Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

AUSTRALIA – A Constitutional Monarchy With Republican Potential

Digital Snapshot #01/22

11 February 2022

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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Queen Elizabeth II recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne. The platinum jubilee coincides with the release of the Australian Republican Movement’s proposal for the country to become a republic. The Australian Choice Model describes what constitutional amendments are required for Australians to be able to elect their head of state. This Digital Snapshot takes a closer look at the republican debate in Australia, including the arguments in favour of retaining the status quo.

The Commonwealth of Australia has been a constitutional monarchy since 1 January 1901, that is, the date the six British colonies federated into one self-governing nation of the British Empire. In the same year, the then Prince of Wales (Prince George, later known as King George V) opened the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. Currently, the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister appoints the Governor-General as her representative in Australia. By convention the Governor-General is appointed for a term of five years, with the number of terms unlimited. The Governor-General serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Forces, and has constitutional and ceremonial duties. In addition to statutory powers, the Governor-General holds and may exercise prerogative powers (eg assent to statutes). Prerogative powers are non-statutory powers that used to be vested in the monarch in medieval times and, with the exception of retained prerogative powers (eg granting of honours), are nowadays exercised be their representative.

As Prof Anne Twomey explains in her book on “The Veiled Sceptre: Reserve Powers of Heads of State in Westminster Systems”: The reserve powers are important because they are not only important for the operation of government, but also provide the last line of defence against governmental actions in breach of fundamental constitutional principles. In this sense, the head of state is not only the symbolic guardian of the relevant nation’s Constitution, but the one person with powers of last resort reserved for its protection.”

The 1999 Referendum

The first prime minister to have raised the question of Australia becoming a republic (‘necessarily independent’) is said to be former Prime Minister Paul Keating (Labor Party), notably in a speech of welcome to the Queen at a parliamentary reception in Canberra in 1992. His proposal provided for a president to exercise the power of the governor-general, and for the prime minister to nominate the president, with the nomination to be agreed by both houses of parliament. In 1995, PM Keating proposed a national referendum to be held during the next parliament, aiming for a republic to be achieved by 1 January 2001, that is, the centenary of federation. In 1998, following the victory of the Coalition under John Howard (who was opposed to the idea of a republic) in the 1997 election, a Constitutional Convention was held to consider the question. 152 delegates, half elected by a voluntary national postal-ballot and the other half nominated by the government, including 36 non-parliamentary delegates, were called upon to debate (1) whether Australia should become a republic; (2) if so, which republican model should be put to the voters; and (3) the time frame of any change. While the Convention supported the idea of Australia becoming a republic, the proposed method of the president’s election was controversial. The Convention’s proposal provided for anyone to be nominated for the position, for the prime minister to discuss the nominees with the leader of the opposition, and to put forward one of them to a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament. In order to be elected, the nominee would have to be agreed by a two-thirds majority of the joint sitting. The president’s powers were to be the same as the Queen and the Governor-General’s powers under the Constitution, respectively, to be exercised on the advice of the Government. The Prime Minister was to be authorised to dismiss the president, with the House of Representatives to approve the dismissal within 30 days.

In 1999, a referendum on the Convention’s proposal for a republic was held. Public opinion polls showed that voters were in favour of a republic by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, the referendum failed with just under 55 per cent in all six states and the Northern Territory, but not the Australian Capital Territory. Those in favour of a republic, we are told, did not necessarily want the proposed type of republic. They were mainly opposed to the proposed method of presidential election, which many thought should be by popular vote. Others criticised the lack of clearly defined powers. Yet others objected the prime minister’s power to dismiss the president. There were also critics who thought once implemented in the Constitution, the model could not be easily changed anymore, and that generally the chance to modernise the Constitution had been missed. Some are said to have simply been unable to grasp the issues, and to have voted no out of habit.

