Chapter III – Republicanism as a Political Issue in Modern Australia

Republicanism as an intellectual movement in multicultural Australia
October 14 1991. © Jessica Stewart 1991 & 1995.


This chapter examines the primary elements in the modern republican debate and their sources of argument. Discussion of each of these issues, organisations and parties will focus on the rationality of their arguments for a republican Australia, providing an empirical basis for the thesis that the intellectuality of the movements is justified by reason. A short study of opinion polls is included also.

There are two small political parties representing republicanism in Australia, both of which were formed because of perceived inadequacy in the major parties. The Republican Party of Australia states that the present parties representing Australians in parliament have no new answers to problems facing citizens today and do not reflect a spirit of independence. “The needs of all can be met with indigenous solutions and formulas if we are to have confidence in ourselves and as a people.” The old parties are tied down with old loyalties and traditions which hamper vision and “serve only to give rise to inept and divisive policies.”52

The New Australian Republican Party was formed by Paul Urban about six years ago. As a migrant from Hungary with doctorates in political science and law (which he is unable to practice in Australia), but holding long-standing Australian citizenship his is a political movement to gain political representation for ethnic minorities whom he perceives as being excluded from parliament. Even though Sydney’s population is forty-two percent ethnic their political agenda is ignored.

Urban claims that the major parties are actively discriminatory against migrants in electing candidates for preselection and are not interested in their particular needs. Few migrants join the major political parties because Australian power systems will not accept the ethnic community as a whole and “therefore the community interests of these ethnic groups cannot be represented by these parties.” The two major parties are only accepting of certain individuals, the handful of first or second generation migrants who have succeeded in parliament. An `ethnic` would most likely not make pre-selection unless “he or she had a favourable image in the eyes of the Anglo-Celtic segment of the electorate”53 James Jupp’s research has validated this claim.54 The New Australian Republican Party is looking for a ‘truly Australian national identity’ which Paul Urban believes will come about through decentralisation, the rise of the small party to give greater representation for every Australian, and constitutional reform. “With the British Empire in the past the English-oriented political power in Australia must develop into a democratically based political power, encompassing all sections of Australian society, particularly the Aborigines and the ethnics.”55 Without political parties clearly seen by themselves and society in general as their own representation, such a democratic political power cannot devolve. He believes there is no power-sharing in Australia because the British who came first have monopolised power with their own system of government and their own monarchy.

The crisis of 1975 reflected the fact that Australia does not have a proper constitution. It was written in the nineteenth century for the interests of Britain, not Australia, and Paul Urban asks how Australians can presume to be independent when autonomy was established by an act of the British parliament. There has been no recognition that the change in population might require a change in government. He sees republicanism as obtaining a higher level of participation for ethnic groups in power politics.56 In Intellectuals and Politics Robert Brym makes a very similar statement. Using groups like the Jews in Russia during the time of the 1917 revolution as examples, he finds that intellectuals in small ethnic minorities contributed more to radical politics and movements. They suffer various forms of oppression and discrimination preventing them from becoming embedded in dominant political institutions which conform to the status quo and encourage orthodox forms of behaviour.57

The Republican Party of Australia was formed in January 1982, its primary objective being “the establishment of an independent democratic republic by severing constitutional links with the British monarchy.” This is the opening sentence in the Party’s “Statement of Objectives” which continues with a plea to consider Australia’s geographic position and consequent priorities, the priorities of the ‘mother country’ and the changing role of the United States in the Pacific. Republicanism for Australia would be the final step in “our political evolution” boosting national progress and pride, providing “the essential pre-requisite for self-sufficiency and non-dependence on other nations.” Their statement covers areas of the economy, social welfare, education, conservation and national development, rural policies and defence and foreign affairs which validates their claim that they are a not a single-issue party. Their slogan is ‘the thinking voter’s party’ and the manifesto concludes with a commitment to government by reason: an unequivocal pledge to rationality.58

There are some close ideological ties to the Labor Party but the Republican Party maintains that as a new party they are more forward thinking than Labor whose ideas and policies are based heavily on competing with the Opposition and restricted by adherence to party lines. A co-founder, Peter Condandine believes that the major parties will continue to achieve low primary votes and this is the right time for small parties to stand for election. Their aim is to become a registered party by the end of 1991 and work towards getting Republican Party candidates into office as soon as possible.59 Both of these republican parties have stated an unwillingness to leave the republican issue solely to the Labor Party which is believed will be voted out of office at the next Federal election.

