Article Index

DEFINITIONS

The following definitions are the critical terms used in any debate on whether Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic; two very different and alternative systems of government.

Republic

This is the most confusing word in the whole debate (except monarchy!). It is used by many people in many different ways, and thus must be defined if minds are to meet. 'Republic' is derived from the Latin words 'res' (things or matters) and 'publica' (common or public). Thus the word's derivation indicates 'things held in common' i.e. public things or matters—as distinct from personal things—one's house, car, family, etc. Historically, 'republic' has been used for constitutional matters, i.e. the public way in which a community is governed.

You will readily see that it does not necessarily imply any particular system of government. There are 116 nations in the world today which claim to be 'republics' —which one is referred to? Say USA, or Ireland or Switzerland or India, and they differ so what is meant by 'republic'? Republics are very old. The most famous is Plato's, expounded over two thousand years ago.

Republics can have monarchs or not. Republics are sometimes defined as representing the sovereignty of the people; that is that all power is seen to derive from 'the people'. But then who are 'the people'? In the most famous modern republic, USA, the foundation documents of the 1770s sound wonderful until you realise (or learn) that they did not include the African Americans and other slaves, who were not liberated until the United States Civil War of 1865. This was long after slavery had been disallowed in England and Wilberforce had stamped out the slave trade as a citizen of a monarchy! To make matters even less clear, as early as the 1860s, a leading journalist (Bagehot) had described the monarchy of the United Kingdom as a 'disguised republic'—a description close enough to the one Australian constitutional monarchists use today—a 'crowned republic'!

If you want to simplify this area, you can avoid the use of 'republic' and just say 'Australia should get rid of the Queen and the monarchy and have a president'. It is in this sense that many (but not all) modern day Australian republicans really mean to use the term. Each republic in the world is different. Some republics are absolute dictatorships. There are not many people proposing a 'dictatorship' republic for Australia. However, history has shown that some republics, such as the (German) Weimar Republic (acclaimed as the most democratic of its time) were not intended to be dictatorships, but unfortunately ended up going this way.

Distinguishing republics

The Turnbull Committee (officially the Keating Government's Republican Advisory Committee) produced a report which summarised many of the types of democratic republics, and their characteristics. One characteristic of a republic is how the president is elected. This may be:
by nomination by some individual or institution;
by selection by an 'electoral' college or a group of people delegated to make a choice on behalf of the nation;
by election by the members of one or more parliaments with or without special majorities;
or by popular election, usually one voter one vote.

However, another characteristic to describe republics is by the powers given to a president. Does the president govern or not (in whole or in part)? If he does, it is called an executive presidency. If not, it is called a ceremonial presidency. A well known example of an executive president is the President of USA, who governs by appointing his own Ministers or Secretaries of State. Congress (the Houses of Parliament—the Senate and the Representatives) merely passes laws and budgets and sometimes overrides the President's vetoes.

A well known ceremonial president is that of Ireland, formerly Mary Robinson. She had no personal authority to govern, but did have a great deal of personal influence as President (she had previously been the leader of the third party in Irish politics, as, say, Cheryl Kernot once led the Democrats in Australia). But if the Presidential Office is to be a purely ceremonial post, this means the powers of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will be increased. Such cenermonial presidencies greatly increase the power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Some commentators have gone so far as to describe constitutional monarchies, such as Australia, UK or Canada (where all sovereignty is in the people but they choose to retain a constitutional monarch to remain above politics) as 'crowned republics' and compare them with republican models without monarchs.

Monarchy

This term derives from the Greek 'monos' or'alone' and 'archein' or 'to rule'. Thus it technically means rule by one person. In this primary sense, it can be used as a description of anyone who rules on their own--dictator, president, king or noble baron! 'Monarchy' is not necessarily 'hereditary', i.e. passed directly from parent to heir or child. In ancient England the monarch was elected from amongst the King's children. Just as there are types of 'republic', so have we types of monarchy. They are usually grouped as 'absolute' or 'constitutional'. So just like republican presidents, monarchs come in many shapes and sizes!

Absolute monarchy

'Absolute' monarchies were those where the monarch had absolute power. There was no constitutional restriction on what an absolute monarch could do so long as he kept his 'throne' (a shorthand way of saying his power to govern). Many European monarchies were of this type, but it has never been the case in England or UK. Several examples of absolute monarchs were Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the ancient Kings of France.

