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Thinking practically about an Australian republic

By Greg Craven - posted Wednesday, 20 November 2002

At the present time, republicans are drawing breath either between defeat and victory, or between defeat and future catastrophe. It is a good time to think deeply on matters of principle, without becoming too absorbed in the usual debilitating republican game of "my model is bigger than yours".

At the same time, we can never lose sight of the fact that republicanism ultimately is a practical question. Nothing is more brutally practical than the necessity to win a referendum under the Australian Constitution. We cannot afford to be Peter Pan republicans, designing and re-designing the republic of Never-Never Land.

What this means is that while we certainly need to imagine a republic, we must at the same time carefully plan how we are going to implement it.


At this stage of the republican debate, therefore, there are probably three issues worth thinking about.

  1. Definition. What is a republic, and who is to be counted as a republican?
  2. Design. What types of constitutional changes would produce a satisfying and effective republic?
  3. Practicality. What form of republic would as a matter of reality be approved by the Australian people at referendum?


The issue of definition is a crucial one, as unless one knows what a "republican" is, it is impossible to define a republican solution. The problem in Australia is that there is a strong difference of view over who is entitled to wear a republican guernsey.

A narrow view is that anyone who wants an Australian head of state is a republican. No more is required. On this definition, many Liberal Conservatives, such as Peter Costello (and myself) are republicans.

A wider view, however, holds that a republican must subscribe to a "republican" constitutional agenda. This typically includes an elected head of state, constitutional guarantees of human rights (such as a bill of rights), and a general conviction that the Australian Constitution is not a very impressive document.

The crucial point in this debate is that, if one takes the wide view of republicanism, then what might be termed "conservative republicans" are off the republican team. They share none of the suppositions of broad republicans. They do not want an elected President. They are suspicious of bills of rights. They regard the Australian Constitution as, if not perfect, then very, very, good.


On this exclusionary basis, "republicanism" ceases to be a concept that potentially unites Australians across a wide political spectrum in favour of a particular, nationalistic constitutional reform.

Rather, it becomes simply a label for the traditional programme of the constitutional Left. This is a programme not for a republic, but for a re-constitution. By definition, it can never attract general political support.

These issues of definition have profound implications in relation to republican design and practicality.

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About the Author

Professor Greg Craven is Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Deputy Chairman, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council, and a constitutional lawyer.

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