There has been a history of republicanism in the Australian Labor Party and their declaration of republican ideals at the Labor Conference in June 1991 was only the most recent of several. Gareth Evans in 1982 said that the egalitarian strand in Labor’s democratic socialist ideology is one of the underlying considerations behind the labour movement’s broadly republican sympathies. “There are serious points that can be made about the role of elites and social hierarchies in reinforcing stereotypes about class and status in our society.”60 The cost of maintaining the regal institutions was approximately ten million dollars in 1982 which Evans says should be funding services for Australians. In 1973 under the Royal Style and Titles Act the monarchy was termed Queen of Australia, separate to the Queen of England but whatever the technicalities may be Gareth Evans states that we all know that the Queen is manifestly the British Queen “and it is humbug to suggest otherwise.” John Warhurst, a political scientist at the University of New England agrees and states that “One nation cannot owe allegience to the head of state of another nation without placing itself in an inferior position vis-a-vis that other nation.”61

It is a strong Labor view that a republic could become a vehicle for necessary constitutional reforms. Evans hopes that state/federal powers would be clarified, individual rights protected, and the Constitution’s capacity and responsiveness to change increased.62

In April 1991 the Prime Minister described the move to republicanism as “inevitable”. Hawke stated that an increasing number of Australians now felt that the country “should, in all its constitutional and legal apparatus, be seen to be, and in fact be, totally independent.”63 Senator Chris Schacht, who moved that Australia should become a republic by 2001 at the A.L.P. Centenary Conference earlier this year, believes like Evans, that the cost of the monarchy is too high for Australia when there is no logical reason for its maintenance. Schacht’s arguments are testament to the rationality behind republicanism. He says that remaining colonial vestiges are damaging Australia’s image in foreign affairs and hurting Australian business in South East Asian countries who have colonial histories themselves and know only too well the implications of foreign ties. “We will have to work very hard to rid ourselves of these images and a republic is the only real answer.” It would also give Australians a chance to review and rewrite the constitution which must clearly state the Governor-General’s power.64 Schacht believes that trends towards republicanism in Australia are inexorably one-way and have been assisted by events in world politics such as the demise of totalitarian communism, part of a resolute move towards democracy in so many countries. Australia has developed more of a national identity in the last few decades in the recognition that identification with national concerns, as opposed to those at a state or parochial level is of more fundamental importance. In response, other Asian-Pacific countries are slowly recognising Australia as an independent country which can take a ‘leading role in the affairs of its region’ but Schacht believes strongly that this is hampered by a colonial constitution and foreign head of state. In local business, multi-national companies, financial money-markets, and international media organisations, it is imperative that Australia has a national government which ensures that reforms are effectively and efficiently controlled. He believes that reformation of the constitution is imperative to achieving a republic which is global in outlook, not narrow or parochial. A new constitution would clearly define the powers of the Australian President, no longer leaving significant decisions, such as in 1975, to convention and tradition; it would give the government a chance to amend relations with the Aborigines and formulate a treaty; and it must identify Australia clearly within the Asia-Pacific region. Australia gets no trade or financial advantages from remaining a constitutional monarchy for Britain is becoming more committed to Europe, a trend exacerbated by the increasing economic union of the European Community.65

In Republican Australia? James McClelland contributes a chapter exploring a republic from the Labor perspective. McClelland cites the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as defining a republic as that of a “state in which supreme power rests in the people and their elected representatives as opposed to one governed by a king or the like.” He believes that the position and written powers of Governor-General (and specifically the actions taken by Sir John Kerr in 1975) are too similar to “the like” for continued complacency regarding the significance of an outdated constitution and prerogative powers. Before the crisis of 1975, republicanism was not a major issue among Labor supporters although they were potentially receptive to the idea.66

Republican Australia? was published in 1977 and McClelland surmised two options for Australia’s future after the events of 1975. One was that once stability returned, inertia and apathy would be reinforced and prospects for change diminished. The alternative, (which McClelland believed would occur), was a period of worsening conditions, economic recession and falling living standards which would be an impetus for change. In retrospect, the first part of this prediction has occurred but change is evolving at a slower pace than predicted. There is little evidence for John Warhurst’s view that events over recent years have strengthened rather than weakened the monarchy.67 McClelland believes there is unhappiness in Australia with the present system of government in which the Senate has lost its function as a house of review and exists to frustrate the will of the people in the democratically elected lower house. The Westminster system is inadequate and favours mediocrity of representatives who are merely careerist politicians. McClelland favours the American system with an elected president and cabinet members drawn from that vast reservoir of talent and expertise outside the legislature.68

Support for republicanism crosses the political spectrum. Don Chipp, also a contributer to Republican Australia?, and a former Liberal member of Federal parliament from 1969 to 1977 who left the party to forn the Australian Democrats, believes that republicanism is a real issue and a sensible one to discuss. However, the term ‘republican Australia’ must be clarified because misunderstanding is “the greatest impediment likely to be placed along the paths of logical debate.”69 In his interpretation, it means reformation of the constitution and the government and he voices probably the biggest issue to come out of 1975 in seriously questioning the continuation of the power of a non-elected person (the Governor-General) to dismiss an elected government.

There must be a sound rational base to justify a change of this magnitude in the Australian political system and he asks some fundamental questions to help discover if it is necessary at all. What is the best system of government for Australia? Should we preserve the Westminster model? Is our system working satisfactorily for those of us who want public acceptability for our elected representatives?

Liberal support has come from Ian Kortlang, a former adviser to Andrew Peacock and Nick Greiner, and member of the Australian Republican Movement. He believes that it is right for Britain to look to Europe, and right for Australians to be looking at themselves: “It is possible to revere the Queen and be fiercely Australian and republican. [Republics like India] are not schizophrenic about it. We are”70

However, Labor’s ideology reflects the essence of republicanism as Liberal ideolgy does not. In a speech to a Fabian Society Conference entitled “Labor in the Nineties: Visions for the Future from Leaders for the Future” Senator Chris Schacht speaks clearly about why the Labor Party and the labour movement can bring about the reform necessary to declare a republic on 1 January 2001. “The Labor Party has one hundred years continuous history. It is still the only political force in Australia with the energy, wit and dynamism to tackle the big issues confronting us and provide the leadership to achieve the desired result. The labour movement must not shirk this challenge. We should welcome it with joy and enthusiasm.” He quotes John Curtin: “You can’t get from anti-Labor governments great changes in social practice. Their main purpose is to resist innovation, to delay reform, to prop up vested interests, to maintain the existing order. Labor challenges all this.”71

An active interest in republicanism however, is not confined to party political groups. The Australian Republican Movement launched on 7 July 1991 is an organisation which is non-party political. The Hon Franca Arena, M.L.C.(Labor), one of its co-founders, was motivated into publicly supporting republicanism after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. She has always felt that monarchies are alien to democracy, that inherited power is an anachronism of the past72. The illogicality of swearing an allegiance to the British Queen to become a citizen of Australia contributed to the complete lack of pride in being an Australian which she found in the fifties and sixties.

There were no republican groups at this time, only individuals such as Donald Horne and Geoffrey Dutton. Citizens’ for Democracy was the first such organisation which formed in protest at the events of 1975 and pushed for constitutional reforms and republicanism. Franca Arena was a member but felt the lack of eminent Australians to help carry the issue to the press and the people, and to counter the accusations that republicans were all ‘ratbags, communists and radicals’. The result is the Australian Republican Movement, a citizens’ movement which Arena believes is the only way to progress beyond party squabbling. Members include Neville Wran, Geraldine Doogue, David Williamson, Tom Keneally, Dr Robyn Williams, the Hon. Justice Elizabeth Evatt and Harry Seidler. The full list carries considerable weight and represents Australians from every sector of society.

The program of the Australian Republican Movement for the next decade is to infiltrate society and the political agenda, to educate the population and to remove common misconceptions about republicanism. Their aim is to ensure that whichever party is in power at the end of the century will not be able to avoid taking up the issue. At the Movement’s launch, Tom Keneally, President of the committee said:

We have been disappointed in recent days to see the Australian Labor Party pass a motion which served only to make this issue a narrowly political one. The Labor Party passed a similar motion in 1986 and has done nothing to advance the debate on the question. It is the duty of us citizens to lead the debate therefore, and to bring it to a happy and peaceful conclusion.”73

In a personal interview, Arena said that she tried to dissuade Senator Schacht from raising republicanism at the Labor Conference in April 1991 because of the dangers of a conservative, party-political backlash, which has occurred in Liberal Senator Bronwyn Bishop’s pro-monarchical stand.

Opinion polls have been taken over many years to try to determine strength of feeling regarding the monarchy in Australia. Many taken just after or during a royal visit, have been biased in favour of the status quo and they have sometimes reflected ignorance about what republicanism would necessarily mean for Australia. This bias in mind, they have consistently shown greater support for the monarchy than for a change in our political system although this has been steadily lessening. Support for the Crown in Australia has been higher from women, the aged, British migrants, and conservative voters; for a republic, support has come strongly from those under twenty-five (although support for the monarchy increases with age and those who endorsed a republic in their teens were likely to change their minds later), and those with no ancestral links to Great Britain. The party-political division is predictable: in 1966 of the 65 percent who chose to maintain ties with Britain more than three quarters were Liberal-Country Party voters. The most common comments reported in the newspaper reflect apathy and tradition rather than logical reasoning: “We’re OK as we are”, “We are British” (in 1966!), “No benefit for changing”, “We must always be united.”74

The wording of the poll, and therefore what people believe they are being asked, is crucial as exemplified by a survey taken in February 1977, three months after just thirty-nine percent of those polled thought Australia should become an independent republic. Fifty-eight percent stated that ‘We don’t need a Queen’ and a bare majority of 51 percent thought we needed a Governor-General.75 Reasons given for the maintenance of the status quo were tradition and a minority perception of the Queen as the final political arbiter which is wrong in any argument because to take the key example in 1975, the Queen would not have acted of her own volition as Sir John Kerr did. Resolution of a constitutional convention in 1983 finally established “that the Queen does not intervene in the exercise by the Governor-General of powers vested in him by the Constitution, and does not herself exercise those powers.” Justice C.W. Pincus states in his paper, An Australian Republic presented at the Constitutional Centenery Conference, that this is quite at odds with the intention of the 1900 Constitution.76

Other polls have not allowed Australia to be a republic and remain within the Commonwealth of Nations yet more than half the countries in this union are republics. Polls have also implied that a republic in Australia must dispense with the Westminster system and adopt an American presidential system of government.77 In 1976 Sir John Kerr said that only ‘fringe elements’ desired a republic and that the monarchy would last the next hundred years but in December of that same year nearly forty percent of Australians of voting age supported Australia becoming a republic with its own president. The figure was over fifty percent for those in age groups between eighteen and thirty-four. These figures are not “fringe elements”. While Kerr spoke of ‘formidable legal and constitutional barriers to becoming a republic’, Donald Horne says that this is the small voice of defeat from a provincial-minded past78: the law is the servant of the people and if there are bad laws they should be changed.

In an article in November 1990, Henry Reynolds reported a poll of first year students at James Cook University in Townsville which showed that only seven percent wanted to retain the monarchy as head of state in Australia. While he admits that such a small and selective group may lack wider significance it could be a trend for the future. What is significant is his comment that although the students expected and looked forward to a republic it did not raise the same levels of concern as the environment, the economy or social justice. “Passion over republicanism is clearly far less intense than it is among traditionalists seeking to defend the status quo.”79 The republican question is not a passionate one; it is a rational argument. What is interesting is that monarchists are less confident than republicans about their choice. Although greater numbers want to remain a constitutional monarchy than those who support a change, many believe that a republic is inevitable.

