Home > Oz Politics > Queen's Birthday Message

Queen's Birthday Message

June 14th, 2004

Like racehorses, Australia’s monarchs[1] all have the same official birthday, normally the second Monday in June (according to today’s Oz, this was based on the actual birthday of George IV III). It’s fair to say that, of all Australian public holidays, this is the one for which the official occasion is most completely ignored. (Labour Day isn’t marked by much, but taking the day off is an observance in itself).

This leads to some general thoughts about when and how Australia will become a republic. This proposal continues to attract the support of a majority of Australians (52 to 32 per cent according to a 2003 Newspoll). This majority wasn’t affected much by Howard’s referendum on the topic, nor is this referendum regarded as closing the issue. Another Newspoll found that 57 per cent of people would welcome a new referendum.

As the non-observance of the Queen’s birthday shows, only a small minority of Australians, mostly people over 50 or migrants from Britain[2], feels any emotional tie to the British monarchy or to Britain. This is reflected in the Newspoll showing only 18 per cent strongly opposed to a republic.

On the other hand, the last referendum showed that there was little enthusiasm for a merely nominal change, calling the Governor-General a President and maintaining the elective autocracy of the Prime Minister.

This means that the only serious alternative to the status quo is a directly elected President. There are plenty of logistical obstacles in the way to this, the most important of which would be the need for the President’s powers to be codified and restricted. Nevertheless, my judgement is that we will become a republic in the term of the next Labor government, which will hopefully begin this year.

The obvious route would be a two-stage process, beginning with a plebiscite on whether we should become a republic. This ought to be done on a preferential basis with the alternatives being the status quo, Parliamentary appointment of the President and direct election. Assuming that direct election wins, it should then have the moral force to be carried at a referendum.

fn1. Better known, of course, as Kings or Queens of England. As an aside, one question that occurs to me in this context is whether the British Act of Settlement, which requires that the monarch be a Protestant is consistent with Australian law, beginning with the Constitution, which prohibits an Established Church.

fn2. Under a rather unsatisfactory ‘grandfather’ clause, British subjects who were on the Australian electoral roll before 1984 are permitted to vote in Australian elections even though they are noncitizens. Most of the time, this doesn’t make much difference as they don’t vote as a bloc. However, it’s obvious that Britons who have lived here for more than 20 years without being naturalized are more likely than the average Australian to favor close links with their homeland.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:
  1. Geoff Honnor
    June 14th, 2004 at 16:12 | #1

    I think the Oz may have it wrong. George IV was born in August so it’s not his birthday. George III was born on June 4 and by convention the official observance of the Royal Birthday has tended to be in the general vicinity of that date ever since – presumably to engender mminimum inconvenience to established observance rhythms…

  2. Jack Strocchi
    June 14th, 2004 at 16:26 | #2

    Isn’t it a little ungallant of a Professor in the premier university of state known as Queensland to mark Her Majesty’s birthday by calling for Her to be given the sack?
    I am not against the Republic in principle, more annoyed that the debate over constitutional change is essentially trivialised by a squabble over the identity of the person who gets to cut the ribbons at christenings.
    A couple of words of gratuitous, but friendly, advice to my Jacobinite friends in the Republican movememt. If you want to change the constitution, run with an issue of substance, not formalities or process. Tackle the the constitutional implications of Emerging Key Technologies (pdf) for citizenship or the political implications of the need to fully fund the warfare state of an independent nation, without cutting the welfare state.
    Also, you might want to try and lose the the vaultingly-ambitious lawyers, jumped-up celebrities and professional Irishman-types that seems to rise to the surface of the Republican movement.
    In the meantime, it would be nice if all her loyal subjects joined in with me in wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday.
    Hip, Hip…(x 3)

  3. wmmbb
    June 14th, 2004 at 17:30 | #3

    The moot point, with reference to JS, is how many loyal subjects has she got left, or indeed should she or her descendants have any, given that she is at best a medieval, and at worst a imperial constitutional mechanism?
    The critical constitutional issue is the powers exercised by the Prime Minister, and the role of the Head of State. I still think that a president directly accountable to Parliament would work well, and would prefer that the power of Parliament be increased, relative to the executive. Perhaps the answer is to codify the powers of the PM?

  4. June 14th, 2004 at 18:53 | #4

    We could go the way of South Africa which effectively merges the posts of prime minister and president, but with much more careful checks on the executive power.

