Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Does the ARM want an Australian Republic or just no Monarchy?

By Stephen Barton - posted Tuesday, 5 November 2002

Reading Greg Barns’ attempt to breathe life into the scattered bones of Australian republicanism, I was struck by the contrast between him and another republican, the late Associate Professor Patrick O’Brien. Paddy O’Brien, as he was universally known, was a republican of a far different mould to members of the Australian Republican Movement. Tall, unkempt, fond of a drink and a cigarette, he was an academic of the old school. By all accounts, he was the enfant terrible of the Constitutional Convention. He must have left cosmetics wonder girl Poppy King a little confused.

His lectures were always entertaining. O’Brien had a formidable grasp of modern European and American history; furthermore he knew every skeleton in every closet and what lived under each rock in Australia’s political and cultural landscape. He was, to a large extent, a Cold War Warrior, a product of the 20th Century, liberal democracy’s struggle against totalitarianism of the Right and Left. That struggle had a personal element; his older brother was killed in Korea.

O’Brien was not a Cold War Warrior because he was a conservative reactionary (he was anything but), rather because he, like Edmund Burke, feared grand Utopian ideas and their inevitable cost in human life. He was deeply opposed to those who believed morality was found in the ends, not the means; the arrogant revolutionary, personified by Maximilian Robespierre, was his villain.


He believed in openness and accountability; he saw the dangers of WA Inc all too clearly, and wrote extensively on its shortcomings. A few years later, despite the criticism, he was proved right. He was also deeply critical of the executive’s dominance of the legislature in the Westminster system; the republic debate was, for O’Brien, a chance to improve Australia’s political system. This contrasts sharply with the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), which sees the republic as a demonstration of Australia’s ‘maturity’. The ARM reduced to its basic elements, is not republican, it is a nationalist movement.

Phillip Pettit, in an article published in Legislative Studies in 1992, identifies three broad themes that characterise republicanism. First, the anti-monarchical motif, second the rule of law, and third the rule of virtue. The anti-monarchical motif was premised on the notion that a Republic is a state without hereditary rulers. However, as Pettit observes the anti-monarchical motif was essentially ‘an expression of the deeper idea that Republics are meant to be governed by the rule of law.’ Hereditary rulers aren’t the problem, hereditary tyrants are.

Pettit argues that the three themes of republicanism combined to create an idea of personal liberty best defined as freedom from interference, a notion embraced by the likes of Paddy O’Brien. The political scientist Robert Dahl expanded on these themes.

He argued that "republicans view the major threat to civic virtue generated by factions and political conflicts". To lessen this threat, Dahl argues, republicans assume that the people are not a homogenous body. Rather, they are divided, pursuing sectional interests and short-term goals; conflict is therefore inherent. To accommodate this conflict, the state requires checks and balances, the extension of which is mixed and balanced government.

The idea of mixed and balanced government underpinned the British Constitution, especially so after the Glorious Revolution. For Montesquieu the British had, with the Monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, "the very epitome of a perfectly balanced system of government."

During the 18th century, Greek democratic thought fused with elements of the Roman Republican tradition, the product being the democratic republicanism of men like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Democratic republicans, finding the mixed and balanced government of the aristocratic republicans dubious, embraced the idea of a separation of powers. The executive, legislative, and the judiciary had to be located in separate institutions if a concentration of power was to be avoided.


Aristocratic and democratic republican traditions, after a process of evolution, enshrined representative government and political equality. Robert Dahl argues that Greek democratic thought, the republicanism of Rome, representative government and political equality are the four underlying themes of modern democracy.

Republicanism is more than a dislike of monarchy. It is the dislike of an absolute monarchy, absolute power. The Crown, held in check by the rule of law and the representative bodies of government is perfectly compatible with traditional republican ideals. On the other hand, Australian republicanism, typified by the likes of Paul Keating, Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Barns, is merely a dislike of monarchy, because it is English.

The republicanism espoused by Paddy O’Brien was more than the nationalistic symbolism of the ARM; indeed despite his obvious Gaelic roots, nationalism never came into it. He recognised that the symbol of the Crown was powerful and provided a check. O’Brien regarded the ARM plan, removing any reference to the Queen and Governor-General in the Constitution, replacing them with a President elected by a two-thirds majority of a joint parliamentary sitting, as dangerous. It would increase the dominance of the parties; the executive and legislature would be ever tightly bound and the loss of the symbol of the Crown would leave a gaping hole in the body politic. O’Brien wanted to replace the sovereignty of the Crown with one of the People. He argued for a strengthen of the independence of states, a rigorous separation of powers, and an elected Head of State, like the Crown, to ensure the protection of the people. O’Brien’s model was and is truly republican. The ARM’s model is, counter-intuitively, less Republican. Rather than divide, it fuses.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Stephen Barton
Related Links
Australian Republican Movement
Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy
Photo of Stephen Barton
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy