The real issue: What kind of Republic?

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Despite Turnbull's inaction, most parliamentarians now support a Republic — is it time for a whole system overhaul? Asks Dr Klaas Woldring.

RECENT REPORTS in The Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald suggest that a majority of federal politicians now support a republic, that is to say, a minimalist republic — at least according to Australian Republican Movement (ARM) research.

Paul Karp commented in The Guardian:

A majority in both the lower and upper houses of federal parliament support Australia becoming a republic, the republican movement has claimed.

They include deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, and moderates in cabinet Christopher Pyne, Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham. In all, 81 members of the House of Representatives, and 40 members of the Senate have declared their support for an Australian republic, the movement says.

Prime Minister Turnbull's support for a republic has been very qualified and timid since the July 2016 election. He has made it clear that the ARM has to get the people on side. Have they? Not really. We do know that the voters are very disenchanted with the political system and that support for the republic has actually steadily declined. John Hewson described the political system as a “mire” Australia needed to be rescued from. Regrettably, Hewson’s recommendations as to a way out are unrealistic in that they provide suggestions for major party cooperation of a high order within the traditional adversarial two-party system.

In 1999, the voters rejected a politicians’ republic and a politicians’ president! So, to gain public support, the ARM should significantly broaden their platform — at the very least acknowledge governance problems and recognise alternative options. Its continued minimalism has now become a liability. That the current state premiers (except one, Barnett) are now also in favour of a minimalist republic may also be a plus, but the issue is clearly not high on the people’s agenda. Popular support is needed for a successful new referendum. The people’s republic is not just about a directly elected president either – an absolutely obvious requirement to start off with – but they want the sick political system, yes the mire, cleaned up. Just what could this involve?

What about replacing the archaic electoral system and removing aspects of the Westminster system, which basically guarantee that we end up with far too many amateurs in our parliaments? Why not select ministers from outside the parliament — a much greater pool to choose from? How about replacing the Federation — a very costly and dysfunctional structure? Furthermore, why not start a discussion about the frozen Australian Constitution altogether and get Indigenous people involved in drafting a new one? The ARM, since its inception, always has been concerned about "frightening the horses", not realising that is a flawed and failed strategy. The ARM could successfully adopt the role of a non-parliamentary political reform movement that would soon eclipse our clearly non-reformist major parties.

Australian politics and governance in need of overhaul

The Australian voters fear that their political system has become a serious liability. Numerous Independent candidates made the effort (again) to stand for Parliament but the electoral systems, especially for lower houses, are totally biased in favour of the major parties’ establishment. These major parties have very few members and are themselves lacking in democratic organisation.

Federally the Senate presents a diversity of parties and qualities that, for the moment, just manage to block the most controversial legislation. The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation, even in its reformed 2016 version, while delivering a more representative chamber than the House of Representatives, remains a problem, even without external manipulation of preference votes. The key to major reform is electing the House of Representatives by means of a proportional representation open party list system. The entire political culture would change because different parties need to cooperate to form a majority government — Hewson’s remedy, but one which requires system change.

With a few exceptions, the media are part and parcel of the problem because they don’t report on alternatives. They basically refuse to discuss improvements to the system and its sub-systems. Virtually no media source inquires as to how it was even possible that a government like that of Tony Abbott could be elected to power and, once elected, was kept in power for two years complete with a variety of nincompoops as ministers. If this in itself is not a sign of dangerous disintegration, the election of five PMs in five years surely flags decline of grotesque proportion. Add to this the very low status of politicians in the public’s rankings of occupations.

Surely, it doesn’t have to be like that. Given that these people make major, far-reaching decisions for the country, this is an alarming situation. The ARM should concern itself with such problems. Just changing the head of state really does not make for a democratic republic at all. Why would the ARM advocate for a republic that would automatically inherit such a lamentable political system? It could hardly be argued that a republic with such a system is worth the name Republica!

Why is it so?

Why are the people, generally, apparently still believing that Australia is a democracy that it is run well — with parliaments that are supposedly representative of the people and yielding great qualities capable of running the country?

To the extent that some do realise that there are serious problems with the governance system, why is it that alternatives are not canvassed, taught, discussed in the media, especially by the public broadcasters and the universities?

Finally, what are the major problems that need to be addressed? Why is it that neither major party is even remotely inclined to tackle system change? They pursue the class-oriented policies of yesteryear! One can hear that every time a major leader speaks and blames the other party for something.

Australia now ruled by reactionary minority government

Politically, Turnbull and the Liberal Party are dominated by conservatives and reactionaries who have little or no interest in serious system change. The small "l" Liberals are the minority faction in the party. Over 50 parties participated in the 2016 federal election. In the House of Representatives, the major parties gained 76 per cent of the primary vote. Of these parties, only the dominant factions essentially form government — a serious consequence of the two-party system.

Right now, that is the right wing of the Liberal Party, representing roughly 25 per cent of the primary vote. Isn’t high time that Australia has a completely independent, non-parliamentary inquiry into the electoral system? The remedy here is a proportional representation open party list, not Hare-Clark, which is only useful for small assemblies. Australia has no experience with this. Neither had New Zealand 20 years ago but it was introduced after a Royal Commission recommended it. The Kiwis are clearly happy with it.

The negative adversarial two-party system is a curse on the body politic in Australia. It has absolutely nothing to do with representative government, democracy or majority government.

Dr. Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University and Managing Editor of Beyond Federation: Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution, (Amazon 2014).

Turnbull says he supports the idea of a Republic but not yet. (Source @9NewsAUS.) 

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