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The Copernican Constitution

By David Latimer - posted Friday, 29 July 2005

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus overturned centuries of doctrine and ushered in the modern age by allowing us to observe the universe as it really is, not as we wanted it to be. A team of independent republicans has begun to employ this legacy to resolve the contest between minimalist republicans and direct election advocates.

The two camps hold to an unconscious understanding that a future republic must involve “the Queen and Governor-General replaced by a president”. While it may make intuitive sense to follow this formula, attempts to re-engineer the Governor-General into a president under Australian conditions must inevitably resolve a range of tangential issues. In the years since the 1998 Constitutional Convention, these issues have split the republican movement and made the purported objective of making Australia independent of the Queen evermore distant.

As Copernicus demonstrated conclusively, intuitive sense sometimes fails us. He challenged the age-old assumptions and took a new interpretation of the heavens beyond the imagination of his fellows. Likewise, republicans will find a solution when they move their technical focus from the Governor-General to the Queen. After all, the Queen is the fulcrum of the whole debate.


At last year’s Inquiry into an Australian Republic, senators received not less than five independent and detailed submissions with a fundamentally new perspective. They all described how the Queen alone could be replaced by a head of state directly elected by the people.

These correspondents have become the new Copernicans. They have developed a constitutional paradigm, similar to the status quo but resolving the apparently irreconcilable expectations of republican advocates and reflecting the strong apolitical sentiment of the electorate.

In concentrating their efforts on the Governor-General, republicans often fail to consider the Australian federation as a whole system. Executive power, federally and in each state, is officially vested in the one monarchy and exercised by the representative governor in each jurisdiction.

The Governor-General may be one rank higher than the rest, however in terms of our federal compact all the Queen’s representatives are peers of each other. The entire system can now be seen through Copernican eyes, where each jurisdiction is independent but formally part of one system and tied to one central authority.

Given the similarities across jurisdictions, an Australian republican model should work regardless of whether we are examining state or federal constitutional arrangements. In contrast, republicans typically ignore the states, thereby revealing their inability to propose comprehensive solutions that work for the whole federation.

Copernicus did not postulate a more complex view of the universe but a simpler and more elegant one. For an Australian republic, this should be as simple as codifying the one actual duty left to the Queen - the appointment of the representative governor on the advice of the prime minister or premier.


To complete the codification, the constitution would vest executive authority in the head of state, but reserve the actual exercise of power in the Governor-General or state governor as required. This would allow the relationship between the Governor-General and prime minister, including the exercise of reserve powers, to continue to be guided by unwritten convention.

Absent of real executive power, the new head of state may be directly elected and yet remain above politics. Separate from the business of government, they cannot implement any policy and thus any electoral campaign cannot be based upon promises or establishing a mandate.

Furthermore, in creating a repatriated position we are starting with a blank slate. We can propose a range of anti-political devices without unwinding the checks and balances of the existing constitution.

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This is an abridged version of an article in Quadrant Magazine June 2005.

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About the Author

David Latimer lives in Sydney, New South Wales with a background in Computer Science and Economics. He works on Energy and Water Management Systems for the University of Sydney. He has taken a keen interest in the republican debate and organised a forum on Public Participation in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum. He was cited in the Senate report, Road to a Republic, contributed to the 2009 Senate inquiry into a republican plebiscite and is a member of the Copernican Republican Group.

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