The final part of the chapter will examine arguments from the judiciary and those regarding constitutional change. This is irrevocably linked to discussion of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. The authors of an unpublished parliamentary paper prepared by the Law and Government group within Federal Parliament believe that a republic is secondary but evidently intrinsic to other reforms.

The replacement of Parliamentary government in Australia by a polity which included an elected head of government and other members of government appointed by the government but not from the members of the legislature would, it appears, be incidentally republican in effect. A polity along these lines should be aimed for not because of this incidental effect but because gains in democracy, honesty and acceptability would result.80 In other words, and similarly to the views of other writers mentioned above, change for change’s sake is not recommended, as opposed to the monarchists’ arguments which are based on the status quo for the maintenance of tradition. Monarchists readily admit this. The values quoted above are offended by the institutionalised position of the Governor-General who is not chosen by the people and whose performance is not subject to review by the people. Needless to say they were exacerbated by the events of 1975.

David Soloman81 believes that Australia’s constitution is a failure. There have been twenty-seven referendums to change more than fifty different proposals between 1901 and 1976. There has also been a Royal Commission (1929), interstate conferences, conventions, premiers conferences, a joint parliamentary committee and the recent Constitutional Centenary Conference, all trying to reform the constitution, but very little success has been seen. Many reforms are unacceptable to politicians along strict party lines. Any amendment proposed which was rejected by one of the major parties has been rejected by the people. When the constitution was written there were no visible problems ahead regarding the suitability of the candidate for Governor-General because he (sic) was to be appointed from London by the British monarch and was “to look to the interests of Britain as well as Australia.”82 The constitution’s failure here is in the reserve and unstated powers of this vice-regal person, described as “autocratic powers of the medieval crown”.83 Kerr used these powers, the last remnants of the absolute power of the British monarchy, to sack Whitlam. Also called ‘prerogative powers’, they are illustrated well by Blackstone’s commentaries:

By the word prerogative we usually understand that special pre-eminance which the King hath over and above all other persons, and out of the ordinary course of the common law, in right of his regal dignity…; that it can only be applied to those rights and capacities that the King enjoys alone, in contradistinction to others, and not to lose which he enjoys in common with any of his subjects; for if once any prerogative of the crown could be held in common with the subject, it would cease to be prerogative any longer.84

That an independent, liberal democratic country without an aristocracy, such as Australia, has perpetuated the old powers invested in the Governor-General seems to be sanctioning the foreign elitism evident in Blackstone’s definition. Even in the British constitutional crisis of 1909-1914, Prime Minister Asquith defined the role of the monarch (or representative) saying that it was not the function of a constitutional Sovereign to act as arbiter or mediator between rival parties and policies, “still less to take advice from leaders on both sides with the view to forming a conclusion of his own.”85

The constitution is an archaic, monarchic document which describes the Governor-General’s powers in completely undemocratic terms: “far from being ‘above politics’ [his position] is one that can be used to the advantage of one political party over the other; it can be see as the destroyer of political consensus, a cause of civil discord and as the principal enemy of political democracy.”86 He believes that Australians never earned their democracy, that we simply went along with British habits. To obtain even a minimum of representativeness in government we should achieve a new constitution for modern Australia which includes such reforms as abolition of the Upper House or of its legislative powers; formal recognition that the Prime Minister and Cabinet exist and are chosen only by the Lower House; provision for fairer voting; the stripping of the ceremonial head of state’s ‘fanciful powers’; and the declaration of Australia as a republic87. The reserve powers of dismissal survived the passage of time but were so rarely invoked they were almost irrelevant. Kerr’s overthrow of Whitlam was only the third case when the monarch or their representative has dismissed or forced the resignation of a national government with a majority in the popular house in 190 years. The potential dangers of these powers was seen when the constitution was drawn up and Alfred Deakin suggested that these powers be included in a separate clause. Although many agreed, this was not done because knowledge of their limitations was presumed. In a study of the reserve powers in the 1930s (after the dismissal of the Lang Govt in New South Wales by the Governor Sir Philip Game) Dr H.V.Evatt said “If parliamentary government is to endure it is essential that the terrain of this constitutional no-man’s land should be finally explored….There will be greater dangers involved if the question continues to be neglected.”88 In the forty years since, nothing has been done to define these powers.

