Making the Crown democratic

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Robert Vose discusses Copernican models for an Australian Republic, including his own in which the position of Governor General remains and the Queen's role in our system is replaced by a democratically elected Australian head of state.

The Two Arms of Executive Government

The Importance of the Framework of Executive Government in an Australian Republic


The aim of this article is to introduce a broader framework to the issue of an Australian republic. The republican movement in Australia seems to be in jam with public opinion polls showing that support for an Australian republic is diminishing while the monarchy gains steadily in popularity. The monarchy continues to notch up a series of favorable media events such as state visits by the Queen and royal weddings. A broader framework for an Australian republic that takes the aim of replacing the Queen with a popularly elected Australian citizen as our Head of State would add vigor to the debate, and this change could tip the pendulum of public opinion back in favour of an Australian republic.

A metaphor of Frameworks for the Executive Government

The Commonwealth of Australia started in 1901 and has continued to this day. The Constitution has worked well and we have a strong and healthy democracy. The Executive Government in our Constitution revolves around the Queen and the Governor-General. We could use a metaphor of two arms for these two roles in the Executive Government: with the right arm representing the Governor-General who signs Acts of Parliament into law and the left arm for the Queen with her whimsical royal wave. Both arms work harmoniously with each other and they both play their respective roles in the original framework of Executive Government in the Commonwealth.

Now what exactly is the Australian Republican Movement proposing with their modified framework for Executive Government in a republic? It may sound simple – minimalist is their term – but one idea would be to remove the Queen from the Constitution altogether and have the President adopt the power of the Governor-General. The operation to transition to a republic, given this metaphor, would be one of severing the metaphorical regal left arm that waves so harmlessly. Any power that resided with the Queen as the metaphorical left arm of the Executive Government would be transferred to the metaphorical right arm that holds the pen. Executive power would be vested in the President, and the President could exercise these reserve powers as well. Imagine if this was for an elected office where a President might feel emboldened by a popular mandate and who might be egged on by an opportunistic opposition.

We could, however, have a framework for a republic where we preserve the original framework of the Executive Government. We could, for example, periodically elect an Australian citizen to replace the Queen in our Constitution while keeping the Governor-General. We could keep both arms of Executive Government in a republic. The metaphorical right arm could continue to sign Acts of Parliament into law and appoint Ministers on advice of the Prime Minister just as the Governor-General does now, while the metaphorical left arm as our Head of State could be waving harmlessly to the crowd at public functions just as the Queen does today. We could have an elected Australian serve as our Head of State, while making sure that the person elected can only act in a ceremonial role with no real political power. With the Copernican framework for a republic we could continue with the conventions that have served Australians so well for over a century.

Framework for the Executive Government

The framework for Executive Government in a republic is a vitally important topic, yet this topic that has been largely ignored in the debate about a republic. The term “framework” refers to the structure of Executive Government. There are evidently two competing frameworks for Executive Government in a republic. The original framework is the one that is currently in the Constitution. This first framework has been in operation since Federation and has lasted the test of time. Executive power is vested in the Queen but this Executive power is exercisable by the Governor-General who is the representative of the Queen. The first framework contains two distinct roles, each with different respective powers: The Queen and the Governor-General. This is the original and default framework for an Australian republic:

Chapter II – The Executive Government

Section 61 - The Executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.[1]

The Governor-General

The Constitution says that Executive power is exercisable by the Governor-General and this is what happens in practice. The Governor-General appoints Ministers and provides Royal Assent to Bills of Parliament. But the Governor-General can only act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Federal Executive Council. So in effect, the Prime Minster and the Cabinet can direct how Executive power is to be used. This is proper in a Westminster system with responsible Government and regular elections that are open and fair.

The Governor-General has no discretion to act politically, except in unusual circumstances during political crises when the Governor-General can sometimes exercise the reserve powers. There are at least two cases in the last century when the reserve powers were exercised in Australia by a State Governor or the Governor-General. The Premier of NSW Jack Lang was dismissed in 1932 and Prime Minster Gough Whitlam was dismissed in 1975. In both cases the dismissal was immediately followed by a general election. The reserve powers are used to preserve the integrity of the Westminster system. If a Prime Minster (or State Premier) has lost the confidence of Parliament, yet refuses to resign, then in order to maintain the integrity of the system the Governor-General (or state Governor) will sometimes exercise the reserve powers against the advice of the Prime Minster (or State Premier).

The Queen as a Model for our Head of State

In any case, while the Governor-General can exercise the reserve powers, the monarch never can. The Head of State in this first and original framework can not act politically. The Queen can not in practice advise the Governor-General, Her representative, on whether an Act of Parliament should be given Royal Assent or not. The Queen as Head of State is above politics. She can not intervene politically. This is a firm rule endorsed by history and constitutional convention. Section 59 is obsolete and was never intended to be exercised on the discretion of the monarch. The roles of the Head of State, The Queen, and Her representative the Governor-General are clearly separate and distinct with respect to the reserve powers. The first framework is in sharp contrast with the second framework for Executive Government that was proposed in the 1999 republic referendum.

