want to continue as a constitutional monarchy in which the head of state must be the British monarch?' (Beazley 2000).
I believe the best way to move forward from a carried Yes vote would be to hold a Constitutional Convention quite different from the last one: a Convention held by a sympathetic government and a prime minister acting in good faith. A Convention where most of the seats are elected, and with more time to deliberate and build consensus.
If it was clear that some form of popular election was desired, a Constitutional Convention conducted in the atmosphere of a carried Yes vote in the plebiscite could act as a clearing house for many of the political problems involved in electing the president, namely reform of the Senate's powers and codification of the powers of the president.3
Maybe enough support might emerge for another idea that would cut the Gordian knot of constitutional change.
In recent months people like Dorothy McRae-McMahon and constitutional lawyer Dr Helen Irving have suggested that instead of proposing hundreds of patch-up jobs to our arcane, monarchist Constitution, why not start afresh and look at a new Constitution, written in plain English (Irving 2001)? One that maintains our Westminster system yet clears away the anachronistic clutter of the old one; a clear, elegant document that every citizen can understand. We might even be able to come up with a Constitution that we can be - gulp! - proud of.
Sceptical voters might well prefer to make one big change and move to a new plain language Constitution rather than cop hundreds of changes to a document that is pretty opaque to the average citizen.
A Virtual Great Hall Of The People
I recall once seeing a documentary on Walter Burley Griffin and his original design for Capitol Hill which suggested that Parliament House would have, atop both Houses, a vast Great Hall of the People, where citizens could come and go as they please.
I've since looked into it and I've never been able to find out whether or not he did propose such a thing. Whether he did or didn't, it's still an excellent idea: a heavy-handed but powerful reminder of who's supposed to be the boss in the scheme of things.
An Australian presidency should be like a virtual Great Hall of the People - a symbol of the overarching sovereignty of the people in the civic life of the nation. This would be a big improvement on the mouldy old gingerbread house with the fence that sits there now. The best way to make the office of head of state meaningful to us is to take a vote on who should occupy it and thereby recharge its symbolic importance.
Much is made of the disconnection between Australians and their elected representatives. An elected presidency, a symbol of the paramountcy of the people, might go some way to reconnecting Australians with our democratic institutions.
This chapter was originally delivered as the after dinner speech at 'Marking the Constitutional Centenary: An Agenda for Reform', a conference held at the University of Melbourne, 15 June 2001.
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