The spectacle of so many grisly celebrities clustered together at the royal wedding reminded me why I was once a fervent republican. When I joined the Melbourne University Republican Club in 1967 as a founding member, I must confess that my colleagues and myself had not given a lot of thought to the issue of a republic. I suspect we were largely motivated to remove the Windsors from the Australian system of government. There were two reasons for this concern. The first was an objection to the notion of an hereditary monarchy, although even those of Irish decent in what was then a totally Anglo-Celtic group appreciated the enormous legacy of the Westminster system of government that Australia had taken from Britain. The second reason was that the Windsors seemed such a tasteless and talentless group who had nothing to offer the Australia of the post-war years.
Fifty years on there are a lot more Windsors and they are now international celebrities along the lines of Hollywood movie stars and sporting icons. So perhaps it was hardly surprising that many guests at the royal wedding were fellow celebrities who were presumably scarcely known to the bride and groom. But this development underlines the fact that the republican movement in Australia has never been prepared to make the Windsors themselves a political issue.
Most republicans over the years have stressed what a wonderful person Queen Elizabeth is and what a marvellous job she is doing. If this is correct, members of the general community could be forgiven for thinking that there is little point in changing the existing situation. Similarly, a number of prominent republicans suggested they were looking forward to the royal wedding and hoped everyone would enjoy it as much as they did.
The most consistent slogan of the republican movement has been the importance of having an Australian as our ‘head of state’ – with the object of ensuring that every Australian child would have the opportunity to become that head of state. This question is uncertain at the outset because there is a reasonable legal argument that the Governor-General and not the Queen is Australia’s head of state. But, putting that to one side, it might be thought that the real issue is that the Queen is the sovereign at the apex of Australia’s system of government. Again, however, the republican movement has tried to avoid focusing on the role of the Queen and has only succeeded in confusing the issue. Another assumption that I think we made in 1967 was that an Australian president, who might still be called the Governor-General under a republican model, would be chosen by the government of the day in the same way that the Governor-General has been chosen in the post-war years. The idea of a popular vote for the presidency, with game show hosts and movie stars vying with each other, would never have occurred to us.
But this is now a real possibility if a republican model were ever to be adopted. Quite apart from the trivial candidates that might be attracted by this exercise, there is an important objection by way of public administration to a directly-elected president who would then be in a position to set himself or herself up as a rival to the prime minister in the eyes of the general community.
In many ways, of course, Australia is very much a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy of the kind found in Britain and several other European countries. This is because the Queen has absolutely no practical participation in any aspect of Australian government. This was graphically demonstrated in November 1975 when Sir John Kerr removed the Whitlam government, although the Queen could not have done so and had no role in the confrontation between the Senate and the government.
There was some debate at the time of the republic referendum in 1999 as to whether the so-called reserve powers, originally derived from the sovereign but exercised in Australia by the Governor-General, could be codified and at the same time cut back.
This has effectively occurred in, for example, New South Wales where the introduction of fixed term parliaments and their requirement of a successful motion of no confidence in the government before an early election can be called has limited some of the Governor’s previous reserve powers. But it must be remembered that the NSW Legislative Council cannot block a government’s budget in the way the Senate did in 1975. As long as the Senate retains this power under the federal Constitution it will always be theoretically possible to have a repeat of the events of November 1975.
One particular problem for the republican movement is that, if the question of constitutional change is revisited at some time in the future, there will likely be proposals for other and even more controversial changes, such as the introduction of a bill of rights or the abolition of the States, on the basis that, if there is to be a referendum, a whole series of amendments to the Constitution can be put to the electorate at the same time. If the issue of a republic becomes confused with these kinds of issues, its prospects of success would almost certainly be significantly diminished.
So where to from here for the idea of a republic? It must be said that the political landscape is far from promising. My own youthful fervour has somewhat declined with the prospect of an elected president emerging from any future adoption of a republican model, although my aversion to the House of Windsor has not diminished. As for the Melbourne University Republican Club, it never met again after its inaugural assembly. We couldn’t think of any action to take to advance the cause of a republic and, in many ways, that is still the problem for the republican movement today.
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