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Roasting the Governor-General: a recipe for an Australian Republic

By Steven Spadijer - posted Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Australia is a lucky country.

But when I say lucky I mean more than a beautiful country which prides itself on the egalitarian principles of mateship and a fair go. I also mean lucky because we have something only a few nations have ever had: hindsight to draft the greatest Republican constitution the world has ever known. Hence, a Republic can inspire constitutional efficiency by implementing what has worked while discarding that which has not.

Monarchists would immediately reply: efficiency? Our Constitution has worked for more than 100 years. “Why fix it if it ain’t broken?” The reason is three-fold.


First, the drafters of the present Constitution had what Republicans have today: hindsight to alter the American and British Constitutions for the better to avoid inefficient glitches. Today we have the hindsight to adjust the deficiencies of this Constitution.

Second, the same argument could have been used to prevent us becoming a constitutional monarchy: the federation before 1901 didn’t break so why fix it? This is akin to arguing that just because the candle works, we shouldn’t use a light bulb.

And the final criticism is inspired by the writings of Karl Popper. According to Popper, just because something has worked up to now, does not mean it will work into the future. After all, it only takes one observation to expose shortcomings in the present model. In turn, this prompts us to create a more ideal form of government as our knowledge and understanding of humanity deepens. In other words, hindsight allows us to make things better.

A mixture of logic and historical precedent proves the point, however moot.

Scenario one

The Governor-General refuses Prime Minister Rudd the right to dissolve Parliament. No election is called. The Governor-General dismisses Kevin Rudd, appointing Brendan Nelson as Prime Minister. The Australian Governor-General's website actually states that he 'refuse a request for an election' and even 'dismiss the PM'. Indeed, this would be analogous to what John Kerr did to Gough Whitlam and what Governor-General, Viscount Byng of Vimy, of Canada did in 1926, except the latter refused to dissolve Parliament. So much for democracy.

A similar crisis occurred in Fiji in 1977. Likewise, in the Easter Crisis of 1920, the executive dismissed the entire Cabinet despite the cabinet being elected a few months beforehand. However, if the Australian Governor-General were to use s62 of the Constitution to interfere he could be called undemocratic, while if he does nothing, he could be labelled as impotent.


Scenario two

Parliament passes a bill that is overwhelmingly supported by both Houses. The Governor-General refuses to give royal assent and vetoes the bill. Not only is this possible but it is analogous to the constitutional crisis that happened in Belgium in 1990. Convention stipulating that the Governor General act on the advice of ministers is not binding and it certainly didn’t stop the King of Belgium. It is a matter of the will of the people versus the executive.

It is true that the Governor-General sends many bills back for amendment; this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, imagine the confusion surrounding the bill if it couldn’t be signed until after the five-year tenure of the Governor-General expires. There is nothing stopping such chaos happening here. The Governor-General is not held fully accountable in the way a Prime Minister with a mandate is.

There must be a more democratic alternative.

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About the Author

Steven Spadijer is a Barrister at Law, having been called to the Sydney Bar in May 2014. In 2013, he was admitted as a solicitor in the ACT. In 2012, he graduated with First Class Honours in Law and Arts from the Australian National University. He specializes and practices in Administrative, Commercial, Constitutional and Public Law, and has been published several law review articles in these areas. From early July 2015, he will be pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States. He has a keen interest in economic history, theories of constitutional interpretation (advocating originalism as the least bad method of interpretation) and legal debates over a bill of rights (which he is vigorously opposed to).

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