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Republican myths

By David Smith - posted Thursday, 7 October 2010

In their article in On Line OpinionDon’t wait until the Queen dies to become a republic” (October 5, 2010) Mike Keating and David Donovan claim that republicans are used to monarchists manufacturing myths to try to scare people away from a republic. That’s rich, coming from the greatest myth-makers this country has ever seen. In the lead-up to the 1999 referendum, republicans invented the most weird and wonderful reasons for wanting a republic.

Peter Collins, a former senior Liberal minister in New South Wales, and then Leader of the Opposition in the state Parliament, announced that he was a republican because the ultimate decision-making process for Australians rested with a foreign government, and that “it would be from the British government that any monarch receives, and will continue to receive, advice on constitutional issues”. The assertions made by Peter Collins were simply not true and, what is more, they ceased to be true two years before he was born.

Al Grassby, a minister in the Whitlam Labor government, claimed that the monarchy was responsible for the recession of the late 1980s, for the then one million Australians who were unemployed, for the business excesses of that period, and for the exodus from Australia of our top scientists.


Michael Lynch, then general manager of the Australia Council for the Arts, asserted that the monarchy stifled artistic talent and prevented our artists from fully expressing themselves.

Janet Holmes à Court, an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, said that she wanted a new flag and a new Constitution because an Asian cabinet minister had told her that his country would help the Australian people in their struggle for independence from Britain! It also worried her that her Asian acquaintances were confused by the Queen’s portrait hanging on Australian Embassy walls. Prime Minister Paul Keating saw to that - he had them removed.

Sallyanne Atkinson, former Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane, former Australian Trade Commissioner to France, and an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, said that she was a republican because she had found the French confused by the fact that the Queen of England was also Queen of Australia. I should have thought that the French would have been more confused by the fact that, following their bloody revolution of 1789-92 and the execution of their monarch, they have had no less than ten major changes in their system of government, including five republics. And still they have not got it right, for there are moves from time to time towards a Sixth Republic. The trade commissioner might more usefully have spent her time in Paris in telling the French something about the enduring stability of our constitutional arrangements.

The former Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, and other former diplomats from that department, argued for constitutional change in order to simplify matters for our diplomats when it came to explaining our constitutional arrangements to foreign heads of state and their officials. Woolcott mentioned particularly his own difficulties in explaining them to former President Suharto of Indonesia, himself no paragon of democratic virtue, as a reason for altering our Constitution. If our diplomats and trade representatives cannot understand, explain and defend Australia’s present system of government they should get off its payroll.

Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the Australian Trade Commission, and then the chairman of the Australian Venture Capital Association, boasted that the republic would present a windfall marketing opportunity for Australian exporters because our present constitutional arrangements were harmful to the overseas promotion of our products and services. According to Ferris, the republic would help gain international recognition for our technology and our inventions, and would ensure that much more venture capital would flow back into our newer industries.

Lindsay Fox, founder and chairman of Fox Group Holdings and an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, saw the republic as an opportunity for Australia to “rebadge” and “re-brand” itself, thus reducing the nation, its history, its Constitution and its system of government to the level of a new car or a packet of detergent.


Neville Wran, former Premier of New South Wales and an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, told us that changing to a republic would boost jobs and invigorate Australia’s spirits.

Probably the saddest case of gross misrepresentation in order to advance the republic came from Sir Anthony Mason, Chief Justice of the High Court from 1987 to 1995. This one-time interpreter of our Constitution claimed to have discovered a “robust” constitutional convention which he said had been hidden within our Constitution since 1901. According to this convention, the Governor-General ceases to function whenever the Queen is in Australia, and the Governor-General is prevented from attending functions in Australia when the Queen herself is present. Sir Anthony’s claims are not true. Governors-General have continued to carry out their constitutional duties while the Queen is in Australia, for the Constitution does not allow the Queen to carry them out, and Governors-General have attended official functions in company with the Queen, for the Constitution does not prevent them from doing so. Indeed, when the Queen opened the new Parliament House in 1988, not only was the Governor-General in the official party, but the then Chief Justice, Sir Anthony Mason, was present as an honoured guest and was seated in the very front row! His so-called “robust” constitutional convention does not exist, and he based it on so-called precedents that have never occurred. It was the product of a failed memory and a fertile imagination.

Against this background, it ill behoves republicans to lecture monarchists about manufactured myths. I suggest instead that they get on with complying with section 128 of the Constitution, if they can, and stop relying on silly stunts and stupid slogans.

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About the Author

Sir David Smith was Official Secretary to five Governors-General from 1973 to 1990. He is a former visiting scholar in the Faculty of Law at the Australian National University. His book Head of State: the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal was launched in November 2005 by former Governor-General Bill Hayden.

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