JENNY HOCKING. An Australian republic inevitable as Turnbull disappoints again.

The republic is now emerging as a key election issue, with the Prime Minister a mere observer in its wake. In considering the powers of a president in a new Republic it is important to affirm that government can only be formed with the confidence of the House of Representatives.

If anyone had seriously thought that the year ended well for the Prime Minister, promising renewed leadership, enhanced authority and clearer policy direction, his rapid advance and equally rapid retreat on the republic would have brought them back to ground. The new year had barely begun before the reinvigorated Turnbull, buoyed by the rare success of the same sex marriage legislation, showed himself to be no different from the previous year’s disappointing model.

On the morning of 1 January, Turnbull surprised everyone by unilaterally declaring his support for a renewed push towards a Republic, floating the prospect of a postal survey to gauge popular support. By early afternoon the same day, duly chastised by his internal party critics, he had rescinded it. It was an exceptionally swift political u-turn, even for this Prime Minister, and a brutal reminder of how far the once brash, uncompromising, staunch republican has fallen. In just four hours Turnbull had revealed the extent of his political humiliation, a leader unable to control his or his party’s agenda and reduced to a supine shell of the man who had promised so much.

Turnbull has since definitively ruled out any move towards a republic before the next election. Should the Queen die within the next 18 months then Charles, Prince of Wales, will automatically become King of Australia, a prospect which has given added impetus to the republican cause.

All of which leaves the republic now as an emerging election issue and with the Prime Minister a mere observer in its wake. And to think that this is the very ground that Turnbull once proudly called his own. He had taken on the British establishment and the intelligence community with the Spycatcher case and won, and had led the campaign for an Australian republic at the 1999 referendum – and lost. Although most Australians then favoured a republic, a majority had voted against the model advocated by Turnbull. It was a devastating loss and one that should have raised more questions about Turnbull’s political capacity than it did.

The republic referendum secured Turnbull’s political future, yet he had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Liberal Prime Minister and ardent monarchist John Howard. Howard had shamelessly used the tactics of division over the form of appointment of an Australian Head of State to fragment the republican support base, cruelling its chance of success. In Turnbull’s words, Howard was the Prime Minister who ‘broke this nation’s heart’. As for Turnbull himself, the republic had been a moment of great promise followed by even greater disappointment – something we would now see as typical.

In fact, the Opposition has already taken the running on the republic. In July last year Opposition leader Bill Shorten announced that a Labor government would deal with the question of an Australian republic in its first term of office. He followed up in October with the appointment of a Shadow Assistant Minister for an Australian Head of State, Matt Thistlethwaite, an Australian first. Shorten has proposed a two-stage process with a simple starting-point, a compulsory plebiscite with a single question: ‘Do you support an Australian Republic with an Australian Head of State?’. It is a smart strategic move that gets directly to the substantive issue – do we want an Australian republic? – and ensures that the debate over procedural matters, including the means of appointment and the powers of the new Head of State, would then carry the authority of a national vote in support of a republic.

The thorny issue that neither Shorten nor the referendum addressed was the power of the Head of State. Recently released Cabinet papers show that former Prime Minister Paul Keating was torn by the obvious need to address this critical question during the referendum debate and the knowledge that to do so would inevitably derail the debate. And so, the referendum was derailed instead over a proxy, over the mode of appointment of Head of State – whether directly elected or by parliamentary nomination – leaving the related and unavoidable matter of their powers unaddressed.

We cannot continue to simply ignore this and hope that it will go away. The question of the powers of a Head of State cannot be avoided without also risking the substance of our parliamentary democracy and the Westminster system on which it is based. At the heart of this is its sine qua non, that government is formed by the party which commands a majority in the House of Representatives, ‘the peoples’ House’, not by a unilateral decision of the Head of State.

In this the experience of 1975 with the dismissal of the elected government of Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, is the elephant in every room. The dismissal is instructive in telling us why both the powers and the means of appointment of an Australian Head of State matter greatly. Kerr’s greatest impropriety on 11 November 1975, even worse than his dismissal of the Whitlam government which retained its majority in the House of Representatives at all times, was his ‘second dismissal’ later that afternoon – his refusal to acknowledge the House of Representatives’ motion of no confidence in the appointed government of Malcolm Fraser and calling for the reinstatement of the Whitlam government – and Kerr’s dismissal of the entire parliament.

Although now accepted as improper if not unconstitutional, Kerr’s actions have set a dangerous precedent. The prospect that this power over the formation of government could rest with a President rather than with the House of Representatives, is precisely why their appointment and their power are critical issues and cannot be willed away. A popularly elected President with such a power and such a mandate is simply unthinkable, at least within our existing notion of the Westminster system.

If we are to avoid again becoming bogged down in the confusing and divisive matter of the powers of a Head of State, we need to find a new way to frame that aspect of the republic debate. The dismissal has made us unusually and understandably concerned with the powers of the Head of State in relation to the formation of government, and yet this becomes an issue only if the Head of State can exercise the power assumed by Kerr to remove a democratically elected government and appoint one that lacks the confidence of the House of Representatives. We need to turn this on its head and to focus instead on protecting the central role of the House of Representatives in the formation of government, the heart of the Westminster system. A simple statement affirming that government can only be formed with the confidence of the House of Representatives is all that is needed. With that central tenet of parliamentary democracy in place, codification of the powers of the Head of State becomes less urgent and no future Australian Head of State could appoint a government without the confidence of the House of Representatives as John Kerr did in 1975.

