Oh dear, here we go again. The Australian Republican Movement is still carrying on as if its referendum loss in 1999 never happened, plugging the tired old theme about how simple it would be for Australia to slip off the anachronistic cloak of monarchy in favour of the sharp, modern attire of a 21st century presidency.
The ARM’s media director, David Donovan, laboured the "it’s so easy" analogy to breaking point in a recent article in which he described Australia “as a beautiful house with a brick missing” or “a runner that has almost completed a race, but has decided to sit down on the track metres from the finishing tape”.
He descends into farce when he tries to bolster this facile argument with the grim warning: “it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a future monarch, perhaps one who sees himself as something of an activist in world affairs, may one day decide to test his Australian powers” – not unless Charles I comes back from the dead David!
As well as giving us all a bit of a laugh, Mr Donovan is totally lacking in the ability to apply serious thought to what Australians want the future shape of their governments to be – and it was quite obvious from the 1999 result they do not want the ARM’s brand of Republic Lite whereby the Governor General at Yarralumla is overnight transformed into a president, appointed in the same way as he or she is currently appointed, holding the same powers (or lack of them) that the office holds at present, while we all breath a sigh of relief and carry on as if nothing has happened.
Australians rejected this lazy, laid-back throw-another-prawn-on-the-barbie approach to constitutional change. The restrictive nature of the questions they were asked at the referendum meant they had no opportunity to say what they really wanted, but it was certainly not what the ARM thought would be good for them then and what the organisation is still banging the drum for today.
In the end they voted for the status quo. That is not because they are attached to a British Head of State (although the current popularity of The King’s Speech movie shows Australia’s fascination with royalty is far from dead). They simply didn’t want a model based on a ceremonial, powerless puppet giving garden parties on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, opening fetes, and making motherhood speeches to Scouts Australia.
But if, as has been suggested, most Australians want a president directly elected by the people, then they are entering uncharted and possibly dangerous territory. An elected Head of State would, quite reasonably, claim to have a mandate – one that could easily be different to that of the government of the day.
What if, for instance, two years into the term of an unpopular government a president was elected on a platform that included dismissing that government and calling an election? Under the current system, an elected presidency would be a built-in invitation to constitutional crisis.
If we do prefer an elected presidency, we have to have a constitution that clearly defines its powers and its relationship with Parliament and the Government. The Irish model has been suggested, but whatever is decided, it will mean taking the current 1901 constitution and going through it line by line.
Politicians will react in horror at this. They will point out that only eight of 44 referendums on constitutional change over the past century have been approved. Sir Robert Menzies once described the task of getting an affirmative referendum vote as “a labour of Hercules”, but he was talking about single-issue changes that were tinkering around the edges. No one has tested Australians with the idea of an entirely revamped constitution, fitted for a republican model at which everything was on the table.
This might include, for instance, the question of whether the Federal system, established in the days of the horse and buggy, needs to be continued when communications across the continent are virtually instantaneous. At the very least some of the ancient redundancies such as the provision that Parliament sit in Melbourne until a national capital is established, or that there be a session of Parliament “once at least in every year” could be removed or brought up to date.
There are clearly problems with the system as it stands: the death throes of the lamentable Labor Government in NSW, the incidences of corruption and inefficiencies that seem to crop up everywhere suggest we do not have enough people of ability and responsibility to handle the levers of power in Canberra, six states and two territories.
It will, however, take a leader of outstanding qualities to guide Australia down this path. The current minority federal government is clearly incapable and, I suspect future administrations will also cite the need for more “important and immediate considerations” to be addressed. The accession of King Charles III will elevate the debate back into the public consciousness and may even result in another mishandled and ultimately futile referendum.
While governments continue to place the issue of fundamental constitutional change in the too hard basket, Australia is likely to bumble on as a constitutional monarchy with the republic an unattainable prize just over the horizon.
As for the ARM it appears, like the Bourbon Monarchy in France, that it has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.