Crown v. Republic II: Australia
Australian republicans' problem is that their constitutional monarchy works well
Australia’s republic debate is back, but possibly not for long. The Australian Republic Movement, a nonpartisan group that has lobbied for the abolition of ties to the British monarchy since 1991, has released “The Australian Choice Model,” its latest proposal to amend the constitution to replace the British monarch’s position as head of state with an elected Australian president. It is an attempt to restart a debate that has been moribund since a proposal to replace Queen Elizabeth with a president elected by the Australian parliament was defeated by a 55%-45% margin in late 1999. Nothing is likely to happen with this proposal, especially in the short run. No active figures in Australian politics support it, and constitutional change will not be an issue in the federal election due this year. The reason the Australian Choice Model will not go anywhere soon is that it does not address any practical problem with the Australian constitution and the constitutional monarchy. Its appeal only works on a symbolic level, to those who see an Australian president as a necessary aspect of the Australian identity. Those calling for a republic have not been able to establish how the switch would not complicate a constitutional system that otherwise works rather well, and that has operated without incident since 1975.
As we noted when discussing Barbados’ establishment of a republic two months ago, Australia is one of 15 members of the former British Empire that retains the British monarch as titular head of state. Queen Elizabeth plays no role in Australian politics, and the functions of the Crown are delegated to the Governor-General, who since Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1931 has been an Australian. Replacing the monarch with an Australian head of state has been on the political agenda since the 1990s, though the modern push for a republic reaches back to the 1975 constitutional crisis when Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam’s government after it ran out of funding because the Senate would not vote for supply and Whitlam refused to call a new election. Kerr’s use of this “reserve power” was questioned because Whitlam’s government held a majority in the House of Representatives, which is the confidence chamber in the Australian system.
During the 1990s, the Labor government of Paul Keating argued for establishing a republic with what it called the “minimalist” model. It called for converting the Governor-General into a figurehead president with no change in the powers of the office. As the position would continue to be a symbolic role, with only a few reserve powers that could only be exercised upon the advice of the elected government, the president would be elected by two-thirds of the members in a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The republican movement itself was divided on the proposal. Opponents of the model focused upon the unelected nature of the president, warning that the office would be a patronage position, as was the case for a number of Governors-General. The Liberal John Howard, prime minister after 1996, was himself a monarchist, and removed the issue from the political agenda by calling a referendum in 1999 on the minimalist model, knowing it was unpopular, and campaigning against it.
While the republic receded in importance after the failed referendum, the rejection of the minimalist model meant that debate on a republic focused on a head of state chosen directly by the full national electorate. Most parliamentary republics with a ceremonial head of state akin to a constitutional monarch elect their heads of state in the legislature or in an electoral college. Ireland and Portugal, along with some Eastern European countries, elect their ceremonial heads of state directly. While direct election makes the national electorate come together as a sovereign body, it also creates a head of state with a direct personal mandate, and suggests a separation of powers among different branches of government. Parliamentary systems generally feature a fusion of powers where executive power is held by a government that sits within the legislature and whose leader tenders constitutional advice to the head of state. An elected head of state should bear broader powers and exercise them independently of the government’s advice.
Despite this conundrum, the Australian Republic Movement now supports a directly elected president holding the same powers as the current monarch. The Australian Choice Model is primarily an effort to unite republicans around a single model rather than to push for another referendum anytime soon. It envisions a directly elected president whose reserve powers would be codified in a new section of the constitution. The presidential election would be a two-step process. The legislature of each state and territory would nominate a candidate, and the Parliament of Australia would add three more. Only those 11 nominated candidates would appear on the nationwide ballot. The electorate, acting as a single constituency, would then elect one of the 11 using the preferential vote (Americans would call it ranked-choice voting) currently used for House of Representatives elections. The winner would serve a five-year term and could be reelected once.
Changing to a republic would be an undertaking done for purely symbolic or identitarian reasons. Both the minimalist and Australian Choice models make no changes to other federal institutions or to the federal division of powers, and they try to avoid disrupting the powers of the head of state. During the launch event for the Australian Choice Model on January 12, ARM Chair Peter FitzSimmons defended the proposal purely on the grounds of Australian identity. He cited no issues with the performance of Australian institutions, and argued that Australia should become a republic in order that the head of state be “one of us.” In the 2017 Daniel Deniehy Oration, historian Benjamin T. Jones argued for a republic on similar grounds, criticizing colonial Australia’s “bunyip aristocracy” but expanding the argument to defend republicanism as encouraging greater participation by Australians in public affairs.
It is unclear, though, whether arguments like these have any appeal beyond activists or scholars. As former Prime Minister (and ARM chair) Malcolm Turnbull has told several recent interviewers, there is no current public appetite for another referendum on a republic, and unlikely to be any as long as Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne. Australia must have elections for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate during 2022, and polls already suggest that the Australian Labor Party may replace the Liberal-National Coalition under Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the government. The government’s policy response to the SARS-CoV2 pandemic will be the chief issue, and neither side sees any advantage in introducing republicanism into the debate. Labor leader Anthony Albanese has been a republican for his entire political career, but already said before the pandemic that the republic is not a priority for an incoming government.
While the republic has a strong appeal for left-leaning Australian nationalists, who see it as a form of decolonialism, these arguments must overcome the fact that the Crown as a legal construct works well in Australia, and that the constitutional monarchy has remained unpolitical and uncontroversial since 1975. There are strong arguments against opening up a part of the constitution that has been working well over a symbol, especially in a way that would introduce partisan politics into what is a ceremonial office. The republican debate in Australia will not go away, especially when a majority of Australians seems to support it at a theoretical level. But barring some disruptive event like a new monarch ascending the throne in London and becoming controversial, there will be no appetite to make the change soon.