John Warhurst: the case for an Australian Republic

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This is the text of an address given earlier this month by ARM deputy chair Professor John Warhurst to the 2011 National Schools Constitutional Convention, in which he brilliantly makes the case for an Australian Republic.

Professor John Warhurst

I am a “God Save the Queen” era republican; as a primary school student I remember fleetingly one part of the first Royal Tour of Australia by Queen Elizabeth in 1954; when I first travelled internationally and needed a passport that document made it clear that I was a British subject as well as an Australian citizen. I first entered public discussion about an Australian republic as a Rotary Club speaker (Royal Toast and all) in 1978 in Western Victoria, well before you were born; but I became a republican while I was growing up in Adelaide, home of some prominent republicans, like the artist Geoffrey Dutton, who were vilified for disloyalty in recent Australian history.

I mention my personal history not to prove how old I am and to kick an own goal before this youthful audience but to exemplify historical trends;  in this debate it is important to know where we have come from in order to understand where Australian republicans think we should go. We are not conducting an abstract argument as if Australia was a constitutional clean slate.

There are two main arguments for Australia becoming a republic and one supporting argument.

The first republican argument

The first republican argument applies generally in all countries, though in a specific way to Australia that I will come back to.

Republics are democratic nations in which the highest public representative is not a hereditary monarch who merely inherits the position but a citizen chosen on merit, thereby embodying a nation’s egalitarian spirit with a commitment to equality and fairness. It places the sovereignty of the people at the apex of our constitutional arrangements as it should be.

We republicans believe this is a form of government that best exemplifies core Australian values, like democracy and a fair go for all. Such values are part of the Australian character that we all recognize and love to be part of.

Furthermore, and this is the specific part of the case, an Australian republic will remove our ties as a nation to a monarch who must be the British monarch (Elizabeth at the moment, Charles next, William after that in that order), must not be a member of the Catholic faith, and can only be a woman if she has no male siblings. Britain can change some of these things if it wishes but we Australians can’t. And, even if some of these discriminatory practices were changed by the British Parliament at some time in the future, monarchies are inescapably class-based, hierarchical institutions that modern democracies should dispense with.

The second republican argument

The second republican argument applies specifically to the case of becoming an Australian republic in place of having a foreign British monarchy.  Moving to a republic would be part of a natural evolutionary track that Australia has been on for more than 100 years as we consolidate our independent national identity. Over the past 40 years I’ve watched some of these changes happen (Advance Australia Fair instead of God Save the Queen as the national anthem; the High Court of Australia as final court of appeal rather than British/Imperial Privy Council; regular selection of Australians as Governor-General rather than Brits).

These developments happened not because the system was “broke” but because it made sense to look to the future not the past. This is the trajectory along which Australia is moving. A republican Australia sits comfortably on this trajectory. Republicans are arguing for a step that is very much in line with our development as an independent nation.

The supporting argument

The supporting argument is that the useful things that a monarch can do for people and for the political process (constitutional, ceremonial, personal) can be done just as well, and in most cases better, by an Australian President. Already we have a Queen’s Representative, the Governor-General, who does most of these things anyway. There are many examples of republics around the world, a majority of Commonwealth countries, whose presidents  carry out these roles too.

Recently this point was brought home to me when I was listening to a Royal Danish Embassy spokesman discussing the benefits of the Danish monarchy for Denmark. He spoke of the monarch exemplifying Danish identity, sharing the key values of the nation and in a practical way advocating Danish interests. None of these benefits apply to Australia. Instead Australia is stuck with a monarch/Royal family who can do none of these things well at all (though they do try sporadically as Prince William has been doing recently by visiting Australia). We need our own Head of State not a foreign and at best part-time one.

Weak arguments for retaining the monarchy

As I debate the republic-monarchy question numerous weak arguments for retaining the monarchy are thrown at me. Some of these arguments are just silly, while others are quite nasty. I’d like to address five of them.

First, there are numerous examples of successful republics around the world (USA, France, Italy, India, Ireland and a majority of the members of the Commonwealth).  You’ll be discussing France, Ireland and the USA later. There are successful monarchies too. Of course there are. So monarchists shouldn’t feel the need to try to perform statistical tricks or to trash other countries because they’re not monarchies just to put republicans down. This type of argument is irrelevant to Australia’s future.

Secondly, the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it “ argument is just plain silly. Australia has dispensed with a lot of imperial trappings along the way not because they were broken per se but because they had counter to Australian national identity and therefore no longer appropriate. For instance, would we ever want a British Governor-General again? I hope not. The British monarchy in Australia should go the same way in the 21st century.

Thirdly, the argument that the monarchy should be retained because it has worked for Australia and produced our stability and prosperity is wrong and equally silly. There is no causal relationship. Australia’s record in all matters is our own responsibility and to our credit or debit. Monarchies can’t produce stability (look at Northern Ireland, for instance, for example for a contrary example despite having the same monarch). The monarchy is not the same thing as the parliamentary system and republicans are not arguing that we dispense with that. The Westminster system stays and is not necessarily tied to the monarchy. We do not want an American style executive president and there is little public support for it.

Fourthly, Australia is a monarchy not a “crowned republic”. That term is just a devious trick. The word republic has two meanings. In the Australian context it has always meant having an Australian citizen as President instead of a foreign King or Queen. The other meaning of republican refers to popular sovereignty and can apply to a system where the power of the monarch is constrained by parliamentary democracy. This applies to Australia, and has been used by some republicans to make this point, but for monarchists to use the term in the republican debate against republicans is a deliberate furphy that is designed to confuse.

Fifthly, monarchists regularly condemn the Australian Republican Movement for not putting forward a single method of election of a President. Here they miss the point and betray their unwillingness to involve the people not just in voting in a referendum but also in discussion of the details prior to the referendum. Community discussion is important, whether surrounding a preliminary vote (called a plebiscite) or not, before deciding on the precise detail of the referendum proposal. There are several worthy possibilities. The ARM will support the selection method preferred by the Australian people and campaign for it at a subsequent referendum.

There are various selection methods that will do the job. Republicans want an Australian citizen as Head of State. We want the President to have powers similar to those of the current Governor-General. We want our existing parliamentary and federal system of government to continue to flourish, as it will. If Australia chooses to become a republic you may not be better off financially. But I believe that Australia will be a better place, with a clearer national identity once the change has been made; just as the changes we have already made have proved beneficial.

I’ve heard arguments which might deter some people from voting for a republic, perhaps because they think the question is either unimportant or a second order matter. One might be the necessary cost of any referendum. I’ve heard arguments that might stop the passage of a referendum in its tracks, like fear of the unknown or reference to other supposedly higher priorities (though that too is misleading). But I’ve never heard a compelling argument on principle that, given the circumstances of Australian history, i.e. born of the British Empire, that Australia should not now in the 21st century become a republic.

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