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A republic and the stability myth

By Philip Howell - posted Tuesday, 22 August 2017


In a recent article Stephen Cable claims:

To date, none of the proponents of moving Australia to a republic have been able to offer anyone a good reason to do so.

It would be more correct to say that none of the proponents to whom the media gives publicity have offered good reasons. That does not however mean there are no good reasons. The Advancing Democracy model explains how the monarchy is the chief source of instability in our political system, and why it should be rejected as fundamentally undemocratic. See www.advancingdemocracy.info.

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Identity and independence are trivial issues. Of more concern is the common refrain that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. This view brushes aside the 1975 crisis as if it didn't occur, or can't happen again. Why it can't is never explained. An absence of crises does not make crises impossible.

Ignorance does not fully explain the 'if it ain't broke' view. More important is faulty reasoning: from the opinion that Australia has been relatively stable - true - the conclusion is drawn that our Constitution must guarantee stability - false. It is the supposed causal connection between our Constitution and political stability which is a myth. Our stability actually comes from ignoring what our Constitution says.

Take the formation and removal of governments. When we vote, we expect the majority in the lower house will govern. Isn't that what 'winning' the election means?

If our Constitution was democratic, it would say that the government is appointed by a majority vote of the House of Representatives. Yet it doesn't. Instead, our Constitution makes the Crown the legal head of government: s.61. Executive Councillors (s.62) and Ministers (s.64) hold office 'during the pleasure' of the Governor-General. High Court cases confirm the precise legal meaning of this phrase - the office-holder may be dismissed at any time, for any reason, without notice: see Fletcher v Nott (1938); Coutts (1985); Jarrett (2005). Yesterday's article said our Constitution:

...manages to place power exactly where it should be, in the elected Parliament.

No, it does not. It places the power to appoint and dismiss governments with the Crown.

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Legally, a Whitlam-style dismissal could happen at any time, for any reason. So the legal rule is ignored. A more democratic rule - that the majority governs - is adopted in practice. The only time majority rule has been ignored was in 1975. Then, applying the legal rule in the Constitution actually created the crisis. Think about it - had the Crown power of dismissal not existed, the coalition could not have gained anything from blocking the budget. The debacle of 1975 was caused by the Constitution.

Now consider legislation. We expect that once passed by both houses, a proposed law will become law. But the Constitution says royal agreement is necessary: ss. 58-60. Legally, the Crown can veto a proposed law supported by Parliament, but as this is not democratic, the legal rule is disregarded. It is interesting to think what might have happened in the period 2010-2013. Labor governed without a majority in either house. It would have been quite possible for Parliament to have passed a law against the wishes of the government. The government could then have advised the Governor-General not to approve the proposed law. Democratic law-making by Parliament would have been thwarted through the use of Crown power. Again, no written rule stops the Crown's representative from vetoing bills any time.

Then we come to elections. The power to dissolve the House of Representatives is vested in the Crown: ss.5, 28. A Governor-General could severely disrupt Parliament and change government by calling an election whenever he or she thought the people might have changed their minds. So the legal power is only usually exercised when recommended by a Prime Minister with majority support in the House. Departures from that approach - where the Crown purports to exercise a 'reserve' power to ignore the Prime Minister's advice - have created controversy, uncertainty and disputes across the British Commonwealth.

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About the Author

Philip Howell is a solicitor in western Sydney and the author of the Advancing Democracy proposal.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Howell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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