An Australian Republic? Facts and Sentiment

Australian-Coat-of-ArmsIn considering the question of whether Australia should move to become a republic, I think its helpful to consider both fact and sentiment.

Currently, in the Commonwealth of Australia, executive power is constitutionally vested in the Queen of England (ie. she is the Head of State), but is exercisable only by the Australian Governor-General.

Whilst the Governor-General is named as the Queen’s “representative”, those powers specifically extend to the “execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth”.

It is interesting to note that in 1986, the Australia Act repealed all power of the UK Parliament over Australia, and specifically limited the powers of the Queen in every state. This limited the operational power of the Queen to one task – the appointment of the Governor-General. And since 1930 this person has been the unquestioned selection solely of the Australian Prime Minister.

The Governor-General, however, actually has considerable powers which are not extended to the Queen, including:

1. The power to appoint a Prime Minister if an election has resulted in a ‘hung parliament’
2. The power to dismiss a Prime Minister where he or she has lost the confidence of the Parliament.
3. The power to dismiss a Prime Minister or Minister when he or she is acting unlawfully.
4. The power to refuse to dissolve the House of Representatives despite a request from the Prime Minister.

The Australian Governor-General actually operates in a manner entirely consistent with an Australian Head of State, holding power to act beyond that of the Queen herself. It is the Governor-General alone that may “appoint such times for holding the sessions of the Parliament as he thinks fit” (sic).

Indeed, when a proposed law passed by both Houses of the Parliament is presented to the Governor‑General for the Queen’s assent, it says “he shall declare, according to his discretion, but subject to this Constitution, that he assents in the Queen’s name”. He decides, not the Queen.

The Governor‑General can also refuse a law, or “.. may transmit therewith any amendments which he may recommend”. In America this is called a ‘presidential veto’.

Technically, the Queen does still also have power to disallow a law too. But this power has never been used, and never would. Indeed it was even legally dissolved in relation to the State Parliaments in 1986.

Even command of the military forces is constitutionally vested specifically in the Governor-General, not the Queen. Our Constitution actually calls this the “command in chief”.

But surely the functional replacement of the Queen as effectual Head of State by the Governor-General in Australia was essentially confirmed in the events of 1975. In their recent book The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston confirm that the Governor-General, John Kerr, acted to dismiss the Whitlam Government without the prior knowledge or consent of the Queen of Australia.

The Queen was only informed at 8am the following morning, apparently just prior to the radio news. She was described by a senior staff member as being “indeed surprised, as surprised as we had been.” The Queen’s assistant private secretary also added: “She was interested and concerned but, as I had felt, there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Powers to call and dismiss a parliament and a prime minister are quite clearly devolved exclusively on the governor-general.”

Consider it: Our Head of State was told over breakfast that the Government had been dismissed the day before. Kerr is said to have been protecting the Monarch from the inevitable controversy, but in doing so he made plain it’s irrelevance in relation to Australian governance. Australia doesn’t really function as a constitutional monarchy in any manner excepting symbolism and sentiment.

But symbolism matters, and sentiment is strong. Indeed Australian sentiment toward Queen Elizabeth in particularly strong. She personifies what I do think is the strongest argument for a constitutional monarchy, namely the notion of the call to service bestowed upon some one who has to do it through birthright, rather than someone who aspires to do it through ambition.

This is why the coherence of the Westminster system of government must be retained by ensuring a new Head of State is not a politician driving a political agenda from outside of Parliament. This would too dramatically shift the nature of our governance. This is why a direct-election model for a Head of State would be unwise. Election by Parliament would ensure a non-political, non-partisan appointment.

Paradoxically, many Australian’s were not keen on Parliament electing the Head of State on the occasion in the 1999 republican referendum. But here lies the irony for many of those who voted ‘No’ – they voted against a Head of State “elected by a two-thirds majority of the Australian parliament” and instead opted to remain with a Governor-General selected personally by a single individual – the Prime Minister.

As for symbolism, the revising the Australian Constitution sufficiently to replace references to “Her Majesty’s heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom” with an Australian Head of State should made in tandem with changes to include proper recognition of the Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, even as the specific nature of that recognition is being debated. There are strong historical reasons why these matters, while not identical, are linked.

This entire question of a republic resonated with me more strongly recently as I read George Megalogenis’ latest book Australia’s Second Chance: What Our History tells us about our Future which charts the economic development of Australia through the prism of the tides of migration over the past two centuries. He details both the horrendous treatment of the Indigenous people, the complex relationship with immigration, and unique growth of our prosperous cities.

Get this: In less than a century, Australia went from open-air prison to the very top of the global income ladder, enacting world-leading social reforms and aspiring to its own democracy. Melbourne was founded in 1835, and by 1870 Australia had the highest living standards on earth, beyond both Britain and the US.

By then the population was 50/50 split between migrants and local-born. Today still, half the popular is a first or second generation migrant. By 1860, Victoria had 40% more people than California, because it was attracting many more migrants. And, as Megalogenis writes, “Migration is the greatest compliment that can be paid to a nation”. The US is the only other nation on earth to have attracted and retained more migrants since 1830.

But while Americans never doubt a migrant will embrace their identity,

Australians seem to view every new arrival ambivalently, despite having been built on migration. This lack of confidence in the our national character is always telling – even as we relish it, we doubt it’s transmission. Australia subsequently had periods of ‘closed shop’ and even outright xenophobia, particularly toward the Chinese, which interestingly led to policies that then resulted in our weakest times economically. When we have been open, confident, welcoming, we have grown more socially cosmopolitan and more prosperous. There is a strong link between our national sense of identity, our openness to immigration, and our fortune.

This is demonstrated in how the Australian settlement grew an early sense of identity, seeing itself as ‘people of the world’, and as early as 1849 was moving public motions against Britain to stop enforcing convicts, “The Mother Country has no right to tax free British Colonies for Imperial purposes, which she does when she requires them to maintain any part of her criminal system”. In 1853, Earl Grey recounted to the House of Lords how the Australian colonies were far outgrowing the American ones, and were a model “thriving community”.

Becoming more deeply acquainted with our history stirs in me more confidence in our our unique, ambitious, complex, young nation. Australia has a history of unique strengths, including social cohesion, a long tradition of pragmatic policy innovation, and the “ability to turn the disparate, querulous cultures of the world in to a unified people”. Our nation has been built on the migration of many nations, not solely England, and continues to be so.

But the hard fact remains that over a million Indigenous people in 1788 were reduced to less than 95,000 by Federation in 1901, primarily through disease and slaughter. Meanwhile the broader population had grown to 3.9 million, and prospered enormously. This fact tempers our optimism and prosperity.

Australians are more anxious than we let on, despite our incredible fortune. Perhaps finally cutting the formal tie with the British Monarchy, and the subsequent questions regarding the constitution and the flag that will result, will enable us to more fully face and own our complex heritage?

For as maturity both follows and enables genuine self-awareness, I suspect the more abiding attention we give to our Indigenous history, the more confidently internationalist we shall become.