Republican Realism: A Purely 'Ceremonial' Head of State? (2010)

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Document + This brief document attempts to highlight the practical difficulties in achieving an Australian republic that many prominent supporters of the concept to not seem to be aware of.  This deficiency arguably constitutes an example of the hazards that political populism poses to Australia.

The creation of a republic seems to be viewed as as purely a 'symbolic' change - resulting in the establishment an elected head of state who would see their role as ceremonial and non-political.

For example:

The former head of the Australian Republican Movement referred to: (a) the acceptance by republicans of Australia's British heritage; (b) the declining visibility of the monarchy in Australia; (c) the increasingly presidential style of Australia's prime ministers; (d) Australia's openness to new ideas and change - which is very 'republican'; (e) the symbolic character of the republican debate in Australia; and )f) the obstacles to achieving constitutional change. He also suggested that:

"Australians will have to decide how they want to choose their new head of state. The last referendum was bedevilled by a split between republicans who wanted a directly elected president and those, such as myself, who believed that a ceremonial and non-political position is better filled by a bipartisan vote of parliament.

It is possible, of course, to have a directly elected ceremonial head of state; the Irish have done so for years. But it is not the best way, and that is why most presidents who are ceremonial heads of state, as opposed to those who are also heads of government, are chosen by their parliaments." (Turnbull M., A prince among friends, but not as our head of state, The Australian, 23-24/1/10)

The 'What we stand for' introduction to the Republic Now Movement web-site suggested

"There is no doubt in our mind that a Referendum on a model that includes the option of a popularly elected President, with symbolic powers, will be supported by a large majority of Australians. "

The unresolved question is how it would be ensured that a republican head of state adopted a purely ceremonial and non-political approach to the huge powers they would hold without any obvious current Constitutional constraint.

The problem would be particularly acute for one chosen by direct election, who might well have their own political power base and believe that they had some sort of electoral mandate It is noted that:

  • the powers of Australia's heads of state exceed those of elected governments because: (a) Prime Ministers and Premiers are not directly assigned powers through the Constitution; and (b) the head of state would also have the 'reserve powers' of the Crown that are not specifically provided for in the Constitution;
  • the restraint which Governors General and Governors now display in using executive powers only on government advice depends ultimately on his / her role being simply that of a representative of a monarchy which chooses to act this way;
  • even under the present vice-regal system a number of Governors / Governors General have taken the view that they should take a partisan position on political agendas they favour, and many commentators have suggested that Australia's heads of state need to have popular support or perhaps even a definite political agenda (see Politicisation of the 'Crown');
  • it is not impossible that an individual selected / elected to the role of head of state who was not bound by the constraints of merely a 'vice regal' position could have a 'bee in their bonnet that they believed justified 'suspending democratic processes' or turning a blind eye to abuses of power by others;
  • a 'political' head of state would be likely to put Australia's prized and rare political stability at risk (see Putting Political Stability at Risk? }

Thus the key issue for republicans to consider is how Australia might ensure that the head of state in a future 'republic' (whatever this actually means) took a purely ceremonial and non-political approach to their role. 

However progress may be possible as illustrated by an article (Readfearn G. 'Do we have the will to cut the cord?' Courier Mail, 22/1/10) which noted the practical difficulty of achieving such an outcome. Specifically that  article went beyond the usual populist rhetoric and cited:

  • Professor Carol Johnson ( University of Adelaide) who pointed to the 'huge political and legislative task' involved in such a transition; and
  • Professor John Kane (Griffith University) who pointed to the complications of cutting constitutional ties with the monarchy - because 'you would then have an elected person with a lot of power, and that's a recipe for crisis. You would have to re-write and renegotiate the constitution. That's a huge task: enough work for a couple of decades. Most people don't understand the constitutional implications'

There is no doubt that Professor Kane is correct in suggesting that most people don't understand the issue. Moreover from the present writer's personal experience, this includes many who have taken the lead in endorsing a republic in Australia.

A Vague 'Republic' for a Vague 'Asian Century'?

A Vague 'Republic' for a Vague 'Asian Century'? - email sent 20/4/12

David Morris
Australian Republican Movement

RE: An Australian Republic for the Asian Century, OnlineOpinion, 19/4/12

Your article suggested that:

“Much has been written about the centre of the world's economic gravity shifting to our region, but no strong narrative about our place in the Asian Century has yet engaged Australians.”

Both points in this sentence are undoubtedly correct. However, while there has been a huge quantity of writing about the possibility of an ‘Asian century’ the quality of such writing has been incredibly poor, for reasons which are developed in Babes in the Asian Woods. In brief this suggests that there is a lack of real 'Asia literacy' amongst most of those who are supposed to be most expert in the area because they typically try to 'understand' Asia from a Western perspective (eg in terms of concepts such as democracy, capitalism and a rule of law) but don't understand it from an 'Asian' perspective.

Your article implied that becoming a ‘republic’ would boost Australia’s position in the ‘Asian century’. However this unfortunately is as vague as the endless writings about an ‘Asian century’. My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in Republican Realism: A Purely 'Ceremonial' Head of State? In brief the latter suggests that, there seems to be no clear proposal about how an ‘Australian’ head of state could be installed with powers similar to that of the Governor General (which I gather is the ARM’s goal). Direct popular election (the method that seems to have popular support) would generate political instability unless accompanied by an across-the-board re-write of the constitution which would take decades to get agreement about.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig