It is more than three years since the proposal for a republic was lost.
Referendums are soon forgotten but not so long ago I was surprised by this
question: "Didn't we decide to become a republic in 1999?" This
surely confirms Malcolm Turnbull's telling assessment, four months before
the referendum: "We have Buckley's chance of winning. Nobody is
So we got through the end of the century, the start of the new
millennium, the centenary of federation, and the Olympic Games without
becoming what the University of Melbourne solemnly predicted - an
"international laughing stock". Actually, after East Timor and
weathering the Asian economic crisis we are respected, admired and even
envied. And along with the other countries which are the most attractive
to live in, according to the United Nations, we have retained the Crown in
our constitutional system.
So where stands the republic today? Were its chances improved at the
conference at Corowa in late 2001? Former Governor Richard McGarvie had
worked for so long to make that a success. But at the last minute all his
hard work was to be taken over by a solid phalanx of republican lawyers.
The result? Professor Greg Craven summed it up. Until the conference, he
believed, Australia's chances of becoming a republic were slim. After
Corowa, he concluded, they were non-existent!
The difficulty for most republicans is that few appreciate - or even
fully understand - our present constitutional system. Most Australians,
unlike republicans, even if they don't fully understand it, know that it
works, and works better than most. The Crown is not just some disposable
appendage, it is central to the constitution, a pristine institution above
politics which is at its very heart. To adapt the description of a British
republican think-tank, the Australian Crown is:
- The essence of our executive governments, state and federal,
- a significant part of our Parliaments,
- the spine of our judiciary,
- the employer of our public services,
- the commander- in-chief of the army, navy and air force,
- the guardian of our constitutions, and
- the lynchpin linking the federal structure with the states.
The Crown was imported from Britain but - and this is most important -
it was adapted to our needs. In brief, it was Australianised. This is also
the case with our law, our other institutions and indeed, our language -
none of which we would readily abandon. Apart from sharing the one
sovereign, the Australian Crown is an institution separate and apart from
the Canadian, British and the many other Crowns. And if this were not so,
former One Nation Senator Heather Hill would still be in the Senate!
The Australian Crown is personalised at its pinnacle by the Queen of
Australia, who will normally act on the advice of her Australian Prime
Minister. But most of the Crown's federal powers are exercised by our
Governor-General, those of the States by the Governors.
So at the heart of our constitutional and legal system there is thus a
vast institution beyond politics. There is no reason why we could not
remove it, if that is what we really want to do. But we owe it to
ourselves, our parents and our children to understand and to be fully
informed on what we are removing. And equally we ought to know precisely
what we are putting in its place.
As with the flag, which Mr. Keating says "gets up his nose",
republicans don't like the constitution but don't know or can't agree on a
replacement. The flag now is unassailable, and nobody is interested in a
And in any event, on one view of what a republic is, our republicans
are not really republicans. They want to keep at the heart of the
constitution a political no-go area, an institution above politics. In
other words they want the Crown but without the Sovereign. But they can't
have their cake and eat it too. And precisely because of this quandary,
the republican movement resorts to publicity stunts, instead of developing
a workable acceptable and truly republican model.
2001's stunt was a demand that the Queen of Australia give back the Tom
Roberts painting which hangs permanently in Parliament House. They might
as well have asked The Queen to return our Crown land - an equally
In 2002 it was an ARM call for State Governors to be elected. As if
State Premiers would want a politician above them with a greater mandate
then there own. The Premiers were not prepared to be like a group of
foolish turkeys voting for an early Christmas! They refused. The Sydney
Morning Herald declared the proposal an ARM "no brainer"!