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Why Australia should not become a republic

By Max Atkinson - posted Tuesday, 1 March 2016

We need an Australian head of state but not a republic or a president. A republic is headed by a president with political power, often a great deal. But democratic theory tells us those who exercise political power should be elected by the people and common sense reminds us that such elections are inherently divisive.

This is a fundamental departure from the Westminster system where the head of state has no political power. There is no political power because the role of this office is to unite, not divide, the nation. This neutrality makes it possible for the head of state to exercise a unique quasi-judicial power, which is to act as a constitutional umpire when disputes arise over the right to govern the nation.

There is a growing sense that Australia should sever the link with the British Crown when the Queen's reign ends. With premiers and party leaders in support, there has been a pro-republic media buzz in recent times, at least until the Prime Minister, mindful of past efforts, insisted the next move come from the grass roots. This is unlikely, however, unless and until the grass roots have a better understanding of the difference between the president of a republic and the head of state of a constitutional monarchy.


For the media and most politicians have consistently framed the debate in an unnecessarily confusing way - as a choice between keeping the present system of representative democracy and 'becoming a republic' headed by a president. This immediately raises the question of how to appoint the president, and it is on this rock that the 1999 referendum foundered, with 55% against, and 45% in favour. This was despite polls showing most people had supported the move for some years. As it turned out, they were opposed to, or suspicious of, ceding this power to a party in government, or even a two-thirds majority of Parliament - the compromise offered in the referendum.

One can hardly blame the public for wanting to elect the President, even before a republic is considered. Everyone saw how this quasi-judicial power could be abused when John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975. But many voters would have been anxious or sceptical or at best confused, since it was never clear how the 'republic' would differ from the present system of constitutional democracy, despite the emphasis on a 'minimalist' model.

That uncertainty, arguably compounded by a sense of frustration at not being allowed to vote for the President, made it easy to ignore the fact that there has never been serious debate about electing the Governor-General, much less an Australian-born monarch.

There was also the Howard decision to put two questions. The first asked if Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament; the second asked if the Constitution should include a preamble to highlight Australian values. But it read like a motherhood statement devised by media advisers for a marketing campaign - no one uncertain about the new model of government would have found it reassuring.

However that may be, because the President's role was not clear, few members of the public understood the difference between a President with executive power, as in France or the USA, and a Governor-General acting as a constitutional umpire in the Westminster tradition. To appreciate this, we need to recall the unique role of this office, a tribute to the genius of a system which has evolved over centuries of British constitutional history.

The essence of this role is seen in a governor's routine duties, which include celebrating contributions by citizens and organisations to the public life of the community. In doing so he or she symbolises the civic virtues which unite, rather than divide, a nation. The office commands public respect for this reason and because it transcends divisions which define the political life of the community and the competing interests of parties. Over time this respect and public support helps to discourage abuse of power by those in government.


The office also represents government in its official relations with other nations and their representatives. It plays a central role in the protocols of courtesy which guide these relations, regardless of who is in power. Both roles call for a non-political stance which is why, when the Governor feels the need to comment on matters of public concern, the appeal is to ideals we share and virtues we admire - rarely to the policies which do, or do not, give them effect.

But a governor or governor-general in the Westminster tradition remains a servant of the government and must carry out the duties and functions, and read the speeches, as instructed by a Premier or Prime Minister. He or she has no executive or political power whatsoever. There is, however, one seeming exception, which also goes to the heart of the office, and may explain some of the apprehension and confusion which the 1999 referendum gave rise to.

The exception is the role of this office as constitutional umpire in a Westminster system. He or she is the servant of government on all matters other than the question of who is entitled to hold the office of Prime Minister and thus exercise the power of government. That question arises whenever the result of a general election is unclear and whenever the right to govern is disputed because there is a vote of no-confidence in the lower House or a refusal to grant supply.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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