Constitutional monarchy

'Constitutional' monarchies are those where the powers of the king or queen are subject to a constitution, a series of conventions, and to parliament or something which 'constitutes' or makes up the state. The constitutions vary greatly in their details and leave the monarchs with more or less powers as allowed by those who consent to be governed by them. For example, the Emperor of Japan has only ceremonial functions. He just leads his nation by existing and living. The King of Thailand has powers to summon his ministers who by custom, as a sign of respect, approach him on their knees. Elizabeth II as Queen of the United Kingdom exercises her day to day powers in the United Kingdom only on the advice of her ministers (except for her very limited reserve powers). Nevertheless unless she does assent to Bills from Parliament they would not be legal or binding.

In contrast, as Queen of Australia, while very wide powers are vested in her (that is 'owned' or protected by her), according to the Constitution she cannot exercise (or 'use') any of them. They can only be exercised by her representative, the Governor-General, who also has a lot of additional constitutional powers given to him directly by the Constitution.

Constitution

A constitution can be described as the arrangements under which a people or nation (or club!) agree to be governed. Like republican presidents, absolute monarchs, and constitutional monarchs, constitutions also come in many shapes and sizes. Yes, you've guessed it, they vary! Sometimes the arrangements are written down in a special document, sometimes in more than one document and sometimes the arrangements are so old no one would ever think of codifying them.

Illustrations of countries where Constitutions were written down in one document are the new republics like our near neighbour, Vanuatu. There are many, many more. Illustrations of countries with a Constitution and other documents would include USA, where there is both a federal Constitution and a Bill of Rights—as well as Constitutions in each of its individual states.

An illustration of a country that does not have a written Constitution at all is the United Kingdom. While there are certainly some famous documents that no one there would ever disobey, such as the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Acts of Settlement, a great deal is left to convention or traditional practices which have evolved and keep evolving. Thus monarchs who had a great deal of power when they had to govern (such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1) have been replaced with monarchs who do not govern at all (such as Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth 11). Those who do govern in the name of the Crown, the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the other ministers, exercise authority they have won over centuries from the Crown.

The Australian Constitution

If you want to deal with Australia's Constitution, it has two meanings:
1. The Constitution, which came into effect in 1901 as expressed in the document of 128 Sections, and which most people mean by 'our Constitution'. (We shall call it the 'Constitution of 1901'); and
2. The Constitution of 1901 plus all the conventions and practices which go with it which follow from its form as a constitutional monarchy, and bring many (but certainly not all) of the practices of the monarchy in the United Kingdom, together with all the practices of a modern representative democracy with responsible government.

For instance, there is no doubt that the head of government in Australia is the Prime Minister, the most powerful person in the land. But nowhere in the written Constitution of 1901 is there any reference to the Prime Minister or for that matter the Cabinet, although Professor Donald Horne, among other republicans, seems to think this is a bad thing. Some republicans and some constitutional monarchists take different views of what 'the Australian Constitution' is. Sometimes they use Meaning 1 and sometimes Meaning 2. Sometimes they slip from one meaning to the other without saying so (or knowing it). Some republicans and constitutional monarchists share the worry that if Australia becomes a republic, many conventions will lose their force or be swept aside. Others (on both sides) say everything important should and can be written down. Still others (on both sides) say they cannot be safely and fully written down at all. Writing everything down is called 'codification'.

It is aggravating, but such is the complexity of the subject that even terms which seem to mean one thing often mean another! But remember, most of our freedoms derive not from the written Constitution of 1901 but are the results of freedoms won in constitutional battles in England long before Australia was settled. These include freedom from confiscation of goods, arbitrary arrest, the right to prompt justice, freedon from confiscation of property, freedom of association, freedom of religion, the right to vote for a parliament which alone can levy taxes, trial by jury, and so on. Conventions These usually mean the unwritten and unenforceable habits or practices by which our system of government actually operates.

A basic convention is that the Queen and each of her representatives, the Governor-General and State Governors, only ever act on advice.  This has been so throughout our history. It has been safe to leave very wide powers with the Crown, and the written Constitution of 1901 in many places mentions 'advice' and in others does not. It is 'safe' because of another convention, that is that the Crown only takes advice from the Prime Minister or his nominated other ministers, who are responsible through the Parliament to the people who elect them at election time. This is 'safe' because of the convention that the Prime Minister is the person who enjoys the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives when Parliament is in being, and can obtain supply (the money to govern) from the Parliament, (the House of Representatives and the Senate, which under our written Constitution are of equal power, unlike in UK).

This rests on another convention, that if a Prime Minister cannot obtain supply (the money to govern), he must resign or advise an election.
It was a dispute over that and the next convention that caused the upheaval of 1975. The Prime Minister ignored or rejected that last convention. This brought into play the next convention (also hotly disputed) that if a Prime Minister could not get supply and would not advise an election, the Crown is entitled to choose another adviser who can and will. Thus the Governor-General dismissed one Prime Minister and selected another who could get supply and who advised an election and the choice of government was returned to the voters to decide at an election.

