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The power to appoint

By Nick Ferrett - posted Thursday, 24 April 2008

If anything demonstrates that the 2020 Summit was a gathering of the best and brightest that the left has to offer rather than the best and brightest of the country, it is the republic issue.

As David Marr revealed in The Sydney Morning Herald the day after the summit, the vote in the “Governance” stream on the republic was 98 for, 1 against, 1 abstention. The republican issue is winning in the electorate, but not that well.

The Prime Minister, when confronted with that point, said “Well, I’m not sure that many monarchists applied”. In other words, there was no attempt to get the other view on what everyone knew would be one of the headline issues.


The most disturbing aspect of the re-emergence of the republic as a leading issue is its leftist tinge. The main drivers of it are again pushing the approach of first conducting a vote on the macro issue of whether we should have a republic and then a second vote on the model. The bald and obvious purpose of this is to avoid giving the Australian people what they really want, an elected president.

I am convinced that the central reason that the referendum went down in a screaming heap in 1999 is that the people could not accept the model being foisted upon them. It involved an appointed head of state. The people wanted the power to appoint the head of state.

That obstacle reveals a fundamental divide between the considerable support among the Australian public for a republic and the political lobby pushing for a republic. The raison d’être of the republican movement is a kind of rationality that detests symbols of the old world and relics of the past (either of those terms would amount to a term of derision within the republican movement). To the republican movement, change is mandated by the iconoclasm inherent in it.

By contrast, the body of support in the community, if its demand for an elected head of state is any indicator, is motivated by the practical point - in their eyes, the monarchy represents a removal of power from the people. To them, there is no great improvement to our political system if we simply change who chooses the head of state, but keep the people out of the decision.

One may doubt whether our system of constitutional monarchy does in fact remove power from the people, but that is a discussion for another article. My point is this: the republican movement does not trust the people with power. It seeks to push through its symbolic change in the way a door-to-door salesman sells his wares: get them to commit to buying something and only then serve up the choices. None of the choices will be the one the public wants.

The reason that the republican movement wants to take this path is to avoid a debate on the potential constitutional consequences of moving to a republic. As people often observe, under the Constitution, the Governor-General is a virtual dictator. What prevents him from being so is a public consensus about how our system of government works. That public consensus is a stable one. It is stable because it is one reached over centuries after battles and bloodshed, not at a summit of Kevin Rudd’s mates and flunkies. It was reached by our political forbears in England after religious and state reformation, regicide, civil wars and political purges.


If history teaches us anything, it is that such a broad political consensus is rarely reached overnight. When it is, it is rarely sustained. Modern examples teach us that. Russia, after flirting with democracy, is steadily descending into autocracy. Zimbabwe’s name need only be uttered to demonstrate how quickly a constitutional foundation built on sand can crumble.

History also teaches us that there is no necessary connection between republicanism and democracy. The Roman Republic was never a democracy, even though it arose from expulsion of Rome’s kings. Indeed, the political disasters and civil wars which destroyed the Roman Republic arose from attempts by the governed to seize power from the ruling elites. The English Republic was not a democracy. Many communist dictatorships both current and recently deposed described themselves as republics, and they were.

These things are what I have in mind when I note the unfortunate, reflexive hatred of all things traditional which underlies the republican movement. Traditions arise as a result of common belief and common purpose. Those things, far more than written documents, bind us to each other and make us subject to one another. They mark a free society much more plainly than a great document or a great seal.

If we are really to consider having a republic, we have to be serious about how we will put down in writing what has very safely been consigned to convention since at least the early 18th century. More importantly, we have to find a way to ensure that there is a broad, sustainable public consensus about the new model of government we choose.

I do not think it impossible. I hope it is not, but if I have to choose, I would much prefer our current system to a new one which seeks to guarantee freedoms by writing down rules rather than embodying the agreement of the people.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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