Politics Opinion

A safer way to ditch the monarchy

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The republic model proposed by the ARM of an elected head of state has been met with criticism. Stephen Saunders offers suggestions for an alternative model.

THE AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC MOVEMENT (ARM) proposes a head of state elected by voters, from nine to 11 candidates nominated by nine jurisdictions. First respondents aren’t wowed by this “hybrid“ model. Maybe there are simpler and safer avenues to delete the British monarchy from our national-level governance. 

Last year, I baulked at an Australian republic with an elected head of state. I’m not the only one left uneasy by the 2022 ARM model.

Ex-Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Tony Abbott fear a shift of powers towards a politicised head of state. So does former NSW Premier and Australian Senator Bob Carr.

Similar is Malcom Turnbull, who spearheaded Australia’s 1999 republican referendum. Then Prime Minister, John Howard, sabotaged that. His “apolitical” Queen duly rewarded him.

The defeated “parliamentary appointment” model proposed:

‘Queen and governor-general being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.’

In the present ARM model, Turnbull and political scientist Corbin Duncan perceive weaknesses of direct election and parliamentary appointment models but the strengths of neither’.

A referendum, asserts journalist Troy Bramston, would not carry this hybrid. Former Canberra Times editor Crispin Hull likens it to a camel and re-raises parliamentary appointment.

ARM has even nudged me towards conservative pundits Amanda Vanstone and Gerard Henderson.

Don’t get me wrong. Our 21st Century prime ministers shouldn’t be paying court to a British Queen. Governors-general shouldn’t be reporting to her Buckingham Palace. Even tiny Barbados has cut these musty apron strings.

Loving the “continuity and stability“ of Australia’s constitutional monarchy, royalists simultaneously claim governors-general are “already“ our head of state. Bramston rubbishes that construction. So, too, do Howard’s hit job and the chaotic 1975 Dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Historian Jenny Hocking infers the Queen – not Whitlam – knew Governor-General John Kerr’s intentions. Her blueblood private secretary offered Kerr unsound or partisan opinions.

Australian Government, National Archives and Government House itself white-anted Hocking’s lengthy campaign. To liberate relevant Palace letters locked down by the Queen herself.

Upon the grudging letter-drop of 2020, she at once disavowed that she or her “Royal Household” had had any part in the Dismissal.

Besotted royalist Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t mind her having a lend of us. He just decreed a “Queen Elizabeth II Island” for Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. Also lakeside, a jolly Prime Minister Julia Gillard once declared a “Queen Elizabeth Terrace”. Pour amuser Charles and Camilla. And who could forget Abbott’s kitsch knighthood, for Elizabeth’s now-deceased husband?

Despite these prime-ministerial cringes, pollsters ask repeatedly if we want a republic. A loaded question. Monarchy or none, we can still call ourselves a “commonwealth” or “federation”. 

ARM research polled five options. In order of popularity, respondents liked their “Australian Choice“ model, then “parliamentary appointment”, open nomination plus “direct election”, no separate head of state, and finally prime ministerial pick. Over two-thirds of us, they claim, would back Australian Choice at a referendum. 

Not included here is the non-republican option of “no change”. The monarch continues to appoint the governor-general, upon the prime minister’s recommendation. Being the monarch’s Australian representative, the governor-general also exercises important but limited powers and functions.

Under Australian Choice, each state and territory would pick one head of state candidate, by whatever means. The Commonwealth adds 1-3. Enter the voters, to elect one of the 9-11.  

These complexities would deliver us a fresh start, right? Well, up to a point.

As ARM clarifies, their head of state would generally follow the advice of the Government. Usefully, the model defines the prime minister’s role. Requires heads of state to ratify any changes passed by a referendum. Ensures that heads themselves could be held to account. 

But we’d still be in the old-world British Commonwealth. With our rather British flag and national day. Our six states would still have their six governors. Recommended by state premiers, appointed by the monarch under British and Australian laws, and representing her in each state.

Forgivably, ARM deflects “state-level reforms” for now. Similarly, Indigenous constitutional recognition. Which, some argue, should precede an Australian head of state. 

Vanstone, Anne Twomey and others point to a practical Australian Choice concern. Mostly, the nine governors-general since Kerr seem to have been worthy types, for the exercise of limited powers. That is, if you set aside Howard’s odiously religious Peter Hollingworth appointment.

Would you get these “goodly” or less “political” types jumping the hurdles of a popular election? Not easy. Or would the usual politicians tend to prevail? They might.

To win a referendum, Australian Choice would need an overall majority of votes, also a voter majority in at least four states.

Our referendums are rarely carried. Only ever with bipartisan support. As ARM concedes, as other polls confirm, the general proposition of a republic barely wins a voter majority.

In 1999, Howard scuttled a pretty mild proposition. His later machinations propelled Morrison into Parliament. The Liberals – and Australia generally – are still in Howard’s thrall.

Do we seriously reach for a total head of state innovation, at real risk of failing again and gratifying Howard? Would stars ever align, for a Liberal leader and a Labor leader to co-endorse something like the ARM model? Voter support for a directly-elected head of state, recalls Turnbull of the 1990s, was a “mile wide and an inch deep”. Of an indirect election, I fear similar. 

Incremental change, to me, still looks like the better bet for bipartisan and voter support. Like Carr, I see two options. Prime minister’s pick, or back to the future with parliamentary appointment.

A minimal proposition might be: “The prime minister nominates our governors-general. Should we abolish the formal requirements for them to be appointed by and represent the British monarchy?” Or braver: “Should the Australian role of the British monarchy be scrapped, with the governor-general being appointed by a two-thirds majority of elected members of Federal Parliament?”

Even a modest option should be promoted in reassuring language. If at all to persuade old-school conservatives and new-school conspiracy theorists. Like, don’t even mention the R-word. 

If success ever came, antique British hooks would remain, but also, we could make overdue renovations.

We would lose that silly, smarmy, Royal Family patronage. In all seriousness, a 95-year-old ‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth’ still presides over our [sic] ‘enormous and fascinating’ country. She should take early retirement, advises British establishment journalist Simon Jenkins. He’s not even joking.

At last, the White hereditary Anglican ruler would exit our national governance. Our prime ministers might think twice about fawning on her foreign royalty. Governors-general, if not elected identities, would fully become head of state and shed the plummy palaver with the private secretary.  

Sure, I doubt today’s Government House and Palace would foment Kerr-like mischief. Yet non-trivial issues could still be referred into their 1901 franchise. Who’s to say these would be addressed on fully Australian terms? 

In the meantime, as republican debate drags on – and on – here’s a sneak preview of upcoming episodes in the “Crown Does Canberra” series:

Elizabeth, who knows Charles as well as anyone, finally renounces her stellar bid to live forever. He, the young royal duffer Kerr broached his scheme with, becomes Australia’s aged King. His rebadged Queen Consort joins him, for another unctuous lap Down Under. The prime minister fawns. 

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer.

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