VOTING FOR AN AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC
Why Australia needs to care?
by James Travers-Murison
political and opinion writer on Australia’s constitution and political system, lawyer and first secretary of the Australian UOCA Republican Party.
You may not believe this but there is a major Western country on this world which still flies another country's flag on it's flag, which still has another nation's queen as it's head of state, which still has another state's regent on it's currency, and which still has a parliament that swears it's allegiance to another land's head of state.
This isn't some tiny forgotten colonial island in the West Indies in which washed up American millionaires spend their winter holidays.
This is Australia!
Australia in 1999 was in a perfect position to go into the new millenia as an independent Republic but it failed to do so. The issue died, and Labor has backed off it after negative results in the following two elections. However, now in 2008 Rudd's Labor are in power a good chance exists to present the correct model to the people which will be accepted.
PRIDE in ourselves and the strength to LOVE OUR COUNTRY AS OURSELVES as a completely independent nation will alter Australia's collective consciousness. This means it will alter our own PERSONAL ATTITUDE ABOUT OURSELVES. It gives us the OPPORTUNITY to attain not only more freedom, but also more self-respect and more responsibility in understanding who we really are as a people.
You may THINK it does not matter, but the long term consequences of sovereign independence for any country and their respect in the world of nations is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. And how we regard ourselves dictates how other's will regard us. Both personally and nationally.
The Convention in 1998 weakly recommended a Republican model differing little from our current Constitution. The President was not to be chosen by the people, but instead by the Prime Minister who then presented his candidate to parliament for approval requiring a 2/3 majority of the lower house. The President's powers still remained undefined. The Governor General's reserve powers were left as ambiguous as they were before, the President was to be a figurehead, who has power to intervene and dismiss the government in constitutional crisis where there is an abuse of power. However one anomaly was that the President, unlike the Governor General, could be dismissed by the Prime Minister at any time with a simple majority vote by the House of Representatives.
This means in a constitutional crisis, such as occurred in 1975 with Kerr and Whitlam, if the President attempted to dismiss the Prime Minister for abuse of power, the Prime Minister could simply dismiss the President. Even worse was this model allowed the Prime Minister to dismiss the President without requiring parliamentary approval first, and should this not be obtained there appeared to be no re-instatement of the President to office. In effect even if the Prime Minister was in a minority government he could get away with dismissing the President. A vital constitutional check was effectively destroyed if this model had been accepted - as ex-Governor-General Bill Hayden pointed out in his lecture ‘Half good is not good enough’. Fortunately it was rejected.
We must have an Australian President chosen directly by the people. To quote the Australian republican and constitutionalist Melbourne University Constitutional law lecturer Glen Patmore "At heart, Republicanism has always been about the moral claims on citizens in political communities aspiring to self determination." If this is to be the case and we are to be a joint bearer of the state's power then this self determination must mean what it says and the people must be empowered.
We must be trusted to vote for our head of state ourselves and not through any representatives, who we know full well are dictated to by their party machinery. To emphasise this political blindness entrenched in Australia, ex-Premier Rupert Hamer told me direct elections would result in political appointments. He was convinced selection of proper and upstanding candidates could be best achieved by parliamentary selection. Yet he seemed oblivious to the fact that John Kerr, Bill Hayden, Ninian Stephens and just about every other governor-general appointed by parliament were ex-ministers or ex-high court judges.
To allow any less than direct presidential elections would be defeating the purpose of having a republic, which is all about decisions by the people. Giving them a sense of personal say in their government and a chance to elect who they want to.
The fear of wealthy people's dominating any elections citing America as an example is disproven by the former US President Clinton who is not a millionaire, nor from the ultra wealthy class, furthermore countries such as Iceland, Portugal, France and Ireland directly elect their Presidents and there has been no claim they are any more monopolised by wealth than any other heads of state. Ireland's President was actually a very down to earth woman.
A weak compromise to please the bureaucratic party dictatorships resulted from the Convention. Old boys clubs and lawyers, who especially amongst the Liberals lock the gates to the people, largely run the two main power parties, the Liberals and Labor. It is unfortunate they do not regard "the people" as intelligent enough to make their own minds up. Direct presidential elections, trusting the Australian people, trusting us, was pushed to one side.
