How to become a republic: Lessons from the Republic of Ireland

Oct 4, 2022
Great Britain flag, known as Union Jack, cracked
Image: iStock

There are likely to be many obstacles on the long road to Australia inevitably becoming a republic but the biggest will be finding agreement on how we choose our new head of state. For the 1999 republic referendum, the then Prime Minister John Howard, an avowed monarchist, was well aware of this obstacle, using it cleverly to divide the supporters of a republic and thereby ensure that the no vote won.

It was the case then, and is probably more so now, that a majority of citizens want the right to a public (popular) election if we are ever to have our own head of state. In the intervening 23 years, public trust in politicians deciding matters on our behalf has probably diminished further. If this is correct, then it should now be dawning on all sides of politics that a head of state selected only through the input of serving politicians will never be accepted. Yet the model now advocated by the Australian Republican Movement places the nomination process solely in the hands of the state and federal governments (although the ARM model does involve a popular vote).  I doubt that this model will find favour.

Some people fear that a popular election or popular vote will lead to the election of a celebrity. Other opponents of a popular vote argue that this mechanism will guarantee that the head of state will be a ‘politician’. It is not clear whether this argument refers to the belief that only politicians will be nominated or to the fear that succeeding at such an election will somehow overnight turn a new head of state into a partisan politician. The fear seems to include a belief that there may one day arise some sort of political tug of war between the head of state and the prime minister of the day. In the absence of details of the power of the new office of the head of state, this fear is not irrational but surely can be overcome by putting in place firm and clear constitutional limits on the powers of the head of state.

If we want a model that works well, we should look closely at the Irish Republic. The Irish model has several attractions. The Irish constitution sets firm limits on the presidential powers (see below) such that conflict between the Irish Parliament and the President has been avoided. The Irish process of electing a head of state is tried and true having existed since 1938. It grew out of a similar situation that now faces Australia, viz. a former British colony seeking to become a republic. The Irish head of state is elected directly by the Irish people. Their election uses preferential voting with which we Australians are familiar and there is no expense of a run-off election as is used in many countries. And the carefully laid out election process has resulted in some outstanding Irish citizens serving the Irish people as their President. Not all were former high ranking politicians. Two of the best known are women, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, while the current incumbent, Michael D Higgins, is an academic and a poet as well as having served as a member of Parliament.

The nomination process in Ireland allows for genuine community input and is not solely the domain of members of parliament. Any Irish citizen can nominate but each nomination needs the support of at least ten percent of serving members of the two houses of the Irish Parliament or the support of at least four of the 32 Irish county or city councils. While the Irish county council system is clearly different to Australia’s layers of federal, state and local government, it should be possible to design a nomination process here that opens the path to a broad range of candidates, including some who are not presently aligned with any political party. The records show that while the Irish nomination system has usually resulted in candidates who are backed by mainstream Irish political parties, the successful candidate has not necessarily been the one nominated by the dominant political party of the day.

There are strict spending limits in the Irish presidential election campaign. The successful candidate and any other candidate who receives above 25% of the vote is entitled to partial reimbursement for their campaign expenses. In addition there are laws governing the size of donations that may be accepted by the candidates, their election agents and third parties. Candidates must pay a deposit, refundable if their proportion of the vote reaches 5%.

For those Australians who fret that an elected president may accidentally or deliberately play a partisan political role, the Irish model should reassure them that this risk can be readily guarded against as the powers of the Irish president are strictly circumscribed in the Constitution. It is well understood that the Irish presidency is primarily a ceremonial office and that, with few exceptions, the president is bound to follow the advice of the government. The president does have discretion in regard to what may follow when the prime minister of the day has lost the confidence of the parliament (the discretion is limited to accepting the prime minister’s resignation versus dissolving parliament and calling a new election). The president also has the power to refer questionable legislation to the Irish Supreme Court.

The next Irish presidential election will be held in 2025.The Federal Assistant Minister for the Republic and representatives of the Australian Republican Movement or other relevant organisations may wish to visit to observe the campaign and the enforcement mechanisms for the funding restrictions. The debates in Australia have some years to run so there should be ample time for such a visit.

In addition, in my view, the Australian Republican Movement would benefit from some fresh faces among its leadership. I can think of at least two former PMs (Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull) whose presence would help the cause and reassure both of the main sides of politics that the ARM is striving to bring all the community along with it. In addition, I suggest that the ARM should cease promoting a single model and instead use its resources to foster ‘a measured steady discussion’ that seeks to engage with as many Australians as possible. This could involve informing and educating citizens about the pros and cons of becoming a republic and the pros and cons of all the available models for appointing a head of state while at the same time canvassing for new ideas.

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