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I know! Let's have a plebiscite on having a republic!

By John de Meyrick - posted Wednesday, 2 August 2017


It seems that the best the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, was able to think up for his big exciting announcement at the Queensland ALP Conference last weekend was to pledge that, in his first term of government if he were elected, he would hold a plebiscite on Australia becoming a republic with its own Australian Head of State.

It reminded me of those old Andy Hardy movies where, when the plots ran out of steam one of the actors would dolefully ask, "Well, what can we do now?" and Andy (Mickey Rooney) would suddenly light up and excitedly announce, "I know! Let's put on a show!"

Music, lights, camera, action and it would all end in a razzle-dazzle extravaganza of song and dance, and we all went home feeling the inner glow of having participated in a happy outcome.

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Mr Shorten would surely know that, with the costs of living and housing affordability on the rise and with stagnant wage growth, the last thing on the minds of working Australians at present is whether Australia should become a republic.

In any case, it has been generally accepted surely, if informal polls are right, that the time to be considering any move on this issue should remain in abeyance until Her Majesty The Queen has retired or is no longer with us. That, in any case, is presently accepted government policy.

Also, should I ask, is this the same Mr Shorten who is opposed to a plebiscite on same-sex marriage because of the cost involved?

Then again, his proposed plebiscite is only to be about whether we do, or whether we don't, want a republic, with one of us replacing the Queen as our Head of State. How far will that take the matter?

The proposal is meaningless without clear and unambiguous detail of what the model would look like and of how the powers of governance are to be shared (that being the uncertainty causing the issue to fail when decided by a referendum in 1999).

What is increasingly evident, and well illustrated by the current US Presidency, which might eventually become the model for an Australian republic, is that our Head of State and the powers that the role would entail should not be based on the US constitutional system where the President (cf. Governor-General) is elected directly by the people and has the power to appoint, inter alia, all the Members of Cabinet and other Executive Officers (cf. Ministers) who are not elected Members of Congress (cf. Parliament) nor responsible to Congress in any way.

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The US President also has the power to veto legislation made by the people's Congress (its House of Representatives and the Senate), command the armed forces, prepare the national budget and, in addition to initiating his or her own legislation, make rules, regulations and give instructions on a wide range of matters (as Executive Orders).

The Australian Constitution was modelled to some extent on the US Constitution but our Founding Fathers had the good sense to realise that the British people had fought too long and for too many centuries in curbing the powers of their monarchs to then make concessions or give back any of those powers to an elected substitute.

Clearly, any differently made head of state for this country should not have any more nor less powers than the Queen has at present. That is the 'minimalist approach'. The reserve powers as they are known.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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