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More on the Elusive Republic

April 29, 2011

A few more thoughts following the discussion last night on the ABC’s Q and A about an Australian republic.

I was expecting more opposition to my simple minimalist proposition that the Governor-General be Australia’s head of state. No Augean stables task of codifying the reserve powers – and, in any case, drawing attention to them, would only alarm the public and arouse opposition to some of them being distributed to the Prime Minister (commanding the armed forces for example).

People seemed to understand – at least in the feedback I got – that an elected president would be a new and potentially destabilising element in a parliamentary or Westminster constitution. I was heartened by that because there is an easy appeal in saying, let’s elect the president.

Nick Minchin argued that the Queen is not Australia’s head of state. I quoted the document that installed me as Minister for Planning and Environment. I said the relevant document making Amanda Vanstone and Nick Minchin ministers used the same language. They are the words of the Queen, not the Governor-General (or, in my case the Governor of NSW). Here is the beautiful antique language:

Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. To Our Trusty and Well-beloved The Honourable Robert John Carr, M.P., Greeting. Know You, That We, reposing great trust and confidence in your ability, zeal, industry, discretion and integrity, Do, by these presents, appoint you to be a member of Our Executive Council of Our State of New South Wales, and to perform and be responsible for the functions and enjoy the privileges of such Office.

In any case, to rebut Nick Minchin one last time, this is what the Queen’s own website says:

The Queen is the Head of State of the UK and 15 other Commonwealth realms.

That includes us.

And there is a moderate, reasoned case to modernise this arrangement.

  1. John Hatzistergos permalink
    April 29, 2011 5:40 pm


    I agrree with your argument although my Commissions countersigned by you as Justice Minister and thereafter by your successors in office were from the Governor .

  2. Moses permalink
    April 30, 2011 6:50 am

    Bob, well done on an excellent performance on the program.

    The minimalist model is the only way forward. If a directly elected president is proposed at a referendum, many republicans, myself included, who voted “yes” in 1999, will vote no.

    For what it is worth, your view that the Governor-General is not the Head of State is shared by every Constitutional scholar worth their salt (for example, George Williams, the late David Winterton, and Cheryl Saunders). It is also shared by the monarchist Michael Kirby.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 30, 2011 8:01 am

      I would be in the same position if a referendum question – emerging, I guess, from a constitutional convention – proposed an elected president.

      Good point about the consensus of experts.

  3. Peter Pando permalink
    April 30, 2011 8:51 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    Despite the best efforts of the Federal Government the nation still isn’t ‘broke’, financially-speaking. The systems by which many hope the State and the nation will have the chance to recover are not broken either. Every elected politician knows that when they push the Republican barrow in Parliament they stengthen the system which they claim to oppose. Furthermore, when they spend in the marketplace the Queen’s coin they earned whinging about their titular employer (or former employer), they affirm their commitment to the status quo. Thus most Australians realise that there can’t be a self-consistent republican employed constructively in our Parliaments. That is probably the central reason why there’s widespread perception of political dishonesty and suspicion of the foundations of a Parliamentary push for republicanism.
    Of course, if a republic happens to get up, sheer pride and pragmatism would demand that the President appear more powerful than the Governor-General and Her Majesty combined, and that would require substantial sums of money. Republicans would do well, then, to prefer to be zealous for justice for the poor and oppressed in Australia, to understand thoroughly what it means to protect the weak from the powerful, and to encourage the growth of learning and understanding, rather than persisting with style-based arguments. If not, they should convert their dollars to yuan and keep trying to beat their ploughshares into patriots, because they’ll need all the foreign friends they can muster to create a stable system on the shaky foundations of perceived dishonesty.

  4. Rajesh Shanbhag permalink
    April 30, 2011 10:45 am

    My understanding has been that Queen is the head of state (Australia). Due to logistical reasons, she appoints GG to perform tasks she would ordinarily perform.