When vice-regal appointments act in any way outside their expected ceremonial functions they are perceived as involving themselves in politically partisan behaviour. Kerr’s actions in 1975 aroused rage across the political spectrum because they were his own actions instead of those of responsible ministers. Dr Evatt made a startling prediction in the 1930s:

Where acute party differences exist, it is impossible for a Governor to take responsibility of dismissing a Ministry possessing the confidence of the popular House without being regarded as a partisan by the party to which the Ministers belong. It is almost certain that such a party will attack and upbraid the person who has brought into effective operation a prerogative usually regarded a having fallen into desuetude.”89

Evatt believed that election results after a dismissal of a government which has the confidence of the Lower House, are not a valid test of the correctness of the actions taken. Australia entered a period of what Horne calls a Governor-Generalate on 11 November 1975. In this state, the Governor-General is the Crown, “the sole embodiment of royal authority”. He is the unique interpreter of the Constitution and conventions and therefore Australia’s public guardian to defend the “interests of the nation”90 “In sacking Whitlam, Kerr threw into doubt more than just the convention of responsible government and the extent of the power which the Governor-General can exercise in the face of the interests of the elected government.”91

Stephen Alomes considers that the real issue was not whether the elected government had the right to govern but whether the Labor Party, out of office for twenty three years and a rather unnatural phenomenon had the right to govern. This idea of the ‘divine right’ of the Liberals has been broached by other writers. Had the ‘experiment’ of a Labor government failed “because of ministerial errors, or because Australia was still a dominion, a province which preferred obedience to independence, continuity to innovation”? Whitlam was seen to be symbolising “the graduate intelligentsia bent on rational reform.”92. Although conservative forces in the media and business played a large role, a provincial or colonial attitude entrenched in society was perhaps more important. Power of conventionalism and fear of change made it very difficult for conservatives to see Australia in a new, possibly Asian perspective. “The most fundamental paradox was that to be both un-British and anti-American, as Labor was seen by many conservative people, seemed un-Australian.”93

The Constitutional Centenary Conference held in April 1991 was a forum for intellectuals from politics, law, journalism and academia to come together and discuss changes to the Australian constitution considered necessary one hundred years after it was first drafted. A paper by Justice C.W.Pincus (Federal Court of Australia) recommends the change to an Australian republic as intrinsic to necessary and belated reforms clarifying the many constitutional ambiguities. He says that legally “we are left with bits and pieces of the Imperial connection” but it has become almost completely redundant, a ‘legal fiction.’ “We have found it convenient to pretend, for some purposes, that the English monarch exercises power in Australia, when in truth she does not.” The obscure position of the Governor-General, especially since 1975 demands close and stated definition. Questions of Australia’s Head of State must be addressed because they will not disappear with time but become more confused particularly in view of Britain’s move away from the Commonwealth and towards Europe: “[This has] already affected us economically, and it must affect us politically….A strong nation has as a focus of loyalty a Head of State clearly identified by the people and exercising, particularly in times of crisis, clear and accepted powers.”94 Interestingly two interviewees, Babs Fuller-Quinn, an early member of Citizens’ for Democracy and Paul Urban, founder of the New Australian Republican Party, believed that pressure from the judiciary would hasten the advent of a republic.

The rationality and practical nature of republicanism expressed through organisations and individuals examined here is conspicuous. The issues of most concern are the economy, Australia’s standing in foreign affairs and diplomatic relations, and amending the constitution. Discussed in the next chapter is one other issue, multiculturalism, which introduces a human element in the republican debate.

(Next Chapter)

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