Why a republic makes a lot more sense for Australia than it would in Britain
Andreas Whittam Smith
Andreas Whittam Smith was a financial journalist until 1985 when he led the team that founded The Independent. The paper’s first editor (1986-1994), he has subsequently been the president of the British Board of Film Classification (1998-2002) and chairman of the Financial Ombudsman Service (1998-2003). He is currently First Church Estates Commissioner responsible for £5bn of the Church's investments, and chairman of the Children's Mutual.
Monday 01 November 1999
I am surprised. There'd seemed an inevitability about such a step. Until 1965, governor-generals, with two exceptions, had been British. Since then it has been accepted that the governor-general should be Australian. The attempt, which was made a few years ago, to persuade the Australian government of the day to accept Prince Charles failed. The National Anthem ceased to be God Save the Queen in 1974. While Prince Philip opened the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, neither the Queen nor the governor- general have been asked to preside at the Sydney Olympic Games next year.
It is also easier to make the republican case in Australia than it could ever be in the United Kingdom. An appeal can be made both to notions of national identity and to the strong egalitarian streak in the Australian character. The conservative Peter Costello, the Federal Treasurer, puts the classic argument: "I don't believe positions should be settled on bloodlines; that people should hold public office because of heredity. I believe in rewarding effort, talent and creativity." What Australian could not say "Amen" to that? Instead republicans have been driven to publishing advertisements showing Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles with the warning: "Remember, if this referendum fails, King Charles III will be Australia's next head of state."
Unlike Britain, where any name you suggest as a possible president is laughed out of court, republicans in Australia have the advantage that the present Governor-General, Sir William Deane, embodies the principles many expect in a head of state. The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, says Sir William has "cracked the mould" of governors-general. "I think he is one of the most empathetic men I have met." An Australian newspaper reported that when 14 young Australians died in a Swiss canyoning disaster, the Governor-General wandered into the grounds of his residence, clipped a sprig of wattle and put it behind his desk. Days later the sprig was still alive, golden and full. He wanted to see if the wattle would last the journey from Australia to Interlaken.
On a bridge over Saxtenbach gorge, he handed the grieving families the sprigs of wattle and watched them drop silently to the waters below. It is winter in Australia, he said, but the wattle was in bloom like the young Australian adventurers who had died in the flower of their youth. The perfect touch, it seems to me, better than the Queen, Tony Blair and Mary Robinson combined.
Moreover the arguments of the anti-republicans rely upon nothing more heroic than the cliche, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". As the Prime Minister, John Howard, says: "There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes. They would add nothing to the already democratic character of Australia. They will not enhance our independence. Not even the most zealous republicans would claim that our system has broken down, that the constitutional monarchy in Australia is in a state of crisis."
As a matter of fact, Mr Howard's second argument is more problematic. He starts from the fact that the governor-general is effectively Australia's head of state and that the only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the governor-general, which must be done on the recommendation of Australia's prime minister of the day. Then he goes on to say the removal of the Crown could destabilise the parliamentary system by giving the prime minister the unchecked power to sack the president.
Except that the dismissal of a governor-general under the present system is equally straightforward. If the Australian prime minister asked for the governor-general's removal, the Queen would be bound to oblige because she always acts on the advice of ministers. Constitutional monarchists, whether in the United Kingdom or Australia, are mistaken in their belief that the Queen could ever be, even if she wanted to be, the ultimate defender of the constitutional integrity of the nation. She must do what the Australian Government tells her to do.
But Australians haven't been lying awake at night tormented by the question of the prime minister's power to sack a president as compared with a governor- general. These constitutional niceties have not undermined the republican cause. No, the difficulty has been in answering the charge that no benefits have been shown to flow from the proposal. For this has tempted some republicans to go much further and say the president should be directly elected. And this would be a big change. It would replace a Parliamentary system of government with something more akin, with its division of powers, to the systems used in France and the United States.
This reform, which is not officially part of the republican platform, has been easy to attack. The Senate Leader, Senator Robert Hill, warned: "It is not difficult to imagine a One Nation-style candidate being nominated for president and then, with the help of manipulative advisers, setting out on a strategy of attracting media attention by attacking Asian immigration, and making scapegoats of recipients of welfare benefits, such as single mothers."
This is what has scared the horses. It has frightened conservative voters from backing what, in the Australian context, would be a pretty small step. But it is also leading ardent supporters of directly electing the president, the "direct electionists" as they are called, to vote against the proposed change on the grounds that it does not go far enough.
As many as a third of those saying that they will vote "no" are doing so because they want a directly elected president. In short the republican cause looks likely to fail because, while its supporters are united on what they oppose, they cannot agree on what they support. It is not fear which has undone the Australian republicans, but confusion.
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