    Why should a Republic necessarily mean a directly elected President? If the system in America (directly elected President) is an example, it would cause disruption in our parliamentary system. In addition to parties in Legislature opposing each other; we would now have a President with a mind of his own. Traction on passage of bills in USA is very slow; California was on verge of bankruptcy with Legislature not agreeing with Governor Schwarzenegger. This is rather unsettling for a regulated Australian market.
    We could have a Republic with the President elected by Senate and House of Reps (to start with).

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 30, 2011 12:47 pm

      Spot on.

  5. The Gentleman with the Teddy Bear permalink
    April 30, 2011 1:40 pm

    RE: do we need a ceremonial Head of State set apart from our Head of Government?

    Mr Carr,

    Thank you for you answer the other night, although I am well aware of the importance of reserve powers. Your eloquence and clarity was a welcome relief, though I am a kamikaze monarchist.

    I more intended for the question to resonate at a ceremonial, symbolic level. Above all else, a Head of State should be a unifying focal point for the nation, not just a rarely-employed umpire. Which is why, of course, the Governor General is not in practice nor in theory our Head of State: the office is simply too obscure to fulfill that unifying role in the same way as the ‘big’ presidencies of France, the US and Russia. It is our Prime Minister who represents Australia to the world, to whom we turn as a national leader – the same is true for Italy, Israel, India and Germany. And though I would prefer your model, should we lose the Monarchy, I fear that retaining the practice of parliamentary indirect election would only exarcerbate the GG-cum-president’s irrelevance and obscurity.

    Heads of State must be iconic, if they are to fulfill their symbolic role. Since a republic cannot guarantee this, would it not be better (or possible) to give reserve powers to the judiciary and give the Prime Minister the title to match their de facto role?

    Saying that, I never want to see this country become a republic.


    Ben Brooks

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 1, 2011 9:44 am

      Keep it simple – or you’ll never get it up at a referendum.

      Besides, there is a need for the ceremonial stuff and the public wants it, Boy Scout jamborees and flower shows.

  6. Jacob M. White permalink
    May 2, 2011 7:16 am

    I think to have the system you propose would be to strike a stunning balance between stability and democracy. I don’t necessarily believe that more democracy is a good thing (there I said it, shoot me), and I believe that democracy and stability are not always natural bedfellows.

    The model you propose is to me by far the most desirable, but I’m not optimistic in regards to implementation, I see a number of obstacles barring the way. The issue of separation of powers, whether to have them codified or uncodified, and if so, how would that look, is to me, with want for a better word, ‘iffy’. The political momentum is simply non existent and entirely unforeseeable, we need to have this issue on the political radar, not when it’s Charlie’s turn to sit in the big, but now. And lastly, and I think most importantly, I sense no great urge for change in the Australian public.

    Of all the things I detest about our current system of government, and I have but few qualms, the fact that we have a citizen of another country as our head of state is by far the most troubling. It would be interesting to work out the amount of time our HoS has actually spent here, surely it can’t be more than a month or two?

    It’s interesting to note that Norway has an ‘elected monarchy’, a thought, perhaps. It almost strikes that aforementioned balance, but an absurd contradiction in terms, of course.

  7. May 2, 2011 8:51 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    Congratulations on a fine presentation on last week’s ABC programme ‘Is the royal romance over?’. Like you I favour the ‘minimalist’ model, which requires minor or ‘cosmetic’ change to the constitution and suits Australia’s current political and constitutional climate. I don’t think a directly elected president would be appropriate to Australia at this stage.

    The problem is though, selling it the people. A lot of Australians don’t know what a constitution or a plebiscite is, and are wary of politicians. A lot would like to elect their president, as they do in the United States for example.

    This disagreement between the directly elected and minimalist models created a perception of disunity amongst the republicans at the referendum in 1999. The Monarchists ‘fed’ of this and used it to further their cause by creating a negative campaign.

    If this is to succeed at the next referendum, (I hope soon) Republicans must learn from this mistake and be completely united. That’s the only way it will succeed. If for example, the ARM choose the directly elected model, let’s get behind it and give it our full support, whether we agree with it or not.

