At the age of twenty-three I am a convert – not, as some might wrongly assume, a convert to the republic. In fact, quite the opposite.
My conversion from republican to active ‘no’ campaigner was not of the Damascus variety – it was more of an evolution than a revolution. Part of the reason for the gradual transition is that I never made a conscious decision to be a republican in the first place. I just was. I can’t even remember why, except maybe that it was the trendy thing for a seventeen year old to be back then. As it is, the quote I provided for my final-year school magazine serves as written proof that I supported a republic as recently as six years ago.
In 1998 I was privileged to attend the Constitutional Convention. I came out of the convention convinced that the ‘preferred’ model (although less than half the delegates at the Convention actually did prefer it) is no-where near as good as our current system of government.
So why is that? Why is a former republican voting ‘no’ in November?
First, the debate is no longer about being a republican in principal: it is now about weighing up the merits of the proposed republican system of government, against the system of government presently provided for by our Constitution.
I want a stable, working system of government for my children, and their children. The proposed republic just has too many flaws for it to be considered equal to our present Constitution, let alone an improvement.
Contrary to what the mass media would have us believe, the current debate is not solely about the Queen, or national symbols, or wanting to feel good. It is about our constitution. It is about the checks and balances on the executive Government in Canberra. The issues are not nearly as exciting or sexy as the celebrity-studded Australian Republican Movement would have us believe; but they are fundamentally important, and deserve the attention of every Australian who casts a ballot on 6th November.
The main problems with the proposed model are in the appointment procedure and the dismissal procedure. We can do better.
At the moment, our Governor-General is appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister. Under the proposed changes, Federal politicians will actually be given more power. The appointment of the President will be done by Members of Parliament. There is a ‘community’ committee that can make recommendations to the politicians – but half the members of the committee are politicians themselves; and the committee’s advice can be ignored. It will not even be enshrined in the Constitution, but will be in an ordinary act of parliament that can be repealed at any time.
A vast majority of the population are opposed to this form of appointment, and I agree with them. It is inevitable that the ultimately successful candidate will be a compromise candidate, picked by the major parties, almost certainly the result of backroom deals that we don’t get to hear about until someone retires and writes their memoirs, or someone reneges on a deal. It all sounds so familiar, that I don’t see why we could possibly want to encourage them by entrenching the wheeling and dealing in our constitution.
As for the method of dismissing the President or Prime Minister, even supporters of a republic, such as Professor George Winterton, have been unable to resist from joining in the chorus of criticism that the dismissal mechanism has provoked.
Under the proposed republic, it is possible for the President to sack the Prime Minister, or for the Prime Minister to sack the President, at any time and for any reason. This absurdity has led to references to the new game of ‘constitutional chicken’. No reasons are required. No notice must be given. A Prime Minister would therefore have much greater power under the proposed republic, because the President would be operating under a constant threat of instant dismissal.
Several prominent republicans have argued that we can not do better than this model. They are wrong. And the proof? Well, the Constitution we have is living proof.
In closing, I’d like to suggest that north-shore baby boomers do not have a monopoly on constitutional wisdom. This is not a ‘now or never’ issue. The proposed republic model is inherently flawed, and is bound to disappoint if voted for in November. That is why I will be voting No.