Another failure of the Convention was that it was absolutely essential the Constitution be amended to unambiguously define the President's powers. The Convention's delegates declined to recommend this. Undefined powers of the Governor-General led to the confusion of the Prime Minister Whitlam's dismissal. The opposition controlled the senate and had blocked revenue. Whitlam refused to call an election. It was only a tradition that required an election. Nothing was directly stated in the Constitution.
The days of cloak and dagger tradition hidden in the mumbo jumbo of reserve powers need to be forever put to death. We need to define the President's powers. A true Republic requires us to know what the President's powers are as this is her or his highest responsibility to "the people".
The Constitutional Convention recommended the President be given no powers or executive responsibilities, even in relation to Australia's international relationships. No ability to introduce such bills to parliament. No limited forms of legislative veto. No powers of review, nor appeal, nor amnesty in relation to international matters, nor matters directly affecting the rights of the people.
Unfortunately it appeared we would not have a President who we could say actually does something! Who we can be proud of! Who can provide a check, a balance to our very archaic and totalitarian party system. If Australia really wants to grow up it needs to empower the people, and empowering its President is one way to do this and in the end may be the only way to free Australia from its colonial baggage. A President with limited executive powers would do a lot to achieve this. However it appears unlikely this will occur in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore the entire Constitution needs to be rewritten and Australia needs to end its system of the party dictatorship and do the hard work of altering the Constitution and enacting a bill of Rights, an indigenous treaty, and proportional representation in the House of Representatives, State-Federal power duplication removed and enforced conformity between states laws. A stratifying of the States to conform their laws. IR reform that increases workers rights and protections while boosting wealth and employment. A total end to refugee detention centres. Fixed four year terms. A Constitution that shares power so that the extremes of party politics and the disasters they produce are mitigated. By this I mean % of Ministerial seats awarded according to the % of vote won for each party -following a modified form of the Swiss Confederacy political system of representation following the Grand Coalition appointing a Federal Council using a magic formula who are in effect the ministers. An Australian system would be more transparent as there are restrictions on disclosure by the council and the formula would be entrenched in the constitution rather than just an agreement. In effect joint rule. The best of both sides incorporated into government. No more would there be the extremes faced on changing government with the damage that causes in dare I say our schizophrenic system. Liberals are best with the economy but Labor is best with social reform and industrial relations. Why not work together to make the best for Australia. This new system will force us to cooperate with each other and avoid the extreme neglect that happened to the poor in Australia during Howard's rule. I witnessed it. It may also have avoided the criminal treatment of refugees, going into a messy unjust war, stripping back Aboriginal rights and so on. It may have resulted in getting the right IR laws in place, so on. It would also mean that on losing an election it does not mean that all the Ministries are lost as well, instead only a small number would change hands on each election. The Holy Cows in the party would most likely retain some form of power in government despite losing the PM. This is the best way to change the system - the most democratic way to reform the current system. And the best system to put in place in the new Republic and once explained to the people properly should be embraced by both sides. Also accepting that we are a large nation and a continent that can easily support 50 million people, so should increase immigration and remove the ridiculous restrictions on particularly people coming from the mother country, Britain - in fact encouraging them to come here. And welcoming all regardless of race, creed or religion.
Despite the Convention and its rejection in the first referendum, Australia still needs to tackle and resolve this Republican issue when next it raises its head, which it will, if it wants to have a president who isn't a piece of pretty ceremonial tinsel carrying a powder keg. Hopefully there is still a chance to alter this by putting up a proper model at the next referendum. However with Australia's entrenched party political system and conservative nature, this is going to be a tall card to call and it will only be through the voice of ordinary Australians using ‘people power’ to demand equity that the correct model will be emplaced.
Kevin Rudd has said he won't touch the issue; perhaps he is wise given the ramifications of failure. However he also has a massive mandate from a people fed up with Howard's sychophantic monarchism, including the Liberal's themselves. With a 70% approval rating after apologising to the Aboriginals, perhaps Kevin can take a little dare to test the waters by suggesting another convention. But put in a little bit more effort than Howard to make sure the model is correct. With his handpicked 2020 Convention he may have manipulated the public into getting this green light. Perhaps Kevin is closer to the Chinese way of thinking about consensus than he realises. Chairman Kevin Tse Tung...? By 2020??
UOCA supports a People's Republic for Australia with a completely new constitution - see UOCA Politics. The phasing out of the party system together with capitalism for a new form of communism and direct democratic participation.