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
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
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.