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Republic : Dwindling Support

April 25, 2011

John Howard blocked it and the idea stalled long enough for cracks to open in the pro-Republic ranks. People who favored a directly-elected head of state voted down the referendum, rather in the spirit of the Green Party voting down Kevin Rudd’s ETS – there’ll always be another chance, delay action until we get perfection.

Well, 12 years on there’s no republic on the horizon, 18 months on there’s no guarantee of carbon pricing. The search for perfection is the enemy of action.

Forget the the flip notion that when the Queen retires or dies the public will move across. When that day comes there will be a tide of nostalgia for her reign and a raft of publicity for Charles and Camilla followed by a fabulous coronation. If you are half inclined to accept a constitutional monarchy as Australians seem to be ( today’s poll in The Australian puts support for a republic at it’s lowest in 17 years ) then Charles would hardly be abhorrent. He has enlightened views on environment and multiculturalism. His spoilt princelings are another thing.

A Republic needs two conditions to succeed. One, a minimalist proposition to go to a referendum. The one I favor is the simple notion that the Governor-General should be Australia’s head of state. Second,you would need the Coalition to support the proposition. There will only be a majority if these conditions are met.

As of now it is a distant prospect and the royalist propaganda – from The King’s Speech to this week’s nuptials – is carrying all before it.

I will expand on this on Q and A on Thursday night. But yes, I am opposed to a popularly-elected presidency and I will tell you why.

We have a Westminster or parliamentary system of government. Call it a prime ministerial system. It works well. Government is formed by the party leader who can claim a majority in the House of Representatives. For God’s sake, graft onto that an elected president ? With his own conflicting mandate and alternative set of policies ? That’s a hybrid and a pretty horrible one.

And don’t say he will not have power. If he is elected, he claims it. An elected presidency becomes an executive presidency, overnight or by degrees. If nothing else he asserts it just by going on TV and attacking the Prime Minister. We would have a bifurcated source of power in our constitution : president versus prime minister. On top of a powerful Senate and the remnant powers of the states and territories. Close to ungovernable.

My alternative : a simple tweaking of the constitution to say the Governor General and not the British monarch is Australia’s head of state and have the GG elected by the parliament.

But it is not a priority for the Australian people and they seem as relaxed as the Canadians about living under the present anomaly.

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26 Comments
  1. Chunkyphat permalink
    April 25, 2011 6:08 pm

    Enlightened? What a joke

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 25, 2011 6:26 pm

      Some of Charles’ finest work is on the preservation of the world’s rain forests. It is called avoided deforestation. He has a team working at St James’ Palace. I visited them. You find that objectionable ?

  2. Baden Myers permalink
    April 25, 2011 6:54 pm

    Well done Bob – I particularly like this tidbit: ‘The search for perfection is the enemy of action’. The debacle over the carbon trading scheme is agreat example of this.

    I also agree with the thrust of your argument on the republic – the idea of putting in place yet another layer of political powerplay in the state and federal decision making process in the form of a popularaly elected president is not in the national interest. Whilst it has a great democratic feel, it will more liekly further delay action in a globalised world where rapid adaptation is essential.

  3. Alan permalink
    April 25, 2011 6:56 pm

    The minimalist proposition failed, like it or lump it. I hated voting no, but (apart from the serious flaws in the actual text fo the amendment) the president needs to be elected. There are several republics with elected ceremonial presidents and there is no sign that Irish presidents, for instance, are acquiring executive power. They have had nearly a century to do so and it has not happened. Can you point to a real world example of a parliamentary democracy where an elected ceremonial presidency has behaved as you argue it would?

    Incidentally, it has always seemed to me that minimalists with imagination could construct a much better model by looking at South Africa where the head of government is elected and removed by the parliament and also carries the head of state function.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 25, 2011 7:15 pm

      Kerr was bully, and prejudiced enough. Imagine if a former military man wins a national ballot and faces a reformist prime minister being battered by the media and sinking in the polls. Whack ! Ireland has not got our version of a powerful Senate and it does not have power diluted through a Federal structure. France provides an example of a bifurcated executive with powerful president above a prime minister – de Gaulle’s constitution may work for them but I wouldn’t impose it here.

      • Alan permalink
        April 25, 2011 7:27 pm

        And yet Kerr is not an example of a ceremonial president in a parliamentary democracy. An Irish president cannot do a Kerr because the parliament determines who can be appointed and when the president can dismiss them. A republican model with an elected president would have similar rules.

        Contrary to received wisdom in Australia, a majority of parliamentary democracies, both monarchies and republics, codify the way in which the head of government is appointed and dismissed. It follows the Kerr danger is not a result of whether we are a republic or a monarchy, but of whether the constitution is explicit in setting out how the prime minister is appointed and removed.

