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Breathing new life into the republican debate

By Peter van Vliet - posted Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Two recent publications have breathed new life into the Australian republican debate.

Greg Barns and Anne Krawec-Wheaton’s provocative new work, An Australian Republic outlines some of the key preconditions required to achieve an Australian republic and, importantly, identifies some of the key roadblocks.

Barns is at his acerbic best when he nominates certain members of the conservative legal fraternity as now being the main impediment to an Australian republic. The influential constitutional lawyer, Professor Greg Craven, an opponent of direct election, comes in for some pretty heavy criticism. The authors label Craven as the new “Cleary and Jones”. The insinuation being that without having his own republican Nirvana, Craven, like the direct electionists before him in 1999, may seek to play the spoiling role and deny Australia its republican destiny.


Waleed Aly speaking at the Australian Republican Movement’s Victorian conference several weeks ago showed his usual insight when he said that there is more heat in the republican debate than there is light.

There is truth in that statement even if Aly himself turned up the heat somewhat when he described direct election as a “constitutional wrecking ball” several months ago in The Age. What Barns and Krawec-Wheaton have correctly identified is that for an Australian republic to become a reality the direct election crew and those supporting parliamentary appointment need to engage in some serious discussion, negotiation and reconciliation.

The Irish Republic’s hybrid model, where the people elect from the parliament’s list may be a compromise model worthy of discussion. Top constitutional lawyers will argue that, unlike Australia, Ireland doesn’t have a powerful senate but Barns and Krawec-Wheaton have dug out the important, albeit borrowed, quote that “perfection in politics in impossible”.

The idea that Australia’s constitution and outdated symbolism has to stay fixed in concrete because a few constitutional lawyers have some concerns about the combination of some very rarely used senate powers and a directly elected president (even with properly codified powers) seems absurd.

There must be compromise and also confidence in the capacity of the Australian people and their representatives to design and operate a republican system that works as well as any other.

In Australia the debate between republic and monarchy is effectively over. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy nowadays spend very little of their time defending the monarchy and most of their time creating confusion and fear over any future republican model. The challenge ahead is how do we get to an Australian republic? Barns and Krawec-Wheaton have made some ground in showing us the way. The first step is compromise between republican protagonists and an agreed model.


The second book providing illumination to the republican debate is Greg Megalogenis’ recent work The Longest Decade. John Howard has effectively declared his latent republicanism by stating his main opposition to a republic was in its proponents' discordance with the past. It is important to quote the prime minister’s comments from the book because they are important:

He (Keating) tried to get people to change with a sense that what had gone before was wrong and invalid ... A lot of Australians can accept that we ought to become a republic because it is the next most logical thing to do, but they won’t accept we ought to become a republic because what’s gone before is inferior … (p308)

In the same book, Keating accuses Howard of effectively destroying the conservative parliamentary appointment model and ensuring a direct election republic gets up by scuttling the 1999 referendum. On the referendum defeat Howard says, “That doesn’t mean that it won’t come back and it won’t happen” (p.307).

Does John Howard’s new equivocation on the republic reflect a new Australian republican reality? Is the prime minister, who (according to Malcolm Turnbull) broke the nation’s heart in 1999, now softening in his opposition to an Australian republic? Are Tony Abbott, Sophie Panopoulos, David Flint and Kerry Jones the last people standing between Australia’s republican destiny and Buckingham Palace? Well not quite. As Barns points out, the real problem is disunity in the republican camp.

The prime minister’s recent comments have provided further confirmation that the republican debate is in fact now over. Even former die-hard monarchists are hedging their bets. All that is required is the resolve and goodwill of Australians to rise to the challenge and plot a successful path forward to an Australian republic. With republican unity even John Howard might be forced to declare himself in favour in line with his recent comments that, “it is the next logical thing to do”. Ah yes, Prime Minister!

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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