Why Republicans Oppose an Australian Republic
Simon Orme writes from Sydney
The debate on Australia's 6 November referendum on the republic question is at last hotting up. This week a senior Government Minister, Peter Reith, spoke out against the referendum proposal. He urged pro-republicans to vote "no" to this republic and hold out for a better one later. Delay was better than adopting "a third rate compromise" republican model.
Reith's comments evoked angry responses from the major pro-republican organisation and the Australian Labor Party.
Recent polls showed declining public support for voting "yes" in the referendum. This follows greater scrutiny of the republican model being put.
The wording of the referendum is of course crucial.
A Parliamentary Committee has proposed replacing the PM's favoured wording with the following: "… to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen of Australia and the Governor General being replaced with an Australian President." This version would probably win. Only diehard monarchists want a King Charles of Australia.
But the current referendum wording, supported by the PM, is "…to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with a President chosen by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament."
Smart observers think this proposal would lose. Australian voters have a history of rejecting referenda proposals.
But the real problem is that it is one thing to agree the Australian monarchy should be replaced, it is another to agree what to replace it with.
There are many who don't agree the monarchy should be replaced, notably including PM Howard. His view is it ain't broke so there's nothing to fix.
Three republican models have been proposed, but it is the so-called Keating-Turnbull model, only, that is being put at the referendum.
Under this model, the President would be appointed by a two-thirds majority of the Commonwealth Parliament.
Support for this model comes from the well-organised and funded Australian Republican Movement (ARM), headed by the very rich Malcom Turnbull.
This model was endorsed by a
constitutional convention held early in 1998. Two other
models were considered but rejected at the convention.
One option is the MacGarvie model, after its proponent - a former Governor General. This is the nearest to the status quo but with an Australian President instead of a Governor General.
The third option is a direct election
model, associated with former Independent MP, Ted Mack.
Under the Mack model, the President would be elected by
This is the model Peter Reith favours.
Turnbull and others oppose this on the ground an elected presidency would lead to a US style executive president and the risk of policy gridlock between the PM and the President.
This ignores the numerous successful
non-executive presidencies around the world.
Kiwi republicans should be watching all this closely as a foretaste of the travails they will face.
Of course there are differences. Australia has nothing like the status of the Treaty of Waitangi to worry about. On the other hand, the relative powers of the Governor General and the Prime Minister is a highly sensitive issue here because of the Whitlam sacking.
There is also the federal angle.
This means Australia could become a republic but Queensland
- just to take a wild example - could remain a
The Australian experience strongly suggests Kiwi republicans should press for a two-stage referendum, as with MMP. This enables the questions whether a republic and which republic to be put separately.
A key NZ advantage is a heightened awareness of the concept of sovereignty, honed by years of Treaty debates.
The odd thing about the "debate" here, until Reith's intervention, was a complete lack of reference to sovereignty. But this is of course the key issue.
In a constitutional monarchy, sovereignty is shared between the monarchy and the parliament. The Westminster system is famous for fudging just how the shares are apportioned.
In the case of NZ, Australia and Canada, this is further complicated by the appointment of indigenous Governors and Governors General, who more and more have come to embody the separate identity of the Crown in each jurisdiction.
Keating-Turnbull model transfers the Crown's sovereignty to
Parliament and arguably the Prime Minister. A key feature
of this model is that the Prime Minister could dismiss the
President at any time without requiring any grounds for
The Mack model, on the other hand, clearly transfers the Crown's sovereignty to the people as the direct appointers and sackers of Presidents via the ballot box.
A democratic republic, in other words.
And here's the power of Reith's comments and the source of the declining support for the Keating-Turnbull republic. It also explains the vehemence of the ARM's response to Reith.
Reith pointed out the new President would not only have no clothes, he or she wouldn't even have a wardrobe.
The Keating-Turnbull republic retains sovereignty within the political establishment - the elite. A politician's republic. Indeed, arguably, it gives greater power to the executive relative to Parliament, upsetting the previous balance. It is certainly not a status quo option, constitutionally, but it is at root a conservative one.
It is gradually dawning on the electorate that the referendum is a stitch up.
It is an attempt to turn
support for a republic and an Australian head of state into
entrenching and perhaps intensifying undemocratic aspects of
the current constitution.
The referendum is seen by many as a cynical attempt to stymie the option of a democratic republic, following a dodgy, stacked, constitutional convention process. The fact the pro-monarchist PM is steering the process lends support to these views.
Looks to me like the "No" vote will win and so it should.
And the Treasurer for one may agree - at least on the first point.
Commentators earlier this week suggested the pressure was on Peter Costello to campaign for the "yes" lobby, following Reith's speech. Costello has previously expressed support for a republic and along with Reith is the leading contender to take over when Howard is pushed - er - steps down.
Costello seems to have declined the invitation, saying he is concentrating on tax reform. Yeah, right.
Simon Orme made narrow escapes from both the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now lives in Sydney, attempting to make the NSW electricity sector user friendly.
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