Australia Day seems like a suitable occasion to look at the question of whether and how Australia should become a republic. The whether question is, in my view, straightforward. Monarchy is an undemocratic institution. The monarch in a constitutional monarchy is at best, a dignified but powerless figurehead and at worst an undemocratic centre of power. In Australia’s case, the monarchical role is split between a political appointee with significant (if only occasional) power and a hereditary foreign monarch whose powers are presumed (but only presumed) to be nonexistent. The contribution of this setup to national dignity is negative.
Turning to the “how”, this issue has, in my view been simplified by Howard’s cleverness in defeating the republic last time around. The idea of an appointed President has been put to the people and rejected. Hence, there is no need or justification for a multistage procedure (agreement in principle to a republic, choice of model, ratification of choice). The appropriate approach is to choose a model for an elective presidency, then present the appropriate constitutional changes as a referendum. If that fails*, we should stick with the status quo.
Looking at the lineup of support, I think there are five main groups that can be distinguished. First, there are unconditional republicans, that is, those who would support any reasonable republican model, whatever their preference. Next, there are minimalists, those who would support a republic if and only if it involved no significant change in the existing power structure, which entails some form of appointive presidency. On the other wing of the republican support are those who support an elective presidency, and prefer the status quo to an appointive model. Fourth, there are status quo conservatives, including both those who think the current constitutional model is the best available and those who simply vote “No” to any referendum proposal against which opposition is mounted. Finally, there are those whose support for the status quo is based on attachment to the British monarchy as an institution or to the Queen herself.
The fifth group is shrinking over time and has, I think been further disheartened by the (tactically sound) insistence of anti-republicans that the Queen is not our head of state and should not be discussed when the issue of the republic is debated. Given the reliance of this form of monarchism on tradition and emotion as opposed to rationalist arguments about constitional design (not necessarily a bad thing, by the way), the “don’t mention the Queen” attitude of groups like Australians for Constitutional Monarchy must erode its base over time.
Both the fourth and fifth groups have been weakened, I think, by the politicisation of the Governor-General’s office, including the Hollingworth fiasco, the adoption of clearly political stances by both Deane and Jeffreys and the continuing squabbles over whether the GG or PM should open things like the Olympic Games.
The crucial political issue is the relative size of the second (minimalist) and third (direct election) groups. The ARM was a coalition of minimalists and those unconditional republicans who judged that the minimalists were the crucial swing votes for a republic. They were proved wrong by the result of the referendum. It’s my judgement that, when push comes to shove, the number of true minimalists will prove very small, particularly if the election procedure for the President allows some sort of Parliamentary screening, sufficient to prevent the major parties from running candidates (in practice, I doubt that such candidates would win, but that couldn’t be proved in time for a referendum.
Obviously, nothing will happen until Howard goes. At that point, the opponents of the republic will find it hard to come up with a leader of stature It’s unclear if Costello would do anything about the issue, but I assume Latham would do so reasonably soon after getting elected.. Although carrying a referendum is always difficult in Australia, I predict that a model for a directly elected president, inheriting the current powers of the GG would be successful.
*Given our constitutional setup, there’s the possibility of winning a majority of votes but not of states. This would leave the issue unresolved.
Reality check After writing this, I checked the latest Newspoll which suggests stable majority support for the general idea of a republic (51-32 with 32 per cent strongly pro and only 18 per cent strongly anti). On the other hand, it seems unlikely that GG Jeffrey’s political statements have had much impact, given that only 7 per cent of respondents could name him.