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Want an Australian republic? Let's get rid of the oligarchs first

By Tony Moore - posted Friday, 3 January 2003

No symbol of our nation's cohesion hangs in our children's classrooms. Education departments, and presumably politicians, parents and students, do not consider our sovereign Queen Elizabeth II or her representative, the Governor-General Peter Hollingworth, to be appropriate icons of 21st-century Australia.

Missing from the 1999 referendum about a minimalist republic were issues of citizenship, democracy, participation, diversity and culture. It's time we discussed radical ideas that might go to make up a maximalist republic, such as election for all federal and state government public boards.

In the referendum, the debate focused on replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state; that is, achieving a republic from the top. While the majority of the people support an Australian head of state, they want to vote for a president by direct election as in the US, France and Ireland. Many republicans were surprised at the depth of public enthusiasm for direct election, which would potentially abandon a pillar of our Westminster system by creating an alternative power base to parliament. I found this popular urge for direct democracy a cause for optimism.


The reality of the Australian polity, like many representative democracies, is rule by oligarchy. Simply voting for a parliamentary representative every three years does not seem to give citizens a sense of control over government and its institution. In an era of rigid party discipline, the stacking of parties with obedient hacks and the growing presidential style of rule by prime ministers, we truly are subjects, as monarchy implies.

But the monarchy and the royal prerogative are a ruse behind which skulks an oligarchy - the rule of the many by the few. Most Australians did not want to give the oligarchy the power to choose the new president, but wanted to assume that power themselves.

There is something profoundly wrong with the relationship between government and the people in contemporary Australia. While the people still participate, pay their taxes and give consent, a certain narky quality has entered into our politics, and it is to do with more than the greed displayed by some politicians.

Blue-collar and rural Australians feel locked out of political representation, excluded by well-educated middle-class experts who are appointed to run everything. The rise and fall of One Nation was a symptom of the growing gulf between the governed and governors. Particular migrant groups and Aboriginal people have reasons to be estranged from a form of government that leaves them under-represented yet over-policed.

Republicans have been obsessed with the top of the pyramid, with the head of state. Perhaps we need to look at a republicanism that expands democracy throughout the body politic; at reducing hierarchies in government and making those tiers that remain directly accountable to their communities rather than controlled from the centre in the traditional Westminster style.

Is ministerial responsibility sufficient to guarantee democratic control of the government instrumentalities that shape our lives? Most federal and state utilities that govern important aspects of our lives, such as water (state), or public broadcasting (federal) have "public" boards whose members are selected in secret by the government.


Community groups like the Friends of the ABC are now arguing for a reform of public appointments along the lines of the British model, where selection criteria are transparent and a public interview and selection process is overseen by an independent Commissioner of Public Appointments.

But why not go all the way and elect the boards of all federal government "quangos", such as the ABC, CSIRO and the federal police? (Imagine the policies, ideas and passions that elections for the ABC board would generate. ABC staff are allowed to elect one board member and it leads to quality directors like the thinking man's firebrand, Quentin Dempster. The staff who work for the huge outsourced cottage industry supplying a large whack of Aunty's programs might also expect to be able to elect a representative. Taxpayers and consumers should elect the rest. Then it really would feel like our ABC.)

As the furore over a possible appointment of Peter Reith to the ABC board shows, the public is sick and tired of the blatant political stacking of their boards. But despite Labor's huff and puff about a Reith stack, both parties jealously guard this prerogative.

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This article was first published in The Age on 19 December 2002.

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About the Author

Tony Moore is the editor of Pluto Press.

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