  5. Blair Fairman
    June 14th, 2004 at 22:08 | #5

    The Act of Settlement may clash with the EU Human Rights Acts. So a Catholic Heir to the throne could possibly challenge the rules on succession. Now that would create chaos.

  6. James Farrell
    June 16th, 2004 at 02:05 | #6

    ‘…the last referendum showed that there was little enthusiasm for a merely nominal change.’

    As I recall, around half of the no-vote in the referendum came from monarchists, according to the polls, and the other half from republicans. So I suspect only about a quarter of the population preferred a directly elected president.

    I never heard a good argument against the Turnbull proposal, and the fact that a quarter of the population don’t find it exciting is not one either. (They’re probably the same people that think that ‘sexed up’ is inspired vocabulary.) The Turnbull system would give us more William Deanes; direct election will give us Alan Jones.

  7. June 16th, 2004 at 11:06 | #7

    The polls showed majority support for an elected president throughout the convention and referendum. There were problems with the Turnbull model.

    The French Third Republic used the Turnbull system. ClĂ©menceau, asked who to elect president, famously said: ‘I always vote for the most stupid’. Moreover, could Turnbull actually point to any historical case in a democratic country where an elected ceremonial president had usurped the functions of the prime minister?

  8. gordon
    June 16th, 2004 at 12:50 | #8

    Well, for once I agree with J.Strocchi. Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! Hip, Hip, Hooray!

    She does little if any harm. The republican movement, on the other hand, is a nice little vehicle for the politically ambitious whose egos outrun their policy ability, or who think that policy is a liability and only image and spin count. There are lots of fellow-travellers who enjoy agreeing with each other and the influential leaders of the republican movement, in hopes of getting invited to a better class of cocktail party and/or getting some sort of job. The outrage is manufactured.

    For the record, the referendum led me to consider under what circumstances I would vote for a republic. I have three prerequisites: (1)direct election of the Head of State, (2)careful Constitutional limitation of his/her powers (no more undefined “reserve powers”) with a strong preference for a purely ceremonial figurehead, and (3)a Bill of Rights with Constitutional standing. In any future referendum (provoked for purposes of self-advertisement by cocktail-drinkers aforesaid), I’ll just go down my little list. Three out of three and no weasel words, or I vote “No”.

  9. June 16th, 2004 at 15:13 | #9

    Sigh.

    JQ, your prejudices are blinding you to some very important things, as well as minor matters like “Kings or Queens of England” (there haven’t been any since the Act of Union in 1707, longer ago than Australia’s European settlement). You are treading all over some very important risk areas, including the mistake Bremer made in excluding the Sadrites and the three inherent weaknesses of democracy:-

    - It can be rigged by agenda control and selective editing (only put your desired options in desired combinations, keep asking until the people get it right and then stop – sorry, “until the people are ready” – what part of the word “no” etc.).

    - It does not justify, that is, voting cannot make wrong right or vice versa, it can only give expression to the ethical sense of the electorate (there is a special case which acts as though democracy justified, which is when the subject matter really does belong to the people and is only the people’s concern – but that does not actually justify, it merely aligns).

    - It cannot define “we, the people”, as that is too circular; at the risk of using jargon, questions of identity are only ever solved exogenously.

    The first prejudice to leap to mind is where you put “…some general thoughts about when and how Australia will become a republic”. You are building in your own position in the form of the question you put, by omitting certain real options – like, not becoming a republic. This is the first weakness of democracy, agenda control.

    The next one is the Bremer mistake, where you state (incorrectly) that “Under a rather unsatisfactory ‘grandfather’ clause, British subjects who were on the Australian electoral roll before 1984 are permitted to vote in Australian elections even though they are noncitizens.” (Emphasis added.)

    To call that unsatisfactory and wish for it to be eliminated is to commit the Bremer mistake, wishing to disenfranchise people in order to achieve a desired (by you) result. The error lies in omitting the consequences of the strain on the polity of lifting with your back, leaving people off side and having to deal with them rather than getting them on side and drawing strength from them. But as you know all this, you are probably supposing that it is only a little cost. That doesn’t matter, these things grow like being a little bit pregnant, and the error of principle if not of amount is that of Bremer.