    Remember let’s not dismiss something because it is too difficult and requires more change to the constitution. In the words of the late John F.Kennedy (referring to the space race in the 1960’s)”let’s not do things because they are easy but because they are hard.”

    Bring on an a head of state that was born here, lives here and above all, is an Australian citizen that can truly represent Australia both at home and abroad.

    I wish you well with your campaigns. Regards, T.Crosilla.
    03 9309 3227

    P.S. France elect both their president and prime minister. Food for thought ?

  8. Freddie Smith permalink
    May 2, 2011 12:41 pm

    Surely the biggest issue with the Royal Family is not that they are Anglo-Saxon, protestant, white or foreign (as are millions of Australians), it is they are unelected.

    The intellectual case for a Republic should be to empower Australians. And give us the opportunity to elect those who have power and authority over us, whether it is Queen Elizabeth II, Tim Flannery, Simon Overland or Ken Henry.

    Let us elect the Head of State, Ministers, Lord Mayors, Government Boards, Police Commissioners, Auditors-General.

    A republican movement based on opposition to the royal family and a sneering attitude towards Australian voters will always struggle to gain popularity.

  9. Shane Easson permalink
    May 3, 2011 12:16 am

    I’m stunned by the paucity of commentary and analysis in Australia concerning the exclusion of former Labour Prime Ministers Blair and Brown from the invitation list for the recent royal wedding. The reason given by the Palace was that as the ceremony was a private affair, (it was actually paid for by the State with a UK holiday declared to boot!), only former PM’s who are members of, ahem, the Most Noble Order of the Garter were invited. Hence the invitations extended to Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major. As the Palace spokesperson so cogently put it: “you have to draw the line somewhere.”

    There 24 full members, including one vacancy, of this order – the highest form of knighthood in the UK with membership entirely at the discretion of the Monarch. Two vacancies were filled after the invites were issued. The only member of this so esteemed body not British is Sir Ninian Stephen, former GG of Australia. He wasn’t invited either.

    Call this Monarch for the vengeful, spiteful woman she is and then we might make headway to a Republic.

  10. Bob Carr permalink
    May 3, 2011 7:57 pm

    Would have loved to have heard the discussion between her and her courtiers about the guest list, with Labour PM’s being ruled out. And Thatcher was probably invited because they knew she was too unwell to accept.

  11. Jim South permalink
    May 4, 2011 5:39 pm

    Bob, I’d like to outline an argument that may be useful to you in the future when responding to the false assertion that the Governor-General is our head of state by virtue of her powers vis-a-vis the Queen’s.

    The Queen’s role in our constitutional arrangements involves functions, not just powers. In common with most heads of state, an important function of the Queen is to serve as a unifying influence for the nation. She is meant to fulfil this function by engendering allegiance to the Crown among her Australian subjects. This unifying function signifies that the Queen is our true head of state, despite the powers of her representative in Australia.

    In contrast with the situation in the 1950s, most Australians don’t regard themselves as being a subject of the Queen. As a result, the Queen is no longer capable of serving as an effective unifying influence for our nation. That’s one of the reasons why we need our own head of state.

    On another matter, I recall that one of the other guests on Q and A referred approvingly to the direct election model used in Ireland for selecting their President. However, the following comments made by Mary Robinson in 1990 highlight the main risk inherent in that model: “As president directly elected by the people of Ireland, I will have the most democratic job in the country. I’ll be able to look [the PM] in the eye and tell him to back off.”

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 4, 2011 5:42 pm

      Good argument, and one I haven’t heard.

  12. James permalink
    May 9, 2011 10:41 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    I love your idea for a minimalist model, but perhaps I would suggest that you also add that the GG is not the Queen’s representative in Australia.

  13. Jim South permalink
    May 9, 2011 9:50 pm

    The Governor-General could be referred to the Constitution as “the people’s non-political representative in the Commonwealth”.

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