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A democratic republic

By Luke Whitington - posted Wednesday, 8 October 2008

My fellow Australians,

You know that the question of whether Australia should become a republic has been as yet unresolved. The motivations for becoming a republic are many, but the most important has always seemed to be that Australian culture and politics are, at their best, democratic and egalitarian, while monarchy is not. Why is our head of state chosen by accident of birth? And, why can’t the head of state be someone born poor, or Catholic, or black or even Tasmanian?

Australia has a history of leading the way in being the most democratic, free, and equal society in the world.


We, along with New Zealand were the first to achieve women’s voting rights. We insisted, when it was unheard of anywhere in the world, that a man should be able to vote no matter how much he earned or owned. We have always been inclined to greater democracy and fairness. So, we are embarrassed by the institution of monarchy, and most of us wish to abolish it.

The problem is - what do we replace it with? We’ve sidelined the actual monarch very effectively by making the Prime Minister and the Parliament responsible for the decisions that affect our lives, and we’ve made sure the PM and Parliament reflect us, by ensuring all of us (over 18) have a vote.

So how would we choose a new head of state?

The debate has mostly been between a head of state selected by Parliament, or one directly elected by the people. If the Parliament selects our head of state, we keep what we like about our current system - the PM doesn’t have too much power, and neither would the new head of state. This way we would avoid the problems that other countries have had when politicians get power hungry: dictatorship, persecution and tyranny.

The problem is a majority of us rejected this idea at the 1999 referendum. Many people voted against this model because it would take the decision out of our hands: the monarchists said it was a “politicians republic” and elitist. Note that they didn’t say “vote for monarchy” because most Australians don’t support the idea of unelected privileged monarchy. So the idea of a President elected by the Parliament was rejected.

Many people campaigning against that model weren’t monarchists at all, they wanted a President elected directly by the people. The irony is, that if we elect the President directly we will very likely end up with a politician, because to run for an office as important as President you would need the support of a political party. So, we’re stuck in a classic Catch-22 situation.


If you leave the selection of a head of state to Parliament, it seems as though you’re leaving it to a political elite to make the decision. However, if you elect the President directly, you’re almost certainly going to get a politician as your new head of state and this would mean massive problems for our political system because the head of state, currently the Queen, delegating to the Governor-General, has very large and undefined Reserve Powers. These powers allow the G-G to dismiss a government and call new elections, as happened in 1975, or in New South Wales in 1932. That’s a lot of power. It also allows the G-G to be the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Technically the G-G, via the Queen’s powers as monarch, could order Australian troops to fire on Australian civilians.

So what’s the solution?

Many people have examined the experience of other countries in trying to find something that would work for Australia. Other Commonwealth countries that have become republics have adopted innovative methods of selecting their head of state without losing the idea that parliament, and the PM, is the real boss. India, Ireland, and Israel all have Presidents that don’t interfere with the PM and allow the Parliament to be the people’s main voice. Yet all of them ended up with politicians being their Presidents, even if they were generally very good ones.

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About the Author

Luke F. Whitington, is a former ALP candidate for Waverley Council, currently an advisor to the President of the NSW Legislative Council and activist for human rights and democracy.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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