Flat White

Greg Craven’s strange nightmares

25 February 2017

5:00 PM

25 February 2017

5:00 PM

Professor Greg Craven seems to have had some awful nightmares about the collapse of constitutional government in Australia.

But neither by condemning Prince Charles as an ‘unlikeable nutjob’ nor by dismissing the ARM’s dynamic leader Peter FitzSimons as a ‘shallow, self- congratulatory, uninformed constitutional ignoramus’, will Professor Greg Craven persuade Australians to revisit their 1999 decision.

Craven is extraordinarily uninformed when he writes that Prince Charles displays little of her devotion to duty. The Prince has proven himself extraordinary dedicated to many charitable works, and at a time when most would consider retiring, he works tirelessly both for his charities and also as a senior member of the Royal family. And as for Peter FitzSimons, he has been very successful in rallying financial and media support for a cause which until recently was assumed comatose.

Australian republicans are usually not at all concerned with improving the governance of the nation; they all seem to share an obsession with ripping out our oldest institution, the Crown, from the Constitution. They are constantly searching for some silver bullet to deliver this.

The latest silver bullet, shared by both Craven and Malcolm Turnbull, is the end of the reign. Not so; the principle which Oliver Cromwell overlooked still applies today: ”The King is dead − Long live the King.” There will be no interregnum in which to campaign for constitutional change.

In fact, at the end of the reign, the minds of Australians and of people across the Commonwealth and indeed the world will be drawn to a media retrospective on the reign of Elizabeth II, a retrospective which will put media frenzies on Royal weddings and Royal births in the shade. Then attention will focus on the last true Coronation left, with the sacred anointing which can be traced back to the ancient kings of Israel. There will also be close attention to the new Prince of Wales and to his family as well as other members of the Royal family. Such is the magic of monarchy. That Australians will want to trash a workable constitution to satisfy the obsessed who wish to rip out and destroy our oldest institution, one which so successfully provides leadership beyond politics, is more than unlikely. It just will not happen.

Once a constitutional monarchist, Craven has long known how superb our crowned republic is. He demonstrated this in the finely crafted and well-argued speech he wrote for Jeff Kennett for the 1993 annual conference of the Samuel Griffiths Society.

He must surely realise that it is not possible to remove the Crown from the existing constitution without weakening the checks and balances which this institution provides. He admitted as much in 1998 when he declared the Turnbull Republic a ”weak model with serious deficiencies”. He was not alone in recording his disdain for the model; a string of constitutional and political experts republican and monarchist expressed similar reservations, some strongly so.

What was surprising was that several such experts then decided to campaign for the Turnbull republic. Among these was Professor Craven, who became the spokesperson of the official Vote Yes Committee.

It is worth recalling what was so wrong with the Turnbull Republic. When the first version was released, I argued that the method of dismissal, requiring a two-thirds majority at a joint sitting, would make it next to impossible to remove a president who behaved as if he or she were a politician. Justice McGarvie subsequently expressed a similar view.

Such a president could, with impunity, veto legislation, refuse to give effect to cabinet decisions, offer politically partisan opinions and even call an election without being advised to do this. Such is the reality of politics that no opposition would agree to remove such an obstacle to the government of the day, thus denying a two-thirds majority. I argued this would import into to Australia those problems of “cohabitation” which occur under the French Fifth Republic whenever a president comes from one party and the government from another. It should be stressed that the only reason the French adopted the Fifth Republic was because of their dismal experiences in importing both a Westminster style as an American style republic.

When the ARM realised that in any referendum their poorly conceived model would be exposed for containing this weakness, they moved to the other extreme with another ill-conceived model. As ACM argued, under this it would be easier for a prime minister to sack the president than his cook. The president could be dismissed without notice, without grounds and without any right of appeal. Knowing this, he would be a puppet completely under the prime minister’s thumb. After mentioning this in a speech, a prominent Sydney lawyer challenged me:” I cannot believe that this would be possible.” I replied: ” it is unbelievable that anybody would propose this, but have you read the bill?” He had not. As a judge later lamented to me, he was astounded to find that several senior lawyers had told him they would vote for this republic but who then admitted they had not read the bill.

Professor Craven’s nightmare prediction is that the succession of Prince Charles will result in support not only for a republic but one in which the President is directly elected by the people. He is absolutely right to point out that this would also produce a political president if such a republic were grafted on to the present Constitution.

While those favouring direct election attracted less than 10 per cent of the people’s vote in 1998 Convention election, most Australians think that if a president were to replace our present head of state, the Governor-General as well as the Queen, the people, and not the politicians, should choose him or her.

Now there is a workable model for this, the American republic. Most Australian republicans run a mile rather than supporting this, although the Queensland politician George Christiansen seems to be arguing for an elected executive President with a separation of the executive and legislative powers.

One problem with the American republican model is that, unlike our crowned republic, it has never once been successfully exported to last for long, even to France.

Professor Craven can sleep peacefully. The accession of Prince Charles is unlikely to have any constitutional consequences at all in Australia.

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