Professor Jenny Hocking is an award-winning biographer, author of Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History and Gough Whitlam: His Time, and an Emeritus Professor at Monash University. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975 – The Palace Connection (Melbourne University Press. 2017) and her essay ‘Relics of colonialism: The Whitlam dismissal and the Palace letters’ will appear in Griffith Review Issue 59 ‘Commonwealth Now’ in February 2018.

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4 Responses to JENNY HOCKING. An Australian republic inevitable as Turnbull disappoints again.

  1. Nevil Kingston-Brown says:

    It’s hard to take a push for constitutional change for a republic seriously, especially since the main selling points are “nothing will change” and nationalism, when we still have no constitutional recognition for Indigenous people.

  2. You are probably right about the primacy of the Reps, Jenny, even in a Parliament so degraded as ours, so blatantly under the thumb of the mining industry and the American military.

    However “inevitable” is a dangerous word in politics. After reading your post I looked up the internet to check the facts on 1999 and came across Michael Kirby’s 10 reasons why the republican referendum was lost — and it failed badly. The position for republicans may be even worse today because our Parliament is held in even lower esteem.

    We need to re-cast the terms of the debate. The expression “head of state” is unfortunate and should be used as sparingly as possible. In Australia we regard heads of state, politicians, chief execs, squatters, property developers, mining entrepreneurs etc. as much of a muchness — parasites on the poop deck. Our concern is with the bottom of state — with the welfare of the common people. That is why our country is called The Commonwealth of Australia.

    The fundamentals won’t go away. The republican models are France and the United States of America. They were formed in the same era with the same noble ideals and the same soaring language. Today it can hardly be argued that people living in the republics of France and America enjoy a quality of democracy superior to people living in the constitutional monarchies of Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Australia and Britain. Other factors are at work beyond constitutional technicalities, factors such as history, culture, political and economic policy. Republicans should not take the moral high ground. That was one of Kirby’s 10 mistakes.

    The President of a republic can’t be appointed by the Parliament, especially when the Parliament is beholden to vested interests. As Paddy O’Brien and Martyn Webb argued at the convention, the President must be elected by and answerable to the people directly and therefore has more power and prestige than the Prime Minister, who is elected by a few dozen colleagues in the Party room. As Paul Hasluck noted, Prime Ministers are not anxious to introduce this change.

    The problem in Australia is that our constitutional monarch is Britain’s ancient constitutional monarchy with its roots embedded in the financial power of the City of London and the geopolitics of the North Atlantic. From your earlier posts I gather that papers relating to 1975 are being withheld to protect the Queen. You have mentioned correspondence between Sir John Kerr, Mountbatten and Prince Charles. The Queen in 1975 was not a spring chicken. She had 20 years of statecraft behind her. She had enough experience and enough brains to know that Sir John Kerr’s behaviour would bring the Palace into disrepute and end the monarchy’s role in Australia. It has only taken this long because Australians are not interested in politics.

    Maintain the rage, Jenny, but try to keep the politicians out of it. They are minor figures and the public isn’t listening to them. If John Howard broke the nation’s heart the voters rewarded him with 11 years in the Lodge. Meanwhile the Empire strikes back. The public relations campaign from Buckingham Palace is superbly professional. Every day television and newspapers run positive stories about the royal family. We even have another Churchill movie.

    • Mark Dando says:

      Jerry Roberts, why do you say that ‘The republican models are France and the United States of America’. I’ve never heard any pro-republic commentator point to either of those countries as. The most common models I’ve seen referred to are Ireland and Germany. I don’t know much about the political institutions of the latter (other than that the President has a largely ceremonial role), but Ireland is generally considered to have a parliamentary system like Australia’s but without a foreign head of state. That’s all I want.

  3. France and America are where the revolutions were fought and the republicans did the hard yards. That’s where the thinking comes from, in the modern era. Cicero had plenty to say about the Roman Republic. He went down defending it.

    Michael Kirby is worth reading on the Australian position. He was writing in 2000, after the comprehensive failure of the republican referendum. Australians in favour of a republic at that time rejected the minimalist position. Opinion polls said that 70 per cent of Australians who wanted a republic insisted a President should be elected by a popular vote.

    The Irish model you mention is interesting. The President of the Irish Republic holds a ceremonial office but he is elected by the people for a seven year term. The current President is an intellectual who visited Australia recently. The Irish model is worth investigating. It gets rid of the Poms, which is the main thing.

    If there is to be an amendment to the constitution it needs the approval of the federal Parliament and of a majority of the people in a majority of the States. In 1999 the republican referendum failed to reach a majority in any of the States but got over the line in the Australian Capital Territory.

    I wish we could get it over with tomorrow afternoon and say farewell to the Palace, like a Mexican divorce, but it is a tricky business. Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion to run a postal survey like the gender marriage vote sounded good to me but his Party colleagues didn’t want to know about it.

    Labor’s two-part plan also makes sense. The first stage will ask a general question whether people want Australia to become a republic. If the response is positive the second stage gets down to the nitty-gritty of how the republic is constituted.

    I am in favour of an Australian republic but not because a republic in practice gives people superior democratic freedoms when compared to a constitutional monarchy. I don’t seen any evidence to support that case.

    If there is to be a push for a republic in Australia — and I hope there will be — it will have to run the risk of taking a more nationalistic view of ourselves, which is not the done thing in this age of globalisation. I think it is a risk we have to take. Australia needs a lot more work than constitutional amendment if we are to stand up as an independent people but it might be a useful starting point.

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