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Losing more than magic


It is years since the proposal for a republic was lost in the referendum in 1999.

Referendums are soon forgotten but in 1903, but in 2003, a member of the public asked a reporter: "Didn't we decide to become a republic in 1999?"

This surely confirms Malcolm Turnbull's telling assessment, four months before the referendum: "We have Buckley's chance of winning. Nobody is interested."

So we got through the end of the century, the start of the new millennium, the centenary of federation, and the Olympic Games without becoming what Professor Gilbert, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne solemnly predicted if the nation were to vote"No" in the 1999 referendum- an "international laughing stock".

Actually, after East Timor and weathering the Asian economic crisis we are respected, admired and even envied. And along with the other countries which are the most attractive to live in, according to the United Nations, we have retained the Crown in our constitutional system.

So where stands the republic today? Were its chances improved at the conference at Corowa in late 2001? Former Governor Richard McGarvie had worked for so long to make that a success. But at the last minute all his hard work was to be taken over by a solid phalanx of republican lawyers. The result? Professor Greg Craven summed it up. Until the conference, he believed, Australia's chances of becoming a republic were slim. After Corowa, he concluded, they were non-existent.

The difficulty for most republicans is that few appreciate - or even fully understand - our present constitutional system. Most Australians, unlike republicans, even if they don't fully understand it, know that it works, and works better than most. The Crown is not just some disposable appendage, it is central to the constitution, a pristine institution above politics which is at its very heart. To adapt the description of a British republican think-tank, the Australian Crown is:

The essence of our executive governments, state and federal,
a significant part of our Parliaments,
the spine of our judiciary,
the employer of our public services,
the commander- in-chief of the army, navy and air force,
the guardian of our constitutions, and
the lynchpin linking the federal structure with the states.

The Crown was imported from Britain but - and this is most important - it was adapted to our needs. In brief, it was Australianised. This is also the case with our law, our other institutions and indeed, our language - none of which we would readily abandon. Apart from sharing the one sovereign in what international lawyers call a personal union, the Australian Crown is an institution separate and apart from the Canadian, British and the many other Crowns.

And if this were not so, the high Court would not have ruled in 1999 that  former One Nation Senator Heather Hill could not sit in the Senate: Sue v Hill.

The Australian Crown is personalised at its pinnacle by the Queen of Australia, who will normally act on the advice of her Australian Prime Minister. But most of the Crown's federal powers are normally exercised by our Governor-General, those of the States by the Governors.

So at the heart of our constitutional and legal system there is thus a vast institution beyond politics. There is no reason why we could not remove it, if that is what we really want to do.

But we owe it to ourselves, our parents and our children to understand and to be fully informed on what we are removing. And equally we ought to know precisely what we are putting in its place.

As with the flag, which Mr. Keating says "gets up his nose", republicans don't like the constitution but don't know or can't agree on a replacement.

The flag now is unassailable, and few place any importance on removing the Australian Crown.

In any event, on one view of what a republic is, our republicans are not really republicans. They want to keep at the heart of the constitution a political no-go area, an institution above politics. In other words they want the Crown but without the Sovereign. But they can't have their cake and eat it too. And precisely because of this quandary, the republican movement resorts to publicity stunts, instead of developing a workable acceptable and truly republican model.

2001's stunt was a demand that the Queen of Australia give back the Tom Roberts painting which hangs permanently in Parliament House. They might as well have asked The Queen to return our Crown land - an equally ludicrous proposition.

 In 2002 it was an ARM call for State Governors to be elected. As if State Premiers would want a politician above them with a greater mandate then there own. The Premiers were not prepared to be like a group of foolish turkeys voting for an early Christmas! They refused. The Sydney Morning Herald declared the proposal an ARM "no brainer"!

Australians can of course decide to remove the Crown. But either we replace it with an institution of equal dimension and equally above politics, or we design a new constitutional system for the states and the federation.

Obviously we should not replace the Crown with another politician. Nor should we replace the Governor-General with a functionary whose tenure depends on a prime ministerial whim. Nor should we replace the Crown with a clever contraption or device - a moving feast of former Governors-General and Chief Justices. So after a good decade of debating and campaigning, a failed referendum and millions of dollars of taxpayers funds, republicans ought to concede that finding a substitute for the Crown is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

They are left with the difficult task of proposing a completely new constitution. Now there is one republican model which is tried and tested. It involves having three political institutions, the executive, the congress and the Supreme Court locked in perpetual adversarial combat - the American system. It wasn't intended to be like that but, the civil war excepted, it does work. Unfortunately, only in the United States. But it might possibly work on the soil of another country in which English, the rule of law, the common law and parliament are as entrenched as in the American colonies.

Without a general collapse of our institutions, and some terrible crisis, it is hard to see Australians wanting such a change. One other factor came suddenly into the foreground in the Golden Jubilee year - what Bagehot called the "magic of monarchy".

Back in the referendum campaign, republicans tried to instruct the No case on how they should run their campaign. They wanted to see the campaign dominated by a debate about the sovereign and her family. But as it was a constitutional referendum, so constitutionalists ran it on constitutional issues.

This was not to deny the magic of monarchy which became so obvious. So when Mike Carlton suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald that few would care about the Queen Mother's funeral except some bemused Japanese tourists, he had to eat his words. As did so many commentators here and Britain when the Commonwealth honoured their Queen on her Golden Jubilee.

Republicans are not immune, indeed they seem particularly affected by the magic of monarchy. If there is a royal occasion in Australia, expect to be elbowed out of the way by republicans. It happened on Diana's last visit. And on the formal occasions for each of the Queen's visit to Australia, the receptions have been filled with eager republicans.

We may certainly dispense with the magic of monarchy. It is after all but a bonus - and not the essence. And we may even remove the Crown from our constitution - if we know what we are doing and have something as good - or better to replace it.

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