RAC 1993

In 1993 Prime Minister Paul Keating established a Republic Advisory Committee (RAC) to advise him on the various options for minimal change necessary to bring about republican govern-ment in Australia. The RAC's terms of reference stipulated that it should not address any broader issues regarding other areas of constitutional reform or the normative question of whether Australia ought to become a republic. It should also not make any final recommendations, but rather address the advantages and disadvantages of the possible approaches to a specified list of matters. (RAC, Vol. 1, p iv)

So the Republic Advisory Committee was not intended to debate the advantages or disadvantages of a republic over the existing system. Its formation reflected Keating's adversarial style. He once argued that the first question about a republic was: "Do you support an Australian republic?" Only if you supported such an entity were you to be admitted to the forum that would discuss the form of the republic. This theme was brutally applied both in terms of reference and of the membership — totally republican — of the RAC. It was chaired by Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the Australian Republican Movement.

When the prime minister gave his response to the report, he endorsed the desirability of Australia becoming a republic on the basis of a "minimal" change to the constitution. He addressed five areas of change. The principle components involved:

  • The creation of an office of head of state — a novelty for Australians, most of whom had never heard of this term. It was to be styled 'president' and the qualifications for candidacy stipulating citizenship and age requirements were set out.
  • Appointment and dismissal procedures, both to be effected by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of the commonwealth parliament, the former on the nomination of a single candidate by the prime minister, the latter on the motion of either house receiving a simple majority. Importantly the committee found an almost universal view that the president should not hold office at the whim of the prime minister.
  • A constitutional statement entrenching the continuity of the exercise of the governor-general's powers by the president and the constitutional conventions governing the exercise thereof, with no codification of the reserve powers.
  • Preservation of the self-determination of constitutional arrangements for the states so that the states could remain constitutional monarchies.
    Consequential alterations to remove monarchical references without altering the practical effect of various provisions.

It was Keating's stated intention that the transition to a republic would be a small step, albeit a highly significant one, with minimal disruption to the system by which Australia is governed. There was dissent in the republican ranks, however, as to just how small the step being proposed was. One democratic republican, the late Professor Patrick O'Brien, explained:

In his speech, Keating repeated the false claim that the move from a constitutional monarchy to a republic was a small step. It is a giant leap. Of itself, the institution of a republic means the institution of a new constitution and a new political order. Whether it is a giant leap forward or backwards, therefore, depends upon the constitutional distribution, weighing and checking and balancing of power and authority among the people, the parliament, the executive, the bureaucracy and the High Court. (O'Brien, 158)

It was quite clear that Professor O'Brien saw the Keating–Turnbull model as a giant leap backwards.

 
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