    There are further errors in there on the identity issue. The factual error is that it is not British subjects who benefit, in the narrow sense of the term now used, British passport holders – it is all British subjects under the other, older, conflicting sense of identity. As well as today’s British passport holders there are true blue Australians who only ever got British passports sixty-odd years ago, and whose natural reaction – based on their own understanding of identity – is that they fought for King and Country and that should be good enough. It was the attitude of Spike Milligan whose nose got out of joint when he found he would have to be registered as an immigrant since he and his parents had been born in India. This different sense of identity means that Canadians and New Zealanders benefit too.

    This is the sense of identity that the imperialist Lord Milner meant when he said that though he had never been there, he felt as entitled to call himself a citizen of Australasia as any other British subject already there. It is the sense of identity that moved Billy Hughes in his efforts at imperial federalism, and moved Menzies in 1939 – and which today’s intelligentsia misrepresent as confusion on his part.

    Today’s sense of identity is the same sense in which Howard (wrongly) supposes Australians should have equal rights in Norfolk Island; actually, there should be as much local autonomy for Norfolk Island as the British Empire gave it – and as much deeper unity as today’s sense cannot contemplate. Howard is repeating Whitlam’s error over the Cocos-Keeling Islands.

    And, of course, to someone of my scattered background this deeper sort of heritage is all there is that I carry within me. I will not idly give it up, I will respect my grandfather’s career in the Falkland Islands and British Guiana.

    Now look again at those different senses of identity from the point of view of achievable steps. You, JQ, wish to promote a Keatingesque view, the narrow product of a single hand – the equivalent of a little englander a century ago. Yet the cosmopolitanism, the cultural inheritance, is all that ever was valuable in the British Empire and all that still remains; such things cannot be built or remade, they must grow and grow in. They should be drawn on, not euthanased, or else all that we have left is a materialistic dependence on the USA as an outside guarantor. We still have half of what appears on Melbourne’s Boer War memorial: “fighting for the unity of the Empire which is our strength and common heritage” – the common heritage. It is valuable, not to be thrown away lightly, since the USA and Asia can never give us this, the things that make us what we are. And in any case I deplore social engineering from the old conservative perspective: “when it it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”.

    Related to the Bremer mistake, there is the idea that this old view is actually dead and should be buried as a matter of public hygiene. Well, that is what the grandfathering does – though I and many others feel we would be better served by blowing on the embers. This grandfathering, done right, manages a transition. It is much like the “optant” machinery that eased Schleswig-Holstein into Germany after 1864, or Heligoland after the 1890s. Done wrong, optant arrangements were harsh and penal, giving the appearance of consent, as in Transylvania’s transfer from Hungary to Romania in the 1920s. What you want to do with Australia’s grandfathering, JQ, is switch from burial to euthanasia and do everything wrong. Wrong both ethically by marginalising the other identity, and in an engineering way by loading the polity with an unneeded burden.

    Behind all that is the assumption that a republic is not only a desirable but an easy thing. What is easy, is white anting – but that does not make what was the worse option workable, it only makes the others worse still. But I have gone into all this at length in some of my pages; go and see what my researches told me, at http://users.netlink.com.au/~peterl/CONST001.HTML, http://users.netlink.com.au/~peterl/CONST002.HTML and http://users.netlink.com.au/~peterl/CONST003.HTML. I am not speaking from prejudice or I would be as Billy-be-damned as my other grandfather, the Irishman who emigrated to France just after the First World War, who out of principle refused to use his English language skills for a British employer but worked for American Express instead, and whose brother Leopold went on to become the Irish Minister to Madrid during the Second World War. No, if I see an Australian republic as dangerous, unnecessary and not even a pleasant prospect, it is from reviewing both my own values and what is in the deck of cards.

  10. gordon
    June 16th, 2004 at 21:05 | #10

    Do have another martini, Prof. Quiggin, and tell us again how wonderful a republic will be. I shall be so glad not to have to make excuses to my American friends about the Queen any more! Especially since we’ll be seeing so much more of them soon – don’t you know that some of them have arranged to buy Queensland as soon as the FTA is all finished? Oh, don’t tell anybody, it’s probably still secret or something. They’re going to rename it Bushland! Isn’t that sweet? Sounds like detergent. Then we can go in to dinner; we’re having Republican Ragout – everything boiled for so long it’s really tender and everything tastes the same. I reelly think you’ll love it!

Comments are closed.