It is disputed whether this was an exercise of the Governor-General's powers under the written Constitution of 1901 or of the so called unwritten 'reserve powers of the Crown' to act effectively as umpire and ensure that the Constitution (in both senses) was upheld. Controversy over the 1975 political crisis will bedevil the republican debate for years to come. Many constitutional monarchists (but not all) say the Constitution tion (in both senses) worked very well; the people got an early election and determined the matter. Many republicans (but not all) say the power of the Senate to block money bills must be broken and the 'reserve powers' be codified (i.e. entirely written down) whether we remain a monarchy or become a republic. Many (on both sides) say they cannot be fully written down. And so it goes on!

Head of State

The term 'Head of State' is a generic description for any person who holds the highest office in a particular nation, and is therefore the ceremonial focal point of national life. There is no agreed international description of a Head of State. It is of more use to diplomats, for whom it is relevant in determining rank and privileges. For example a Head of State is entitled to a twenty-one gun salute. Obviously it is for each country to determine who its own Head of State is. There is no doubt in Canada that the Governor-General is the Head of State.

The term 'Head of State', is not mentioned in the Australian Constitution. There is much discussion in the republic debate on the issue of our Head of State; whether the Queen  or our Governor-General is our Head of State. In some countries, such as USA, the Head of State is also Head of Government. In Australia, the Head of Government is the Prime Minister.

As Australia is an independent sovereign nation, it would be possible for Parliament by mere Act of Parliament to confer the title 'Head of State' on the Governor-General without altering the Constitution in any particular. There can be little doubt that under the Australian Constitution, the Governor-General is, for all intents and purposes, already the Head of State (appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the Prime Minister) who commissions governments, receives foreign representations, and represents Australia at the highest level overseas (none of which the Queen is allowed to perform under our Constitution).

The Queen

To most people this means Queen Elizabeth II. In Australia, the term 'the Queen' is often also referred to by the term 'the Crown'. This, too, is not as simple as it looks. Where the words 'the Queen' are used in the Constitution of 1901, they then meant 'Queen Victoria', but if the Constitution was to last forever, they meant those who followed her as legitimate monarch, 'her heirs and successors according to law', as the schedule to the Constitution puts it. In 1901 constitutional theory was that the Crown (meaning the Queen and through her the system of the monarchy) was indivisible, unable to be divided. It was described as 'The Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland'—a Crown which no longer existed after Ireland became a republic. It seemed simple. There was only one person as monarch, therefore there could only be one Queen.

However, slowly as circumstances changed, it was seen that this was wrong. One person could quite successfully fulfil many separate roles as Queen. Thus it has developed (and republicans readily acknowledge) that there are legal personalities which are quite distinct--Queen of Canada Queen of New Zealand, Queen of Australia, Queen of UK, etc.

The thrones of all these monarchies are occupied by the same person (Elizabeth II) but now are seen to be, and are defined by, their separate roles, where Elizabeth II, as Queen of each, only takes constitutional advice from the people's ministers in that nation, much as company directors or club officials only act on one company's, or club's, affairs at any one time.

The Governor-General

The Commonwealth Government Directory, 1995-1996, issued on the appointment of His Excellency, the Hon. Sir William Deane, defines the role of Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief as:
The Head of State in whom the executive power of the Commonwealth is vested. The Governor-General is also one of the three elements comprising the Commonwealth Parliament. His powers include: summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament; recommending appropriations; assenting to Bills; issuing writs for general elections; appointing and dismissing Ministers; submitting proposals for referendums; making Proclamations and Regulations; and creating government departments and making statutory appointments.

Republicans may be right when they say that some countries have refused to accept the Governor-General as a Head of State. On the other hand, many more countries have not refused to do so. Sir David Smith, former Official Secretary to five Governors-General, replying to a comment from a former Australian diplomat, states:

I"n my experience the difference has often been due to whether or not our diplomats have known and understood our Constitution and have been able and willing to explain it to their foreign opposite numbers... In our present system, the Governor-General has no fixed term, can be removed by the Queen instantly on the advice of the Prime Minister, who need give no reasons for his advice, but who himself has no fixed term and can himself be removed by his party colleagues at will or, in exceptional circumstances, by the Governor-General.

