Ross Garrad proposes an innovative interim solution towards Australia becoming an independent republic.
THE last few years have seen an emerging consensus to the effect that Australia is unlikely to become a republic until the departure of Queen Elizabeth. But there has been little debate about how we could actually achieve constitutional change at the time of the Queen’s death or abdication. The ideal result would be an automatic, immediate transition to an Australian Head of State at that time. However, without a referendum beforehand to lay the groundwork, it simply could not happen. Charles and Camilla would inevitably become King and Queen of Australia if Charles manages to outlive his mother.
To avoid this, succession by an Australian Head of State would have to be automatic, with the details set in concrete by referendum well in advance, preferably in conjunction with the next federal election to minimise cost. The most sensible procedure would be an ultra-simple, ultra-conservative one: the most senior former Governor-General should succeed the Queen as our Head of State, doing her job in our system of government - that is, essentially nothing. The sitting Governor-General would continue in office and keep doing the same job of exercising the formal powers of government, within the narrow bounds of our existing conventions.
The system would be unchanged, but in recognition of the obvious – that a great many, probably most Australians do want the system changed, and do want to elect our Head of State – an elected Constitutional Convention should be held at an appropriate time after the Queen’s death or abdication, to formulate a more democratic system to be put to the people, for their approval or rejection in a further referendum. Most importantly, such a Convention would be dealing in immediate realities, not abstract possibilities, and all Australians, whether republican or monarchist in orientation, could be engaged in the process.
A highly desirable and probably necessary feature of the first referendum would be the repatriation of our Constitution. At the moment it forms section 9 of an Act of the British imperial parliament of 1900. It’s time for our Constitution to be “brought home” as a stand-alone document that explicitly draws its authority from a democratic vote of the Australian people.
This would remove any doubts about the legal effect of the “covering clauses” of the 1900 British Act, such as the one requiring that our country’s top job is reserved for Queen Victoria’s “heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom”. With the covering clauses gone, succession by an Australian, under a non-discriminatory Australian law, would become possible.
But when it comes to constitutional reform, the big sleeper issue is the mechanism of reform. The conventional view is that the Australian people have the power to change our Constitution, but this is just a happy delusion. All we have in reality is a power of veto over any changes the federal politicians want. Because most such proposals have aimed to increase the power of the Government, it’s not surprising that the people have chosen to exercise their power of veto more often than not. And it’s also not surprising that we’ve just about never had the chance to vote on proposals to limit the powers of government, or protect our human rights!
Using a petition-based citizen-initiative procedure – signed, say, by 1% of voters – as an alternative avenue to the existing parliamentary process, would put the power over constitutional reform where it belongs: in the hands of the people. The politicians and the parties have failed us. Asking voters, at this same first referendum, to give this power to the people could help to counter any silly slogans about a “politicians republic” and make victory almost inevitable.
This would be a compromise with something for everybody. Traditionalists would get to keep the Queen for as long as she reigns over the UK, with her legitimacy confirmed positively by a vote of the people. Minimalist republicans, whose objection to the monarchy is based largely on nationalism, would get constitutional independence and, before too long, an Australian head of state. Those who want greater constitutional change would get, eventually, a Constitutional Convention that would not be distracted by the threshold question of whether Australia should be a monarchy or a republic.
Just two obstacles appear to stand in the way of this type of proposal. The first is the difficulty of getting it through the Parliament. Not surprisingly, politicians tend to be reluctant to give up their monopoly power over initiating constitutional reform. The second is that it may not be sufficiently “bastard-proof” and could fall victim to a dishonest and hypocritical campaign about giving politicians a “blank cheque” to do as they wish. But then, the same could be said about the proposed threshold “monarchy or republic” plebiscite that this referendum would replace. Whichever path we take, the issue of our head of state must be resolved in a way that unites Australians instead of dividing us. The twilight years of the Queen’s reign give us, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity to do so.