The Second Framework for a republic

The second framework for an Australian republic was the one that failed in the republic referendum of 1999. This second framework proposed a change to Executive Government so that Executive power was vested in the President and Executive power was also exercisable by this self-same President. In effect, the second framework tries to roll the roles of the Queen and the Governor-General into the one role of President. This is actually a huge structural change to Executive Government in Australia.

Chapter II – The Executive Government

Section 59 Executive Power

The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the President, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and the laws of the Commonwealth. The President shall be the Head of State of the Commonwealth…

The President shall act on the advice of the Executive Council, the Prime Minister or another Minister of State; but the President may exercise a power that was the reserve power of the Governor-General in accordance with the constitutional conventions relating to the exercise of that power.[2]

The changes to the Constitution proposed for the republic referendum in 1999 entailed major and substantial changes to the Constitution. Unlike the Queen in the existing Executive Government of the Commonwealth, the Head of State for the proposed 1999 referendum republic could have exercised the reserve powers. This could politicize the role of Head of State. There were many questions about the proposed changes in a republic that were left unanswered. There are also many political problems with the second framework. The main problem was that the structure or framework for Executive Government was to be changed.

A New Copernican Perspective

In 2004 the Senate conducted an Inquiry into an Australian Republic. The Inquiry received over 730 submissions. One of the people who submitted a paper to the Senate Inquiry was David Latimer. In his Honorary President Republican Model Mr Latimer proposed an approach for republicans that overcame the limitations and problems that the republican movement had found itself mired in. He proposed an approach where we keep the original framework for Executive Government and focus on replacing the Queen in our Constitutional system with an Australian citizen:

The Honorary President Republican Model proposes to alter the constitution to establish Australia as a republic with the Queen being replaced by an Australian Head of State called the Honorary President. The Governor General would remain in the same role.[3]

Subsequent to the Inquiry, David Latimer read through all the Senate Inquiry submissions and identified five other submissions that posited a similar approach of replacing the Queen with an Australian citizen to act as Head of State. We chose to call these models that use the original framework for Executive Government as Copernican Republican models[4], after Nicolaus Copernicus.

There is a great deal of diversity in Copernican models. Some of the models propose different methods for selecting a citizen to act as our Head of State: such as by direct election, parliamentary appointment or electoral colleges. Some of these models aim to do away with the Crown and other models, such as mine, aim to modernize the Crown so that it becomes a democratic institution and our Head of State can be directly elected to represent one of the seven Australian Crowns for a limited term of office.

The Copernican models have the advantage that we can elect an Australian citizen to act as our Head of State in a completely ceremonial role. The elected Head of State can not have political power in the Copernican framework, just as in the constitutional monarchy. We would still have an appointed Governor-General who could exercise the reserve powers if that was appropriate. The Head of State would remain a non-political role, just as it is now.

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The Australian Republican Movement (ARM)

This second framework for an Australian republic that tries to do away with the Queen and Crown is still supported in the policy of the Australian Republican Movement. The ARM still proposes combining the roles of both the Queen and Governor-General of the constitutional monarchy into the singular role for the new Head of State in a republic. This could give the Head of State political power and may politicize the office. The policy statement from the ARM website is listed below:

The framework

Much of the discussion about an Australian Republicin recent times has been about the method of appointment or election of the Head of State. This has often overlooked the framework needed to support the final preferred selection method.

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.

    This framework will ensure that our existing parliamentary and federal system of government will continue to flourish regardless of the selection method…[5]

    Point numbers 3 and 4 together clearly demonstrate that the ARM is persisting with the second framework for an Australian republic. The ARM proposes a framework for Executive Government that combines the current roles of the Queen and the Governor-General into the one role of the Head of State. They are still sticking with the second framework that failed in the 1999 referendum. I am sure that the ARM are well aware of the Copernican framework and they do not seem willing to open a public discussion about an appropriate framework for Executive Government in an Australian republic.


    The framework of Executive Government in Australia is a topic that has not been adequately discussed in the debate about an Australian Republic. This is a vitally important topic for our republic and there are a variety of alternatives on offer that need to be publicly discussed and compared to each other. The framework - or structure - of Executive Government will affect everything else in a republic. The existing framework with the Queen as our Head of State and the Governor-General as Her representative works remarkably well. A similar framework could be possible in a republic. Copernican republicans propose a framework for an Australian republic that preserves the structure of Executive Government.

    A number of models for an Australian republic have been developed which preserve the existing original framework for Executive Government. These new Copernican models are open for discussion. The Honorary President Model  by David Latimer is one such model, and the Crowned Republic Elect[6] model by myself is another.

    To make sure that we have the best possible options for an Australian republic, the issue of the framework of Executive Government needs to be publicly discussed. To simply amputate the role and functions of the Queen and Crown from our constitutional system is likely to incur unintended consequences in the future. There are smarter and safer ways for Australia to transition into a republic.

    (You can read more of Robert Vose's ideas on his blog at http://becrux.net.)

    [1]  The Commonwealth of Australian Constitution, Section 61

    [2] AEC, Yes/No Referendum ‘99: Your official Referendum pamphlet, 1999, p53.

    [3] David Latimer, The Honorary President, Submission, 519 Senate Inquiry into an Australian Republic, 2004, p4.


    [4] http://republic.becrux.net  Copernican Republic Forum.

    [5] http://www.republic.org.au/page/australian-republican-movement-policy  Accessed 13 November 2011

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