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A Headless State

By Ron Brunton - posted Wednesday, 15 September 1999

The recent referendum on the republic was not one of the high points of Australian political debate. Both sides showed themselves ready to resort to shabby arguments and overwrought warnings, demonstrating that they did not trust Australians to make intelligent and informed decisions.

The ‘No’ case indulged in the pure humbug of presenting politicians who claimed that politicians cannot be trusted to choose a president, a tactic which can only serve to strengthen the electorate’s already excessive suspicion of their kind. Apart from the question of why such an argument should not be invoked to prevent politicians from making decisions on more serious issues, many of the same individuals were happy to stick with the present system in which politicians have effectively been choosing the governor-general for nearly 70 years.

The people promoting the ‘Yes’ case were no better, with their shameless attempts to invoke the cultural cringe by pretending that the rest of the world would laugh at us if Australia remained a constitutional monarchy. This line continued after the referendum, with eight superannuated diplomats writing in the Australian Financial Review that ‘overseas’ the result would be seen as ‘a sign of second-class status’, and expatriate academics plaintively asking how they could explain the result to their colleagues.


Although I do not believe that it is an urgent matter, I would like to see Australia become a republic, because a hereditary monarchy offends against the principle that all people are born equal. In this respect, I agree with Labor Senator Robert Ray, who argued some time ago that ‘republicanism represents a further assertion of democracy’.

Clearly, there are going to be difficulties with any course of action, and there will be substantial constitutional problems with any change to a republic which could bring about major changes to the way we are governed. But as a republic does seem inevitable as well as desirable, it is appropriate to cast the debate about possible models very widely. From this perspective, it is worth asking whether Australia really needs to have a head of state at all.

Virtually all the arguments about a possible republic hinge on symbolism, the kind of statement about our nation that we should be presenting to ourselves and to the world. Given the very widespread commitment to egalitarianism in Australia, a republic without a head of state, would be an appropriate expression of the national ethos. It would be an assertion that the Australian people are sovereign and equal, and that no-one should occupy a symbolic position above them.

A headless republic would offer the ultimate minimalist model, clearly avoiding the danger of an elected presidency becoming an alternative and destabilising source of power. The likelihood that politics could be effectively insulated from presidential elections is slim. And in any case, even if the most apolitical entertainer or sporting identity were elected president, he or she would still have opinions on a range of topics—and probably less understanding than former politicians of the need to refrain from expressing them at inappropriate occasions.

Obviously mechanisms for resolving occasional political crises involving the appointment and dismissal of governments and the proroguing of Parliament would be required. These could be dealt with by the judges of the High Court, thus formalising and extending a situation where any head of state would almost certainly seek advice from the Chief Justice in such circumstances. While this may raise fears about the politicisation of the Court, the scope for creative determinations of the kind that the court has engaged in during recent years would be limited, and the very fact that it was dealing with matters of partisan politics would be likely to act as a strong constraint. Giving the High Court such a role would also make more symbolically explicit the fact that our polity must be grounded in the rule of law.

Ceremonial duties such as opening Parliament or major national events could be handled differently. We could revive a selection process used in the pioneering democracy of ancient Athens, which chose several positions by lot. A national lottery could be established to select people to carry out a head of state’s ceremonial duties for a week or a fortnight. This would proclaim to the world the egalitarian nature of Australian society and aspirations.


Of course, such a system would occasionally produce people who were totally unsuitable for one reason or another. But such problems would not be insuperable. They could be obviated by requesting responsible institutions and community groups to provide lists of appropriate candidates, and by the discreet screening of people selected in the lottery before any public announcements were made. (There would probably need to be some provision preventing those deemed unacceptable from pursuing the matter through the courts or tribunals.)

Among other benefits, ceremonial figures chosen by lot would be ideal for receiving visiting dignitaries from communist countries such as China or Vietnam. The visiting comrades would come face to face with the representatives of a real people’s republic. And Australia could return to the position it held at the turn of the century, when it was widely seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world.

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About the Author

Ron Brunton is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, and a columnist for the Courier-Mail.

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