Two decades after the failed referendum, it seems that the debate about Australia becoming a republic is still stuck in the 20th century ignoring everything that has happened since.
The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) still appears to be captured by secondary questions whilst deliberately or unintentionally shying away from the main issues.
At a recent ARM dinner in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the failed referendum, the key speakers reportedly focussed yet again on procedural and secondary questions, giving us the impression that the whole movement itself is (still) unable to make a convincing case for Australia becoming a republic. Peter Costello (allegedly a republican) may well be right in concluding that the matter is dead.
Most supporters of a republic seem to build their case solely around a conviction to the effect that the head of state of a sovereign Australia needs to be Australian. Otherwise the whole debate still seems to revisit the same procedural questions as 20 years ago: how should we choose our head of state (president, governor general, supreme leader or whatever we want to call him or her), whether the Prime Minister practically appoints him or her, or whether he or she is being elected by parliament (by a simple or qualified majority) or even by the people.
Of course, Malcolm Turnbull is right when he points out the bizarre contradiction within our constitution, namely that it does not even allow dual citizenship for our MPs and senators whilst happily accepting a foreigner from a far-away land as our head of state.
However, it defies intellectual rigour to raise the citizenship issue as a pro republic and contra monarchy argument. I am wondering if any Australian government has ever offered Australian citizenship to the Queen and/or her respective successors. Her Majesty might be delighted. Even if she is not or feels (for whatever reason) obliged to decline, we could make the same offer to one of the other European monarchs (the future King of Denmark would be an obvious choice) or one of the monarchs in our region. If this does not work, I am sure one of the distinguished (monarchist) families in our country would put their hand up to start a royal dynasty.
Of course, no monarchist in our country would ever contemplate such a path. They are not monarchists because they truly think that having a queen/king as head of state is preferable to having a president. They are British monarchists. They are very happy with a foreigner as their head of state because it continuously bears witness to the status of Australia as a dominion of the British Empire. They do not even have an issue with a royal dynasty that is yet again totally self-absorbed, this time by a BBC interview of one of their members and the wish of another member to live in another part of the Empire, all whilst another far-away island of the Empire is burning.
I am somewhat surprised (and admittedly also embarrassed) that no Australian monarchist (or republican for that matter) has publicly called for the Queen (or at least one of her offspring) to get on a plane and do what any other self-respecting head of state anywhere in the world would have done in a crisis similar to our unprecedented bushfire crisis, namely be on the ground, console victims, organise donation campaigns, and even lend a hand to an affected community or wildlife rescue initiative (William and Harry would have been particularly qualified in this respect). As they would not need to constantly defend the policies of the government of the day, their actions would always be more credible than any appearance by any Prime Minister, regardless of whether they can or can’t hold a hose.
Even in the UK the debate is now more advanced than here. During the Brexit saga and particularly the constitutional crisis around the long prorogation of parliament, several commentators concluded not only that the UK needed a written constitution but also asked what the role of the Queen in an existential crisis should be and what sense a head of state makes whose only means of contributing to public debates is wearing a certain brooch. The Queen was even called the ‘poodle of the Prime Minister’ in the English press.
Whilst the UK (one should rather say England) benefits greatly from the tourist pounds the Royals generate, and possibly even the fact that the UK government can charm foreign heads of state by offering dinners with the Queen, these arguments do not apply to Australia. Why would we care about the citizenship or the process surrounding the appointment of somebody who has no substantial role to play and is a head of state in name only?
The main and central question in this whole matter is not the citizenship of the head of state, or the procedural question of his or her appointment or election, and not even the question if our head of state should be a queen/king or a president, but almost solely the question what powers and functions we wish to vest in our head of state.
If we are really serious about having another go at converting Australia into a republic, we need to do our homework. We need to take a very close look at all parliamentary democracies which are also republics, and analyse their constitutions, the powers and functions of their heads of state, their practical contributions to important debates, and their conduct in times of crisis.
Fortunately, the past few years have presented us with a significant number of case studies from this group of democracies: the role the German president (Bundespräsident), a social democrat, played in the formation of the currently governing grand coalition between Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and the SPD (social democrats); the appointment of an interim government of technocrats by the Austrian Bundespräsident (a member of the Green Party) after the so-called Ibiza affair, the sacking of one and the withdrawal of all remaining ministers from the right-wing populist FPÖ, and the chancellor’s subsequent loss of a vote of confidence in parliament leading to new elections and now an unprecedented coalition between the conservative ÖVP and the Greens; the role the Italian president played in avoiding general elections in Italy after the failure of the Movimento Cinque Stelle/Lega Nord coalition by securing a new coalition under the continuing leadership of the independent prime minister Giuseppe Conte; the ongoing challenges the Israelian president faces in trying to enable the formation of a coalition government after yet another inconclusive election; the fascinating presidential elections in Slovakia and Croatia where presidents were elected who come from the opposite side of politics as the respective current governments. These are all examples we need to analyse diligently in preparation of a broad national debate about the role we want our head of state to play.
Prior to opening a new debate, the republican movement as a whole will need to form a view as to whether it wants a president to have significant and clearly defined powers including the powers to dissolve parliament (possibly even the right to trigger any double-dissolution), refuse or initiate the appointment or removal of a prime minister, or refuse to sign an act of parliament into law, and what roles and functions should be modelled on the constitutions of other countries.
If we as a nation are not willing to grant more than minimal ceremonial functions to any future president or even aim to only replace one ‘poodle’ with another, we may as well stop wasting more time and accept the status quo. The only important caveat I would like to make is this: if we could bring ourselves to grant a permanent voice to First Australians by enshrining in our constitution that our head of state must always be of indigenous descent, then such a change would be worthwhile and so powerful in itself that even the question of a head of state’s powers and functions could be deferred to a later period in our history.