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AUS1st (Part 2): Explaining the AUS1st plan for a better, stronger Australia

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(Art by Jeffrey Wood)

"As simple as possible, but no simpler”. In the second of his three-part series, Ross Garrad outlines the plan for a unified and sovereign Australia.

AUS1st: Australian Unity and Sovereignty First (Part 2)

A better, stronger Australia

Read Part One: Introducing AUS1st: Australian Unity and SovereigntyFirst

The Goal

An unambiguously sovereign Australian nation, with a head of state who can fully represent Australian values and aspirations, achieved through an evolutionary process that enhances our national unity. Thereby giving us a better Australia, built on a stronger, more sustainable constitutional foundation.

The Guiding Principles

“As simple as possible, but no simpler” and “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”.

Both of these principles are essentially elaborations of the KISS principle; simplicity is vital in achieving change, and in uniting Australians. An overly complex proposal, or an overly complex process for achieving change, will fail to engage the Australian people and will fail to convince them that this is all about them, not about British celebrity aristocrats or Australian politicians. The cynical old mantra “if you don’t know, vote no” could work just as easily to frustrate our national progress in the future as it has in the past.

At the other extreme, reducing the problem to simplistic slogans in place of concrete proposals – making it “simpler than possible” – is just as bad. Many Australians yearn to simply vote to separate from the monarchy and worry about the details later. Sorry, but that isn’t how it works. The devil is in the details, and the details must be spelt out exactly, and they must be able to be understood by an intelligent person who isn’t a constitutional lawyer.

A third principle, somewhat related to the first two, is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. The relevance to the debate over our future republic should need no explanation. If republicans keep holding out for an emotionally-satisfying “big bang” with everything happening at once, and resulting in "the perfect republic", nothing will ever happen.

What is needed is a tough-minded assessment of what is actually broken and what is merely sub-standard. The existence of Queen Elizabeth at the top of our constitutional tree is, in itself, not a serious problem for a great many Australians — perhaps the majority. What is undeniably broken – serving as a continuing affront to our concepts of democracy, egalitarianism and commonsense – is the principle of hereditary monarchical succession. The position at the very top of our system of government is reserved for members of a particular family who live in very big houses on the other side of the planet and who are most definitely not Australians. This principle should be abolished from Australian law as quickly as we can manage it, so that when the Queen eventually dies or abdicates, all our institutions can fully represent Australian values and aspirations.

The logic is similar in the case of the governor-general, our embryonic head of state, occupying a position that is still struggling to overcome its monarchical and colonial roots. This now highest-ranking Aussie, regarded by many people as the "Australian Head of State”, is defined in the Australian Constitution as the inferior, subservient representative of another country’s head of state.

The selection method completes a depressing picture. Back in 1901, our Constitution decreed that the governor-general was to be chosen by the British government, but today it says, in effect, that he or she will be chosen by the Australian prime minister. And all without any alteration to the relevant constitutional wording! A more democratic, less dangerous method should be legislated as soon as possible, but it should not actually be applied until the conventional term of office of five to six years has been completed and a new Governor-General is required.

This reform could probably be implemented by the Parliament through ordinary legislation, but in view of the prime minister’s almost-presidential status under our monarchical system, we shouldn’t hold our breaths waiting for that to happen.

An emphasis on simplicity also demands that we should not attempt to amend any other parts of the Constitution Act of 1900. The Constitution itself should be seen as a standalone document and the other parts of the Act should be seen as the historical relics they already are.

The Strategy

At the heart of this proposal lies the “decoupling” – the two essential steps required to convert the Governor-General into a true Australian head of state – separation from the monarchy and a more democratic method of choosing the governor-general.

Simplicity is vital in the process of achieving change — even more than in the content of the changes proposed. The currently-envisaged, non-simple process of achieving an Australian republic, consisting of 2 plebiscites and at least one referendum, would be quite likely to fail at the first plebiscite, with most of the population unable to relate to the abstract question being asked. “Should Australia become a republic?” might be a question that is charged with positive meaning for a small minority of committed republicans, but for most of the population it is vague and somewhat threatening, with huge potential for confusion, misrepresentation and deceit. Uncertainty is the biggest enemy, which would would allow the opponents of reform to mobilise truckloads of straw men to do their fighting for them.

By contrast, the AUS1st proposal involves just one referendum. As a consequence of this single referendum, our country will take a series of clearly-defined steps, at the most appropriate times:

Immediately, full constitutional independence will be achieved and monarchical succession will be abolished from all federal law.

At the end of the Governor-General’s term of office, a new Governor-General will be chosen by a far more democratic process and will become an authentic representative of the entire nation.

At the end of the Queen’s reign, we will separate automatically from the British monarchy, and our formal transition from monarchy to republic will occur.

At an appropriate time after this transition, a Constitutional Convention will decide whether proposals for further constitutional change should be put to the people.

