Did republicanism die with the 1999 referendum? Far from it. Australians are, it seems, more ‘passionate’ about the republic than ever (Newspoll, Australian 6 August, 2001). And erstwhile monarchists, like former National Party leader Tim Fischer, are declaring themselves converts.
But will this new mood translate into constitutional change? Or as in 1999, will initial enthusiasm be followed by defeat when a concrete proposal is put to the vote? Are Australians, like Sisyphus, destined eternally to push the republican stone up the hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom?
Like many before him, Mr Fischer has proposed a complicated, multi-stage formula for proceeding. But, just like the others, he has failed to ask the obvious question. Why are the majority pro-republican? What are they passionate about?
The answer, it seems clear, is that people want direct election of a republican head of state and believe they have a renewed chance. They cling to this goal, despite all the sermons and politics lectures about its incompatibility with our constitutional system. The question we should ask then is what type of person Australians hope for in an elected Head.
In 1901, when the Commonwealth was established 'under the Crown', the Governor-General was the principal link between Australia and the British government. He was chosen on the advice of Britain’s Ministers, and reported directly to them. He was expected to be a distant, impersonal figure, exercising indirect political powers. After the Imperial conference of 1926, the Governor-General was chosen by the Australian government, and reported directly to the King or Queen.
At the same time, the Monarch came to be seen as having a 'personal' relationship with his or her subjects, as a parental, caring figure, beyond politics. When the King's Christmas message was transmitted around the Empire, people felt he was speaking directly to them, in their own homes. Now, as the Monarch has faded in Australia's imagination, the Governor-General has taken on these qualities. The great success of Sir William Deane's incumbency lies in his assumption of national moral authority. People saw him as a caring figure, a personal representative, an apolitical 'father of the nation'. He set this stamp on the office.
Debates about the character of the head of state are not new. They touch on the great issues in democratic constitutional systems. What is the nature of representation? How far should majority choice or endorsement of leaders go in a democracy? What are the checks and balances built into our institutions?
At the very first Federal Convention in Sydney in 1891, it was proposed that the Governor-General should be directly elected. Former New Zealand Governor and Premier, Sir George Grey, argued that the people would choose wisely and well, and that their civic ambition and democratic instincts would be enlarged. Fellow delegate, Alfred Deakin, replied that direct election was essential if the Governor-General had constitutional power, but since he did not, it was not necessary. Others were afraid of politicising the office, or deterring dignified candidates, or creating new concentrations of power. The Convention concluded against direct election. But the logic of their debate was that once the Governor-General became a representative of the Australian people, the means of choosing him would need to be democratised.
This debate is not finished. Some 'direct-electionists' want a Head of State to wield executive power, but the majority do not want another politician in the Governor-General’s place. They will accept constitutional limits on his powers. They will prefer, if asked, to talk about the nature of the office instead of just the mechanism for choosing an incumbent.
We should put these issues on the agenda. We should go even further, and talk about titles. Is the name 'President' (adopted without consultation in 1999) appropriate for what Australians have in mind? In 1891, at the same Federal Convention, and in the face of protest, the then unusual name 'Commonwealth' was chosen for the future Australian nation. It was defended on the historical and etymological grounds that it meant the 'common weal' or common good, the very thing Australians hoped to achieve in federating. Today, republicans and monarchists alike are warmly attached to this name.
What do Presidents do? They preside. They exercise power. They are frequently self-important. Let us have a discussion about alternatives. What about 'Chancellor', for example? What do Chancellors do? By definition, they protect. In history, they presided over the first courts of equity. They tempered the harsh application of the formal law. The very debate about the inadequacies of the outgoing Chancellor of Sydney University underlines these associations.
Perhaps there are more appropriate names, more fitting for the office of an elected republican head of state. But let's not simply rush into making a choice (as we did in 1966, with calling our new currency the dollar). Let us be as imaginative as our forebears, and begin at least by asking questions before reaching conclusions.