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A Real Head of State

By Bryan Palmer - posted Wednesday, 15 March 2000

Like many Australians, I find little relevance in an absent and foreign monarch. There should be no place in Australia's democratic and egalitarian society for the notions of primogeniture, sexual discrimination and religious discrimination inherent in the succession of the throne. The mood of the nation is clear. In all of the opinion polls most Australians would prefer an Australian head of State to the monarchy.

In spite of this mood the November 1999 republican referendum failed, primarily because the republicans were divided whereas the monarchists were united in their opposition to change. Tragically, the republicans were divided over a trifling and inconsequential detail, whether the new head of State should be appointed or elected. Few seemed to realise, regardless of how the job is filled the new head of State would be a puppet of the Prime Minister.

Under the Constitutional doctrine of responsible government, the head of State can only act with the advice of the Prime Minister and his/her ministers, all of who are members of and accountable to the parliament. The parliament is, in turn, representative of and accountable to the people. Because the head of State only does what she is told, she cannot be held responsible for her actions. Responsible government was the device that effectively transferred the royal prerogative powers from the Crown to the Prime Minister and his/her ministers.


When the role of the head of State is accurately summarised with words like "puppet", the obvious questions follow. Why do we need a separate, non-executive head of State? Why not do away with the charade? Why not make the Prime Minister the head of State, after all this is what the Constitutional phase "the Governor-General in Council" means?

I concede there are understandable historical reasons for our existing Constitutional arrangements. We have a constitutional monarch as the head of State because of the bloodless revolution that brought about representative, democratic government in the United Kingdom. Writing in 1867, Bagehot observed that the Westminster system of government was a disguised form of republican government. While the symbols of monarchy had been preserved, the substance of executive government had been republicanised through the practices of responsible cabinet government.

However, nothing suggests there is an ongoing need for a vestigial head of State in the 21st century. In the Australian Capital Territory we have already done away with the office of a pretend head of State.

At this point a reader might object, observing that the head of State (and her Governor-General) perform at least one vital function: although the need is rare, they can use their reserve powers to safeguard constitutional practice. It is a point I will accept. However I contend there is no need to create a new pretend head of State just to retain this safeguard mechanism. The safeguard mechanism could be transferred easily to (for example) the full bench of the High Court of Australia.

This brings us to my proposed model for a minimalist republican form of government. The model begins with the thesis that the Prime Minister is all but Australia's head of State in name. It avoids the ancient constitutional theory of an all powerful monarch; the 19th century charade of republican government veiled in the forms and symbols of a constitutional monarchy; and any need for an Australian President who would be little more than a puppet of the Prime Minister.

The model is based on minimal changes to the text of the Constitution. It establishes a fully republicanised Federal Westminster parliamentary system of government. It eliminates the need for a pretend, non-executive head of State. It retains the safeguard of the reserve powers. It can be achieved along the following lines:

  • The sections creating the Office of Governor-General should be replaced by a new section that establishes the Prime Minister as the head of State.
  • The executive power of the Commonwealth should be vested in the Prime Minister and his ministers, who are responsible to the Parliament for the exercise of that power.
  • The reserve powers of the Crown should be largely codified and in most cases given to the full bench of the High Court to exercise.
  • Royal Assent to legislation should be replaced with Prime Ministerial assent.
  • References to the Governor-General in Council and most references to the Governor-General should be replaced by references to the Prime Minister.
  • References to State Governors should be replaced with references to State Premiers.
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About the Author

Bryan Palmer hosts a web site on Australian Politics. He studied at Deakin University for a PhD in policy and politics entitled "Social Policy under the Howard Government".

Related Links
Bryan Palmer's Australian Politics Page
Palmer's model republican constitution
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