  4. Ben Brooks permalink
    April 25, 2011 7:15 pm

    Mr Carr,

    I will be in the audience on Thursday night, and look forward to seeing you then. Your arguments for a minimalist Presidency here are certainly interesting and add an element of rigorous analysis to the otherwise messy debate over possible republican models. Although there is no justification for calling William and Harry ‘spoilt princelings’.

    Would you elaborate now, however, on why you believe the Monarchy must be abolished in the first place? As I see it, the office of Head of State is one which ought to carry cultural and historical relevance: in the US and France, the President evokes memories of nation-building revolutions and war, whilst in Australia, the Monarchy is a reminder of our profound cultural and historical ‘Britishness’ (though we are loath to discuss this publicly).

    Were we to wake up and decide to reinvent, or at least rearticulate, our culture as embodied by our government (without the cathartic benefits of war and revolution), then our Head of State will be neither politically relevant, nor culturally relevant, nor historically relevant. To be frank, no one looks to the Governor General as a symbol of nationhood, just as no one will look to the arbitrary office of Australian President.

    Why should we want this?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 25, 2011 7:20 pm

      I am not one to sneer at the British contribution to Australia. On the contrary.

      Many Australians find the present arrangements anomalous. More on Thursday.

  5. Mr Squiggle permalink
    April 25, 2011 8:16 pm

    ‘Forget the the flip notion that when the Queen retires or dies the public will move across.’

    Waiting for the death of the queen before transitioning to a republic is essentially a confession by republicans that Australia really isn’t an independent county.

    What sort of county that claims to stand on its own two legs would wait for someone in another county to die before declaring itself to be republic?

    To do so is constitutional timidity.

    Why on earth would an entire country suddenly embrace republicanism when one Monarch passes?

    Anticipating this outcome ignores the constitutional monarchists view that it is the institution that provides stability, not the individuals in the job.

  6. Kim permalink
    April 25, 2011 9:30 pm

    Excuse my ignorance, but if Australia is a sovereign nation,according to Julia Gillard in the parliament recently,that is,(acting or done independently, and without outside interference), why are the monarchists not seen as treasonous or to use an ugly vernacular un-australian ?

  7. Michael Longley permalink
    April 25, 2011 9:57 pm

    One day someone will adequately explain why parliamentary democracies need some special someone to sit in a room signing laws they can’t refuse to sign, appointing officials they can’t refuse to appoint and issuing decrees someone else has decided on. The office is effectively a parliamentary state’s ambassador to itself.

    Elected, appointed or inherited; the monarch, viceroy or president in our system is completely extraneousness and while the office exists in any form it blocks the codification (and democratization) of our most powerful offices. The only time the viceroy serves a purpose is to generate confusion when the Commonwealth enters one of its occasional constitutional crises because noones roles or powers have been defined or even adequately limited.

  8. Watson permalink
    April 26, 2011 9:08 am

    You have my forlorn support.

  9. Peter Pando permalink
    April 26, 2011 12:49 pm

    Dear Mr Carr,

    When more than two billion people ruled by non-English families, growing in wealth, power and international assertiveness, live so close to Australia, and (given laissez-faire multiculturalism) within Australia too, it’s sad to hear republicans sniffle at one English family and their extensive global cultural, political and economic connections.
    Presently the only beneficiaries of that Australian republic you propose would be those whose economy, law and culture are derived from totally non-English sources. Why? Australian government is too often looking for the next easy paycheque, and would quickly elect someone to kowtow to those interests ahead of any other. The attempts to raise a pan-Pacific Eurasian ruling class to anticipate that position is already showing signs that it would cause more grief than it would solve, primarily for the same reasons you give for ousting the British monarchy, but also because its loyalties are necessarily divided between incompatible cultures and laws.

  10. April 26, 2011 4:48 pm

    If it aint broke, don’t fix it.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 26, 2011 5:22 pm

      I suspect that view would prevail in a referendum.

  11. Kevin Kahler permalink
    April 27, 2011 9:11 am

    Dear Bob,

    For what it’s worth I agree with you almost entirely; however, I believe that in the proposed ‘tweaking’ of our constitution:

    - the term Governor General should be replaced with the word ‘President’; and
    - that section 68 be altered such that the President (nee GG) be replaced by the PM as Commander-in-Chief of our naval and military forces.

    Further, the next ‘republic push’ (whenever it comes) would be well served to distance itself completely from any movement (which I would not support) to change our nation’s flag.

  12. Adrian permalink
    April 27, 2011 5:24 pm

    Charles may be enlightened on some things, as you state, but he is a promoter of homeopathy and comparable snake oil, and to a large extent an enemy of science, medicine, and human knowledge and progress.

