At the present time, republicans are drawing breath either between
defeat and victory, or between defeat and future catastrophe. It is a good
time to think deeply on matters of principle, without becoming too
absorbed in the usual debilitating republican game of "my model is
bigger than yours".
At the same time, we can never lose sight of the fact that
republicanism ultimately is a practical question. Nothing is more brutally
practical than the necessity to win a referendum under the Australian
Constitution. We cannot afford to be Peter Pan republicans, designing and
re-designing the republic of Never-Never Land.
What this means is that while we certainly need to imagine a republic,
we must at the same time carefully plan how we are going to implement it.
At this stage of the republican debate, therefore, there are probably
three issues worth thinking about.
- Definition. What is a republic, and who is to be counted as a
- Design. What types of constitutional changes would produce a
satisfying and effective republic?
- Practicality. What form of republic would as a matter of reality be
approved by the Australian people at referendum?
The issue of definition is a crucial one, as unless one knows what a
"republican" is, it is impossible to define a republican
solution. The problem in Australia is that there is a strong difference of
view over who is entitled to wear a republican guernsey.
A narrow view is that anyone who wants an Australian head of state is a
republican. No more is required. On this definition, many Liberal
Conservatives, such as Peter Costello (and myself) are republicans.
A wider view, however, holds that a republican must subscribe to a
"republican" constitutional agenda. This typically includes an elected
head of state, constitutional guarantees of human rights (such as a bill
of rights), and a general conviction that the Australian Constitution is
not a very impressive document.
The crucial point in this debate is that, if one takes the wide view of
republicanism, then what might be termed "conservative
republicans" are off the republican team. They share none of the
suppositions of broad republicans. They do not want an elected President.
They are suspicious of bills of rights. They regard the Australian
Constitution as, if not perfect, then very, very, good.
On this exclusionary basis, "republicanism" ceases to be a
concept that potentially unites Australians across a wide political
spectrum in favour of a particular, nationalistic constitutional reform.
Rather, it becomes simply a label for the traditional programme of the
constitutional Left. This is a programme not for a republic, but for a
re-constitution. By definition, it can never attract general political
These issues of definition have profound implications in relation to
republican design and practicality.
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