Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
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Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Home : Politics Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

 

 

The problem with the Australian Republican Movement
or
Why anti-democrats alone cannot usher in an Australian republic

The Australian Republican Movement has made a laudable attempt to reinvigorate the republic debate with its sponsorship of the release of six preambles to our Constitution. The wording of the preambles and the continuing preoccupation of the ARM on the issue of the head of state, however, illustrate that 'the Movement' remains every bit as chiliastic and nationalist as it was during the republic referendum in November 1999. Democracy and the enshrinement of the Australian people as sovereign, it appears, continue to be poor cousins in the ARM republican vision.


From its inception, the ARM regarded the republic as an issue of national identity. In 1993 Malcolm Turnbull wrote, "a nation defines itself by being different… the republic is the cause of Australia.' Worrying as nationalism in its own right is, the most troubling aspect of this focus was that it excluded the enhancement of Australia's democracy as a primary cause for constitutional reform. This is how Paul Keating's Republican Advisory Committee and the ARM arrived at the 'minimalist' republic model - ostensibly minimal constitutional change and indubitably only allowing for a trifling participation by the people.


In 1999 the ARM's anti-royalist campaign (which threatened us with King Charles III and irreparable harm to our international reputation if we continued with a constitutional monarchy) focussed on the twin issues of our head of state being 'one of us' and the need for Australia to cut ties with Mother England as an aspect of our national evolution. Yet the constitution proposed continued arrangements in the best colonial tradition.

The head of state was largely a revamped Governor-General, holding only ceremonial powers and with the office imbued with all the pomp and ceremony of Old England. The Prime Minister in the proposed republic would have reigned supreme, true to the English tradition described by Lord Hailsham as the 'elective dictatorship'. The ARM and its 'minimalist' supporters stressed that our head of state should be 'above politics' - retaining that dreamy English vision of a somewhat divine monarchical judgement above the soil of contemporary life.

In advocating the parliamentary appointment of a head of state over direct election the former Victorian convenor of the ARM, John Hirst, tellingly asked "why should a person eminent in his or her field risk having their reputation besmirched in a contested election?" At the time many wondered why, if we were to truly cut ties with England, we would retain its pomposity at the zenith of our political system.

Bolstered by its anti-British nationalism the ARM forged ahead with its 'minimalist' republican model, ensuring a divisive split in republican ranks and the failure of the referendum. Republicans concerned at enhancing our democracy were rightly repelled at the entrenchment of political elites that constituted the ARM republic and opposed it.


The ARM of today, however, is tempered with respect to the role and influence of the major political parties and their apparatchiks, offering six models for an Australian republic - three of which are said to be founded on popular sovereignty (only two are). Australians would be wise to remember that this accommodation of their persistent and overwhelming aspiration (a November 2002 Newspoll showed that support for direct election among republicans surveyed was 75%) was arrived at by the ARM only after its defeat in 1999 due to its staggering conceit.

The ARM focus on the head of state as 'one of us' (over and above any consideration of enhancing democracy) is unrelenting. In announcing the launch of the preambles in a media alert on 6 June, the ARM stated that it "remains a broadly based organisation that is solely focussed on the need for an Australian Head of State".


It appears, however, that 'the Movement' today concurs with Professor George Winterton's prophecy in 1999 that, "If the referendum fails, a popularly elected presidency will be the only realistic option." In the end the ARM must realise that a fierce democratic spirit is inherent in the Australian people and that Australians do not want politicians to be their political masters but their servants.


What of the preambles themselves? Unfortunately it seems democracy doesn't rate too highly among our literati, with only two of the six having the courage and/or wherewithal to even mention the word. While freedom and the right to life and liberty are mentioned in most of the preambles, the notion that the Australian people are sovereign, that they are the ultimate source of (and have granted unto others) executive authority escapes the attention of every author. Instead of this critical democratic underpinning of the sovereignty of the people, we have ARM-like nationalist sentiment - from the dreamy (Richard Flanagan) to the acerbic (Peter Carey).

Perhaps (and unfortunately) the authors regard such expressions of democracy as "legally dangerous", which is how Professor Greg Craven of Notre Dame University has described any specific commitment to democracy in the preamble. As the republic debate rolls on, which it will, let's hope that we can be true to what we say - that we can found a polity which is a true thing of the people.

Justin O'Brien

 

 

 

 


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