The Governor-General is our Constitutional Head of State, and in the exercise of his Constitutional duties, he does not act as a delegate or surrogate of the Sovereign. I cite the following evidence:
Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada, 1873; A. Inglis Clark, Studies in Australian Constitutional Law, 1901; W Harrison Moore, The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1902; Lord Haldane during an appeal to the Privy Council by the State Governments, 1922; The Imperial Conference of British Empire Prime Ministers, 1930; Advice from the Commonwealth legal advisers to Prime Minister Menzies, 1953; Advice from the Commonwealth Solicitor-General to Prime Minister Whitlam, 1975; Letter from the Queen's Private Secretary to Speaker Scholes, 1975; Advice from Prime Minister Hawke to the Queen, 1984; Final report of the Hawke Government's Constitutional Commission, 1988; and Statement to Parliament by Prime Minister Keating, 1995.

The view that Australia should become a republic in order to ease the workload of Australian diplomats is as insulting to all Australians as it is to those members of his former profession who do understand our Constitution and who are prepared to stand up for it. I know of at least one country that made a wrong decision about our Constitutional arrangements, whose Government later admitted its mistake and said that it had been made on the basis of incorrect advice from its own officials, and subsequently made amends."

The States

Under the Constitution of 1901, Australia is a federation where the States are independent and sovereign in their own areas of responsibility. They are not subservient to the Commonwealth. Each State is itself a constitutional monarchy and the Queen is part of each Parliament and represented in each State by a local Governor. Each State Governor is appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the State Premier, which is conveyed directly to the Queen and does not go through any Federal or UK ministers.State Governors rank equally with the Governor-General but by courtesy afford him precedence.

Checks and balances

In any system of government, there must be effective checks and balances. The most fundamental is between the politicians doing what they want and electors voting them out if they don't like what is done. Our checks and balances derive from two sources: the words of the Constitution of 1901 (which established a Federation of States as part of the Commonwealth, each being in its own sphere sovereign and independent in its operation as its own constitutional monarchy under State Governors representing the Queen) and the centuries of inherited practices or conventions (not laws) of constitutional monarchy on which established basis the Constitution is over laid.

When the Constitution of 1901 added to the UK system of responsible government (with a Prime Minister drawn from the House of Representatives, where each elector has a vote of approximately equal value), a US-style Senate (where voters vote for 12 Senators in each—very unequal—State), and then gave each House equal power (except in financial matters), there needed to be a neutral constitutional 'umpire' above politics (the Governor-General) to resolve disputes and force the voters to vote again.

The present Constitution (in both senses) provides a very flexible, effective and decisive mechanism to do this. It has been used only once federally (in 1975) and its rarity of use is seen as a sign of its success. However, great controversy exists as to:
(i) whether the powers exist;
(ii) whether they should exist;
(iii) whether the rules of how the powers are exercised should be written down; and
(iv) whether the power of the Senate to deny supply (or the money to govern) to a government should be diminished. Labor oppositions (unsuccessfully) threatened to use thepower 169 times before the Coalition used it (successfully) in 1975, so it is a longstanding issue of controversy.

In any republican constitution it will also be necessary to have checks and balances, and very small amendments to a written text can have very large (and perhaps unforeseen) consequences. In opposing popular election for a president, well-known republican and former Prime Minister, the Hon. P.J. Keating, said 'why would one want to give the powers of a King of England to a virtually unremovable elected president?' Thus it is apparent to republicans and constitutional monarchists alike that any constitution must have effective checks and balances. The current checks on the Governor-General for which republicans giving his powers to a president must find acceptable replacements are:

When exercising the powers vested in the Queen by the Constitution of 1901 but which she is denied the exercise of, that being vested solely in the Governor-General, convention binds the Governor-General to exercise them in a non party-political nature: they are not his personal powers he or she exercises (as they would become in the hands of a president) but the powers of a monarch above politics;
(ii) a Governor-General nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Queen has no political mandate from the people of Australia;
(iii) a Governor-General has no fixed tenure but being appointed 'at the Queen's pleasure' can be removed at any time on the advice of the Prime Minister. In contrast, a president elected for a five-year term would not only virtually unremovable, but if parliamentary elections are held every three years, must outlive the parliament which supports him or her (or during which the appointment is made). The president being a political figure, it is highly likely that he or she will often be out of sympathy of the elected parliament and the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the day, leading top considerable political friction and instability.

In Australia, the creation of States in the Constitution of 1901 also created a federal balance of powers which has altered over the century but which of itself is a form of check and balance on the exercise and political power. Replacing a neutral umpire (the Governor-General) with an elected politician as president will greatly alter that balance of power in a way rejected in the Convention that preceded the Constitution of 1901.

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