The Details

This is where the rubber hits the road: where we move beyond the wishful thinking, the spin, the hype and the fantasies. Any proposal that deserves to be taken seriously must include, at the very least, a strong indication of the actual changes to the constitutional text that would be required to realise its aims. The AUS1st proposal would substantially alter, in the first instance, seven sections out of 128. At the end of the Queen’s reign, minor changes (embedded in the temporary Section 1a) would be applied automatically to 14 sections and another 3 sections would be deleted.

A. INSERTION OF AN INTRODUCTORY SECTION 1: The Sovereignty of the Australian People

(The existing Section 1 is re-numbered to Section 4)

This new section defines the extent of the Constitution and the reach of constitutional power, and states explicitly the source of its authority: the democratically-expressed consent of the sovereign Australian people.

B. INSERTION OF A TEMPORARY SECTION 1a: Abolition of Monarchical Succession

This section repeals all federal law determining succession to the monarchy with immediate effect, and legislates a series of constitutional amendments which will take effect automatically at the end of the Monarch’s reign, thereby terminating our constitutional subservience to the British monarchy at that time.

C. EXPANSION OF SECTION 2: The Governor-General

This greatly expanded section, which also incorporates the non-obsolete parts of Sections 3 and 4, provides a far clearer description of the role and term of office of the Governor-General as the office evolves into a true Australian Head of State. Sections on role and eligibility reinforce the non-partisan nature of the office. Provisions concerning the filling of a vacancy in the office foreshadow the selection procedure outlined in Section 3.

D. ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION 3: The Constitutional Assembly

This vital component of the AUS1st proposal addresses the “headline issue” of the selection method for the Head of State. It creates a new institution — an electoral assembly drawn from our elected representatives at all three levels of government, with the addition of randomly-chosen citizen representatives. The Assembly, which under normal circumstances would be convened every five to six years, is also given the responsibility of examining and recommending proposals for constitutional reform.

E. DELETION OF SECTION 25: Provisions as to races disqualified from voting.

The effect and rationale of this alteration should be obvious to everybody who believes in a sane and self-respecting Australia.

F. AMENDMENT OF SECTION 42: Oath or affirmation of allegiance.

This alteration removes all references to the Schedule from the Constitution, thus relegating the outdated Oath of Allegiance to the status of historical relic in the Constitution Act, but no longer part of the Constitution proper. The wording of such oath or affirmation will be within the power of the Parliament, but the people’s elected representatives will no longer be forced to conform to a particular form of words with which they may not agree.

G. ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION 127: The Special Constitutional Convention.

This new section sets in constitutional concrete a special Constitutional Convention, held at an appropriate time after our separation from the monarchy, with unusually strong powers to ensure that proposals with an appropriate level of support at the Convention must be submitted to voters at a referendum.

For full details of the proposed changes to the constitutional text, see the next instalment in this series: Part 3 - Analysing the AUS1st constitution alteration: All the details

Acknowledgements

Firstly, the Australian Republican Movement, which has provided a realistic starting point:

The ARM recommends the following framework for an Australian Republic:

  1. Australia to have an independent Constitution, resting solely on the will and authority of the Australian people, unconnected to any British legislation.
  2. Australia’s Head of State to be a resident Australian citizen.
  3. Australia’s Head of State to have powers similar to those of the Governor-General.
  4. Australia’s Constitution to have all obsolete references to the monarchy removed and to have all active references to the monarchy and the Governor-General replaced with references to Australia’s Head of State.
  5. Australia’s Head of State to be dismissed only by a significant majority vote of the Federal Parliament.

ARM Chair, Professor Geoff Gallop, who has highlighted the importance of deliberative democracy mechanisms in constituting a unifying and fully sovereign Australian Republic.

The late Len Liddelow, a lifelong republican and a firm supporter of the “automatic Republic” concept.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who has forcefully expressed the view that we should separate from the monarchy at the end of the Queen’s reign – not before and not after.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, who suggested an electoral assembly drawn from all three levels of government, as a “middle course” option for electing our Head of State.

And, just as importantly, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for cutting through the pretence and showing so clearly that the governor-general is inevitably the representative of the British monarch and the Australian prime minister, and can never truly be the representative of the Australian nation as a whole, in the absence of some serious changes to the rules of the game.

No acknowledgements are due to foreign personalities or foreign constitutional models, except to the extent that the Constitutional Assembly proposal has some resemblance to the way things are done in Germany and India. But our method would, of course, be better. The overseas model that seems obvious to many people is not applicable to Australia, even though, at the end of the nineteenth century, many Australian patriots looked across the Pacific to “the Great Republic” for inspiration.

As we move into the twenty-first century, we can find sufficient inspiration in our own country, our own values, our own achievements, and our own hopes for our future, to build our own “Great Republic” right here.

Find out more about an Australian republic here.

Still to come:

Part 3 — Details of the AUS1st Constitution alteration: Our own Head of State.

Part 4 — Details of the AUS1st Constitution alteration: Democratising our Constitution.

Ross Garrad has a Masters degree in Applied Law and has served as Treasurer and Convenor of the Queensland branch of the Australian Republican Movement. 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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