Treasurer Joe Hockey has done what no minister has ever done without resigning − thrown in his lot with the opposition to implement one of their key policies. This is not about joining some benign parliamentary friendship group, such as the one promoting Men’s Sheds.
Hockey is committed to implementing Labor’s plans for a republican plebiscite by 2020, something clearly not government policy. This is the first step in a convoluted project adopted at Labor’s National Conference to make Australians keep on voting until they get it right. This involves not one but two plebiscites and a convention election before the fatigued voters finally get to a referendum, all under the direction of a Labor minister for the republic (or shadow) and costing over half a billion dollars. The plan is to remove the oldest institution in our constitutional system, the one which is working and working well, the Australian Crown.
Not even bothering to tell the Prime Minister, Hockey authorised the republican leader Peter FitzSimons to announce this to the National Press Club, ensuring maximum publicity.
The Hockey/ALP project is essentially a tricky rerun of the 1999 referendum. Although held at the most auspicious time for a Yes vote, it was defeated in a landslide and not only nationally, but in every state and in 72 per cent of electorates.
That didn’t stop the politicians. In all they’ve engineered 12 major expensive votes and inquiries to work out how to achieve precisely what Australians don’t want. One thing’s clear. This has never been about improving the way we’re governed.
All sorts of ridiculous reasons for removing the Crown were advanced in the 90s by some very prominent republicans who ought to be embarrassed by their claims. A republic, they said, would reduce unemployment, stop the brain drain, liberate artists, improve trade and our standing in Asia, make it easier for foreign politicians to understand our government and increase immigration. Nobody was impressed. So they cooked up an argument they thought plausible: that it is only in getting rid of the Queen that we can have an Australian as head of state.
The problem was that the term head of state was so esoteric it didn’t even appear in the first edition of the Macquarie dictionary.
So they set about popularising and misrepresenting the term. They used the head of state argument several times in the official Yes case in 1999. They are still arguing this today. And they are totally and completely wrong.
We already have an Australian as head of state – the Governor-General.
The term is diplomatic rather than constitutional. In the last century it gradually replaced the word ‘prince’ as a generic term to include all the world’s kings, emperors, grand dukes, tsars, captains-general, the Pope and presidents.
As a diplomatic term, we have to go to customary international law to determine who the head of state is. This says a head of state is the person or office held out as such by a government and acknowledged as such by foreign governments .
On a state visit, the head of state is entitled to a 21 gun salute and normally enjoys immunity from foreign legal process. Heads of state have little in common with one another. Some are hereditary, some elected for a term and some even for life. Some come from democracies and some from dictatorships. Some have executive functions, some have reserve powers and some are purely ceremonial. There is no commonality as to their functions which can range from having absolute authority, heading the executive government, or being merely ceremonial. It can even extend to more than one person or a group of people.
Australian governments, Labor and Coalition, have long held out our governor-general as head of state. Prime Minister Rudd did so when he sent Dame Quentin Bryce to visit various African countries. The seriousness with which governments treat this was demonstrated when the Hawke government cancelled a visit by Sir Ninian Stephen to Jakarta. This was because General Suharto had indicated that he would not be receiving Sir Ninian as Australia’s head of state.(It’s likely that the general was the victim of some Australian diplomat who was pushing a republican barrow.) In any event, Indonesia apologised and now receives our governor-general as head of state.
Since the emergence of the term in diplomatic circles, some countries began to use it in their constitutions. Among the first were the fascist regimes in Spain and France, with Generalissimo Franco becoming Jefe del Estado and Maréchal Pétain becoming Chef de l’État Français. Since the war some other states have incorporated similar offices in their constitutions, but not Australia.
All of this is esoteric, and normally only of interest to diplomats who worry about protocol. But Australians should know this so that they can see what republicans will say to get their votes − not of course that any Australian is lying awake at night wondering who the head of state is.
Australians know that there are serious problems with the way in which the country has been run in recent years. The problem is certainly not with our oldest and most benign institution, the Australian Crown. There is a crisis in confidence with the other arms of government and particularly in those areas for which our republican politicians are responsible. The country is facing serious issues – the massive debt, the terms of trade, law and order, terrorism and defence. There are increasing calls on how to make the politicians more accountable and how to restore and improve the justice system and in particular the criminal justice system.
None of these will be solved by grafting onto our constitutional system some politicians’ republic increasing the power and influence of the politicians as in the 1999 model.
Perhaps this is precisely what they want and are planning to achieve.
Months before the referendum, Malcolm Turnbull lamented in his subsequently published diary ‘We have Buckley’s chance of winning… nobody is interested.’ Since then, support for republican change has not only fallen, but fallen significantly. In addition, until recently, the oldest Australians were the strongest supporters of the crowned republic. In the last few years, the young have been challenging them.
This is a time bomb for the republican campaign.
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