  13. O'Brien permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:41 am

    You’re afraid of real demos, you’d rather keep some preening ass in feathers, neutered, over us than let us be sovereign, you’ve no faith in the Australian people, you ignore the fact that the executive has corrupted the legislature, ignore the overarching power concentrated in the PM’s office, ignore our democratic vigour in the past, you also misinterpret those of us who favour direct election, we did not seek perfection, there is no perfect system of government, we simply objected to the denial of our sovereignty as proposed at the referendum, which would have increased the concentration of power in the political class and which would also, by the bloody way, have resulted in duelling Head of State and PM, each armed with a dismissal letter ready to go. Lastly, remember that the model which was put did not command the super majority at the ConCon that its rules stipulated were required, but Howard stood up and said ‘this model has clear support and will be put to the people’. Some in the room objected to this and argued that the 75% majority was required, as per the ConCon rules, but their arguments were expunged from the Hansard as Howard thought they were unseemly at such an historic occassion… or have you forgotten this. Bob, come over the where the spirit of Australia is – with the demand that we HAVE a say, that YES we the people elect the dude with the power. Also, any republic in this place which doesn’t genuinely acknowledge the First Australians and enshrine them rights isn’t a reconciled republic and shouldn’t go forward.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 28, 2011 11:38 am

      Go out and get a majority for the propositions you endorse. An elected president could very likely give you a popular military man, with medals and, yes, feathers, an Australian Hindenburg who knows nothing about constitutional principles and imagines he and not the crummy politicians should rule the roost. Or a John Howard coming out of retirement or Peter Costello arguing he and only he could check Labor and the Green Party. He would claim his own mandate on climate change or foreign policy or taxation of mining, and veto the parliament as he sees appropriate. You probably think direct election will give you an indigenous woman or a leader of the building workers, a Manning Clark or Michael Kirby. High hopes.

      • Alan permalink
        April 28, 2011 12:42 pm

        Direct election has given Ireland several mediocrities, but it also gave them Mary Robinson who certainly stacks up against Nicahel Kirby of Sir William Deane. In as ense youa re arguing against a straw man, an Australian Hindenburg. The advocates of direct election do not want an elected president with uncodified powers.

        The Weimar constitution was not parliamentary; it was semi-presidential with a dominant presidency that had vast powers to rule by decree and to make and unmake governments. No-one, apart from minimalist republicans, proposes such a head of state for an Australian republic. We want an elected president whose powers are strictly limited as in Ireland where even the president’s speeches must be approved by the government.

        I could almost vote for an unelected president if, and only if, the powers were codified.

      • O'Brien permalink
        April 28, 2011 3:06 pm

        How bizzarely presumptuous, “you probably think”!

        I’m talking about a creative national discourse to deliver a directly elected head of state, based on a national joint parliamentary committee over a period of several years, examining merits of Irish to US and other options in between. Personally speaking, plumes, closet communists and retired judges are of no interest to me.

        The question is where, in what, does sovereignty inhere… For me it’s not in a peacock feather, no matter what colour you’d have them, but in the Australian people, all of them sovereign by virtue of the franchise. (It’s actually a terribly old argument.) I’ll try to watch Q&A.

      • Bob Carr permalink
        April 28, 2011 7:39 pm

        I prefer an elected PM, answerable in parliament , checked by his own party room, hunted by the media, to an elected president with a different mandate, luxuriating in Yarralumla – a fat peacock in his gilded cage – looking for his day of glory because he can claim his own mandate and enjoys the tantalizing reserve powers. They now lie unused in the constitution because, apart from Kerr, an unelected ceremonial head of state would never use them.

      • Alan permalink
        April 29, 2011 12:38 pm

        And yet the problem with your position in this thread, is that when asked to show an elected ceremonial president who has behaved as you fear you can only point to a governor-geenral under the present system and to Hindenburg who held a presidency that was far from ceremonial. Sooner or later minimalists have to decide whether they want to join the conversation, which may mean shifting your position, or whether they will continue to block the republic by insisting that only their position can be considered.

      • Bob Carr permalink
        April 29, 2011 1:47 pm

        To me the risk is too great. I want to protect parliamentary government from an elected head of state who would morph into an executive president more than I want an Australian head of state.

      • Alan permalink
        April 29, 2011 1:59 pm

        I submit that parliamentary government should be protected from any rogue head of state. Unelected rogues are not notably more desirable than elected rogues, although I accept that most governors-general would not act as Kerr did. Since we have had one rogue under the present system, it follows the solution to your fears is to codify the powers of the chief of state. Is there anything you would add to Article XIII of the Irish constitution?

  14. Tony permalink
    April 29, 2011 2:58 am

    The full constitution is the most contemporary direction with the human rights 30 articles as the cornerstone as well the important other facets that say real democracy. I support the “BoB Carr tweak” which is definitely the easiest way to get over that what seems an insurmountable hurdle.

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