The Australian Choice Model

The Australian Choice Model: Policy — Australian Republic Movement would allow the Federal Parliament to nominate up to three candidates for the position of Head of State; the six State Parliaments and two Territorial Parliaments would be able to nominate one candidate each. Nominees must be Australian citizens, be eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives and not be current members of any Australian parliament. Unlike under the 1999 proposal, the Head of State would ultimately be elected by popular vote for a term of five years, with the option of being re-elected for a second term. The House of Representative’s voting method would be used for the election of the head of state. If there was only one candidate, voters could confirm or reject the candidate.

The Head of State would have to act on the advice of the Prime Minister, Federal Executive Council or Ministers (as the case may be), except when (1) appointing the Prime Minister, (2) summoning Parliament to determine who has the confidence of the House of Representatives and (3) calling an election where the confidence of the House remains indeterminate for more than seven days. As far as the Prime Minister is concerned, the Head of State would have to appoint who is most likely to have the support in Parliament to form a Government, and could dismiss a Prime Minister who no longer has majority support (confidence). Unlike the Governor-General, the Head of State would not be able to refuse to give approval (assent), use their personal discretion to amend proposed laws that have passed the Parliament, or refuse to approve a constitutional change that has been approved by voters at a referendum.

The Head of State could be removed by a motion passed in both Houses of the Parliament calling for their removal for incapacity or proved misbehaviour. If the Head of State is absent or unavailable, the most senior State Governor would act on their behalf. Likewise, the most senior State Governor would serve as acting Head of State until such time as an election can be held.

Pro Constitutional Monarchy

The Australian Monarchist League argues that Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy because it provides stability and continuity. In the League’s view, “the majority of stable nations in the world are constitutional monarchies because the system of authority and responsibility which they encompass allows the people to have their say in all things but to do so knowing that the structure of authority will ensure that all change can be effected within the rule of law. Our Crown is intimately linked with the great Charters of Liberty of the past and has developed over its 1000 year history to become respected and admired and copied all over the civilised world. We are blessed with governance which cannot be bettered and our Constitution, integrated entirely with the Crown, is our written safeguard.”

They consider that “[t]here is little question that the continued stability of our government is related closely to our parliamentary system with its constitutional monarchy underpinning and although some may consider change to a republican form of government, nothing would be gained but huge safeguards and the benefit of hundreds of years of evolving experience and concomitant practice would be lost. One of the reasons for the success of constitutional monarchy is that the authority of the Sovereign always exists and the person of the Sovereign ensures that the people’s freedoms and rights are protected. On the death of one monarch the next immediately takes the throne and so continuity – with all that it entails – is maintained.”

The Political Perspective

The Labor Party affirmed its commitment to an Australian head of state, saying however that the recognition of Indigenous Australians and a Voice to Parliament were its priorities for constitutional reform, and the COVID-19 crisis was the nation’s immediate concern. Former prime minister Paul Keating was critical: “With the power of a popular mandate, a new president would render subordinate all other officers of state, including the current office of prime minister and that of the cabinet.”

The Liberal Party is divided on the matter. Liberal MP Jason Falinski chairs Parliamentary Friends for an Australian Republic and was part of the Australian Republic Movement’s two-year consultation. He reportedly said that now was the right time for the government to lead a renewed debate about leaving the British monarchy. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, asked how much support the idea had within the government, he replied that the Prime Minister was a monarchist. Liberal MP Tim Wilson reportedly said that irrespective of the model, the issue was a lower priority than COVID, tackling the cost of living, cutting emissions, housing affordability, reducing public debt or tax and superannuation reform. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who led the Australian Republic Movement at the 1999 referendum would reportedly vote for the new model even though he believed it was flawed: “If we are to have a directly elected president then any Australian citizen should be able to nominate. They shouldn’t need the permission of a bunch of politicians to run.” The Australian Republic Movement’s latest polls suggest that 57 per cent of the respondents would vote for the model, with 25 per cent unsure and 18 per cent against it, and that 73 per cent of undecided respondents would vote for the model if the referendum was compulsory.