Maintaining the Westminster conventions into a republic

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Robert Vose gives the outline of the presidency in his Copernican vision for the democratision of the Australian Crown.

The style of a head of state who replaces the Queen, while we keep the Governor-General, will differ from both the style of Governors-General and the style of monarchs in Australia’s history. It may be difficult to predict in advance the style of a new kind of Australian Head of State, yet we can still extrapolate from constitutional and non-constitutional aspects of the Head of State in a republic to discuss a style that may become apparent.

Maintaining the Westminster conventions into a republic

One huge advantage of democratising the Australian Crown, as opposed to simply tossing the Crown away for a republic, is that the conventions that have developed around the British monarchy and that are relevant in the Westminster system can be expected to have weight and be carried over into the republic. The conventions constraining the power of the monarch could be expected to apply to an elected Head of State in a republic, if we were to democratise the Australian Crown. A link between Australia as a constitutional monarchy and as a republic would then be through the Australian Crown.

It is all too easy to take the conventions of our system of Government for granted. Our Constitution works within the assumptions and conventions of the Westminster system. The Australian Constitution only makes sense in this context. It does not even mention the Prime Minister, who is the Head of Government. The constitution leaves many things unsaid. The political culture should be aware of the conventions of Government, and the political culture should also be able to reject breaches in convention that an overly assertive Head of State may dare to try. A continuation of the Australian Crown into a republic is one way to give weight to Westminster conventions. One of the main conventions is that the monarch does not interfere in party politics. This convention should also apply to the Head of State in a republic.

Conventions do, of course, change over time. They evolve and are sometimes broken or challenged. If there has been a breach in convention that may render a convention broken, then there may be a case to codify that convention and have that convention added to the Constitution proper (through a successful referendum vote in Australia). Conventions could be codified incrementally and added to the Constitution as the need arises. The Constitution is meant to be a living document.

An example of codifying a convention is the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which limited the number of terms for a President to two terms only. There was a convention that an American President serves for at most two terms in office. The war-time President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually won a fourth term in 1944, but died the following year. The Twenty-Second Amendment was passed in 1947 and was ratified in 1951. This Amendment codified an existing convention that had been broken, so that the convention that a US President serve for at most two terms in office is now a law of the United States.

In time, relevant conventions for Australia’s system of government will be codified and added to the constitution to become law. It would be almost impossible to codify all the relevant Westminster conventions as a prelude to becoming a republic. Trying to codify the reserve powers alone is problematic enough. A blanket statement in a republican draft constitution to the effect that Westminster conventions will carry over into a republic may have no weight in a republic if we were to get rid of the Crown — especially if the Head of State is directly elected. An elected Head of State could claim that conventions applicable to the monarch were not applicable to someone who had won a popular election for Head of State. Given the potential expense of a direct-election campaign, they might claim that they had “earned” the right to participate in politics as they see fit.

The dual mandate problem with a directly-elected Head of State may become a headache without the continuation of the Australian Crown into a republic. The dual mandate problem refers to the potential for conflict between a Prime Minister and a directly-elected Head of State. If there was a national election for the Head of State, the person elected could probably count on winning millions of votes. A Prime Minister, by contrast, has only won their own seat in the House or Representatives and has also won an election among the parliamentarians of the party with (usually) a majority in the lower house. A Prime Minister could only claim the direct support of tens of thousands of votes. An elected Head of State might claim that their vote tally gives them a political mandate apart from the Prime Minister.

It is easy for republicans to say that we will keep the conventions of our system of Government into a republic, yet this may not be as easy to do as it sounds. There are a number of things that could be done to prevent the problem of a dual mandate from arising in a republic where there is a direct-election for the Head of State. The first of these is to maintain the conventions of the Head of State in the Westminster system, by democratising the Australian Crown in a republic. The constraints by convention on the exercise of power by the monarch would then be carried over into a republic to constrain the power of an elected Head of State.

In following articles I will discuss a number of other strategies for maintaining our existing system of Government in a republic, even while we have a directly-elected Head of State.

(Access other stories by Robert Vose explaining his Copernican vision for an Australian Republic by clicking here.)

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