What’s to gain from an Australian republic?
By Nicola Wright 10 January 2018
On New Year’s Day, the Prime Minister was goaded into commenting on the prospect of opening up the debate on an Australian republic following an attack on his republican credentials by former PM Paul Keating. Despite acknowledging there is ‘little appetite’ for such a move, he then went on to expound on what methods he’d like to use if we were to debate the issue again. Coupled with Bill Shorten’s election promise of July last year to appoint a minister to advance a republic debate should Labor win office, it is likely that the debate will be revived sometime in the near future.
Yet what is there to be gained by such a change? Some would say that the greatest benefit is that we would have an Australian occupying our highest office – a ‘mate for a head of state’. And yet we already have one. The governors-general, the Queen’s representatives, have been Australian citizens since 1965. The Governor-General holds the highest office in government and carries out the duties and functions of a head of state both at home and internationally.
Perhaps it is full independence that is most desired? We already have that also. The Australia Acts 1986, ended all residual power of the UK government over Australia, and referenced Australia as ‘a sovereign, independent and federal nation”. The Queen, our monarch, has been titled the Queen of Australia since 1953, and in 1973 parliament removed from her Australian style and titles all reference to her as sovereign of the United Kingdom and Defender of the Faith. Her status as our monarch is distinct from her other titles and roles.
The idea of a reigning monarch who attains their rank by dint of birth sticks in the craw of many. And yet this is one of the greatest benefits of our constitutional monarchy. The legal entity is The Crown. The person who holds the positio holds it only on the basis of their birth. They are not a political animal, and their character and motivations, it can be assumed, are very different from a careerist whose goal is to attain the highest position in the land. Their status as unelected office holders contributes to the separation of powers and undergirds continuity, security and freedom.
It has taken Britain hundreds of years and a revolution or two to tame the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II and her immediate predecessors are no Henry VIII’s or Charles I’s. The Crown of the modern era has limited power and little inclination to exercise it. It exists as a check on the parliament, and parliament ensures that the powers of the Crown remain limited. The Queen acts on the advice of her prime minister and when necessary her commanders in chief. Her appointments and stamps of approval are largely ceremonial. It is as close to a perfect system as has so far been achieved.
As things stand, the governor-general can sack the prime minister, but only under certain circumstances. The Prime Minister can also remove the governor-general if they act inappropriately. How? By writing a letter to the Queen ‘requesting’ that the governor-general be dismissed; the Queen then must act on the advice of her prime minister. In this way, the benign nature of the Crown protects our democracy from overreach by both parliament and our head of state.
Under any republican model, our president would either be directly elected by the people or voted in by parliament. Either way, instead of our head of state being recommended based on their community standing or services to Australia, their appointment would become politicised. Do we need another elected official in high office, who perceives they have a mandate to pursue their own special interests? The governor-general, in contrast, is appointed by The Crown on the advice of the prime minister and serves a uniting and neutral role, above politics and partisanship.
To be content with our constitutional monarchy does not require adulation and worship of the reigning monarch. It is not a requirement that we believe them to be superior types of people. The argument in favour of the monarchy is a utilitarian one; the outcome is all that matters. Indeed, although there is much to respect and admire in the person of Queen Elizabeth II; her son, with his eco-babble and alleged anti-Israel sentiments, is a less appealing prospect for many. And yet he will exert no political power over our Australian parliament.
The financial cost of becoming a republic is considerable. Not only is there the expense of referendums, plebiscites or postal votes to consider (yes more than one – the states would need to conduct their own separate votes), we would also foot the bill for the very many committees that would be needed to be formed to address the logistics of any change. Add to that the cost of new coats of arms, new flag designs, the rebadging of our emergency services and the expenses really start to add up. In contrast, the cost to the Australian public of maintaining the monarchy and the royal household is exactly nil.
There are no rational reasons to support an Australian republic. Individual Australians will not become freer, more independent or more prosperous as a result of having an Australian president, indeed we would risk the opposite. An Australian republic would not address our national debt, the housing crisis, our failing education system or the black hole that is our spending on health. It wouldn’t close the gap or put an end to welfare dependency. We would be no freer; we would be no richer, and we would lose the non-political check on power we already enjoy, at great financial cost.
As the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. In becoming a republic Australians have nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose.