The maximalist case for an Australian Republic

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Dr Klaas Woldring makes the case for a maximalist – rather than a minimal change – Australian republic.

Australia Reconstructed (Part Six)

[Read Part One: The Australian party system and proportional representation]

[Read Part Two: Australia’s woeful Westminster System]

[Read Part Three: Improving on Federalism]

[Read Part Four: Towards workplace democracy]

[Read Part Five: Australia’s locked Constitution]

An Independent Australian Republic Now!

THE ABSENCE of an independent Australian Head of State is what motivated the Australian Republican Movement in the early 1990s. We still have a Governor-General representing a Queen, who permanently resides in the UK with her family. Australia’s attempt to create a “minimalist” republic in 1999 failed and the status quo has endured.

After that disappointing result, leadership on progressing the republic issue was hard to find. A somewhat inconclusive follow-up Senate Inquiry was held in 2003-4, but major party interest in the issue evaporated. When the new PM Kevin Rudd organised an Australian 2020 Summit in 2008, the republic issue was not specifically on the agenda. This omission was noted by the selected 1,000 delegates, who made it clear that they actually did consider it a top issue.

Mr. Rudd had relegated the Republic question to his second parliamentary term, so he explained. Similarly, the Gillard Government has thus far given very low priority to the Republic issue. Other senior politicians, including Whitlam and Turnbull (who initiated and funded much of the Australian Republic Movement), adopted the position that it was “now best” to wait until the Queen had either abdicated or passed away. Why might this be so?

These positions all reflect a minimalist approach to the Republic— suggesting that an Australian Republic merely means the replacement of the Queen by an Australian president.  The only other question to be resolved would be how the (symbolic) president should be elected: directly by the people or, essentially, by two-thirds of the major party politicians. The inadequacy of minimalist positions, broadly held by the major parties, as well as the ARM, may be gauged from the preceding articles in this series.

I have stated the case for the maximalist republic since 1992, and also argue now that is plainly ridiculous that Australia should wait until the Queen has retired ― something which is unlikely to happen as she has indicated herself. There is no reason at all not to start public discussion on major reforms to the Australian polity. In fact, it is long overdue. The negative adversarialism in our parliaments is a daily source of concern and the blame shifting games between federal and state governments is in full swing.

It does seem that Australian leadership of both major parties are desirous of gradually shifting towards a new colonial status, or at least of a client state status of the US, rather than creating an independent Australian republic. In an on-line article published by “The Conversation”, this is made perfectly clear. Apparently there are now more than 35 of these bases, referred to by Defence Minister Stephen Smith as “degrees of jointness of using our facilities”.

In my 2005 book AUSTRALIA: Republic or US Colony (Lulu), I have questioned the desirability of the continuing subservience of Australian political leaders towards the US. This found its logical origin in World War II after PM John Curtin withdrew the Australian troops from the Middle East, but the situation surely has changed dramatically sixty later. An Australian Republic should not be a client state of the US for many sound reasons. In particular, the emergence of very important trading partners in Asia requires a much more neutral position in the Asia/Pacific region for Australia. Indeed the creation of a republic should be accompanied by the development of a more neutral, independent foreign policy.

Most Australians want to hear more about comprehensive alternatives

Australians need a lot more information about changing to a republic.

Many conservatives are sitting on the fence, saying that minimalist republicans haven't really made their case; that the minimalist case is not all that persuasive. Tell us what kind of republic you are offering, these people ask. Do you have a (strategic) plan beyond changing the head of state? If so, what is it? That information is basically what is missing.

The ARM counter-argument is that to put more on the table than the head of state issue is inviting more opposition, making it more difficult to get the required majority at the next referendum. But we need to have a wide-ranging debate about the system. The leadership of all parties needs to raise these issues. They need to develop a plan for public debate and issues for multiple-question plebiscites. That obvious method of public consultation is simply not used at all. Nothing like this is happening. Supposedly, Australia is now just waiting for the Queen to pass away. The passivity of this position is disturbing. And does this mean that, during the waiting period, no preparations at all are being undertaken?

Surely, action for a republic must come from the Government, but republican pressure groups need to present their maximalist case for renewal, inform the voters and the media. The media and opinion Pollsters do have a significant role to play here, especially in relation to system renewal. Why are the voters never asked about alternatives to the electoral system or what they think about alternatives to the political system, their knowledge about constitution problems, etc. The universities could start Republican studies centres but are they in fact proactive on these sorts of things? Scandalously, I would say, the answer is a big NO.

Of course, there will always remain a few staunch Monarchists and those who have been brainwashed to believe that Australia has “the best Constitution in the world” or “is the most democratic country”, and so on. Anyone who has made a serious study of such questions knows that this is quite incorrect and that such Australians should stop kidding themselves.

Maximalism as an alternative approach to the Republic

Thus, the crux of my argument is that Republicans should abandon minimalism as soon as possible. They should show awareness of the major problems confronting Australia and encourage debate towards developing a strategic plan through public involvement and consultation.

Achieving an Australian Head of State is just one minor, although essential, step towards the republican form of Government. The Americans decided on an independent republic in the 1770s and their initiative and enterprise resulted in a nation that rapidly grew into a super power. The colonial development of Australia has taken a different path but today the country is at the crossroads, requiring initiative and public enterprise. Decisions have to be made now rather than leaving major issues on the back burner. Several constitutional lawyers and political scientists have, in fact, urged major system changes in the past decade. It is the politicians of the major parties who are either not listening or they are too pre-occupied with other issues.

Further reading:
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