Notes on the proposed Australian republic model

Back in high school days, at a model United Nations conference, a group of fellow students once rankled conference organisers by suggesting – through mock UN security council resolution – that the long-running Kashmir conflict be resolved by a winner-take-all One Day International between India and Pakistan.

While partly facetious (some of our mob were serious), it appears the Australian Republic Movement has put forward a similarly cricket-inspired theme in its proposed Australian XI or ‘Australia Choice’ model.

Under the model unveiled this week, Australian republicans are proposing that, to select a head of state, the states and territories nominate their own candidate and for the federal parliament to nominate three. The 11 candidates would then be put to a compulsory national election.

There are a number of immediate issues with the republican proposal.

First, putting forward names like this creates an obvious competing power centre, politicising a position that is supposed to be above politics. Under our current arrangements, the political focus is on the Prime Minster and not on a Governor-General, a desired President or future head of state.

The Australian XI model makes such a figure susceptible to act in political terms which, as Fred Pawle has pointed out, could mean anything from pushing sugar taxes to the elimination of plastic straws – key causes of current leading republican figures. Our arrangements guard against these trends and have been remarkable in terms of political stability.

The second issue with the model is actually another model with which we can draw at least slight parallels – the national cabinet. The current performance of this arrangement, where the states, territories and federal government supposedly work together and drive solutions should make us entirely wary of bringing in the states and territories for federal decisions.

Under the proposal, however, they would now have more and not less of a say in shortlisting for an Australian head of state. As I have written here, the messiness of federation, which has been on full display over the last two years, should attract the reform energy of republicans over the cosmetic and excessive desire to select an Australian president.

The third issue with the Australia Choice model is that it is composed of electoral calculation and not any historical ‘feel’ or appreciation. “It’s a model that has a chance of winning a referendum,” notes the ARM national director. The ARM research shows that, “when uncertain voters were asked how they would vote at a compulsory referendum, support for the hybrid model rose to 73 per cent.”

When things are composed this way, one can’t help think that the ARM’s objective is about winning a referendum and not about what is best for our democracy. To go back and read someone like Paul Hasluck, for example, who served as Governor-General from 1969 to 1974, shows us that the institution is not so much about hybrid calculation and winning people over but about maintaining the delicate balance of constitutional monarchy at the intersection of parliamentary democracy and federation.

Republicans often forget that the Governor-General’s role is not stuck in time. There are intricacies that have built up since federation that come with playing the role of a ‘neutral umpire’, or the train conductor ‘above politics’ – officiating visits, opening parliament, signing bills into law and, in the case of parliamentary deadlock, convening joint sittings to drive resolution. “Today we have grown into a stage of independence and international recognition that was never envisaged in 1901,” noted Hasluck in his 1979 Queale Memorial Lecture.

Hasluck is right and, over time, the wind has blown even more out of republican sales. God Save the Queen is no longer Australia’s national anthem, we now have our own honours system, the oath for new citizens does not mention the Queen and Buckingham Palace has made more than clear that, when it comes to controversial political problems – such as November 1975 – it is the Governor-General and not the Queen that takes decisive action.

To tinker with the balance of these arrangements – all of which have been achieved under our status as a constitutional monarchy – is to once again undermine the unique political stability that has been achieved.

The big risk that the ARM undertook in its two year long search for a model is emerging with a politician’s republic. The Australian XI model, however, in utilising parliaments in this way, is exactly where the proposal has landed. As even the late devout republican John Hirst warned in The Republican Manifesto, “The body least likely to inspire confidence in Australia is one which brings together every politician in the country!”.

Up the republic they say. But long live common sense.

Image source: The Australian


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