Reading Greg Barns’ attempt to breathe life
into the scattered bones of Australian republicanism, I was struck by the
contrast between him and another republican, the late Associate Professor
Patrick O’Brien. Paddy O’Brien, as he was universally known, was a
republican of a far different mould to members of the Australian
Republican Movement. Tall, unkempt, fond of a drink and a cigarette, he
was an academic of the old school. By all accounts, he was the enfant
terrible of the Constitutional Convention. He must have left cosmetics
wonder girl Poppy King a little confused.
His lectures were always entertaining. O’Brien had a formidable grasp
of modern European and American history; furthermore he knew every
skeleton in every closet and what lived under each rock in Australia’s
political and cultural landscape. He was, to a large extent, a Cold War
Warrior, a product of the 20th Century, liberal democracy’s
struggle against totalitarianism of the Right and Left. That struggle had
a personal element; his older brother was killed in Korea.
O’Brien was not a Cold War Warrior because he was a conservative
reactionary (he was anything but), rather because he, like Edmund Burke,
feared grand Utopian ideas and their inevitable cost in human life. He was
deeply opposed to those who believed morality was found in the ends, not
the means; the arrogant revolutionary, personified by Maximilian
Robespierre, was his villain.
He believed in openness and accountability; he saw the dangers of WA
Inc all too clearly, and wrote extensively on its shortcomings. A few
years later, despite the criticism, he was proved right. He was also
deeply critical of the executive’s dominance of the legislature in the
Westminster system; the republic debate was, for O’Brien, a chance to
improve Australia’s political system. This contrasts sharply with the
Australian Republican Movement (ARM), which sees the republic as a
demonstration of Australia’s ‘maturity’. The ARM reduced to its
basic elements, is not republican, it is a nationalist movement.
Phillip Pettit, in an article published in Legislative Studies
in 1992, identifies three broad themes that characterise republicanism.
First, the anti-monarchical motif, second the rule of law, and third the
rule of virtue. The anti-monarchical motif was premised on the notion that
a Republic is a state without hereditary rulers. However, as Pettit
observes the anti-monarchical motif was essentially ‘an expression of
the deeper idea that Republics are meant to be governed by the rule of
law.’ Hereditary rulers aren’t the problem, hereditary tyrants are.
Pettit argues that the three themes of republicanism combined to create
an idea of personal liberty best defined as freedom from interference, a
notion embraced by the likes of Paddy O’Brien. The political scientist
Robert Dahl expanded on these themes.
He argued that "republicans view the major threat to civic virtue
generated by factions and political conflicts". To lessen this
threat, Dahl argues, republicans assume that the people are not a
homogenous body. Rather, they are divided, pursuing sectional interests
and short-term goals; conflict is therefore inherent. To accommodate this
conflict, the state requires checks and balances, the extension of which
is mixed and balanced government.
The idea of mixed and balanced government underpinned the British
Constitution, especially so after the Glorious Revolution. For Montesquieu
the British had, with the Monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of
Commons, "the very epitome of a perfectly balanced system of
During the 18th century, Greek democratic thought fused with
elements of the Roman Republican tradition, the product being the
democratic republicanism of men like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.
Democratic republicans, finding the mixed and balanced government of the
aristocratic republicans dubious, embraced the idea of a separation of
powers. The executive, legislative, and the judiciary had to be located in
separate institutions if a concentration of power was to be avoided.
Aristocratic and democratic republican traditions, after a process of
evolution, enshrined representative government and political equality.
Robert Dahl argues that Greek democratic thought, the republicanism of
Rome, representative government and political equality are the four
underlying themes of modern democracy.
Republicanism is more than a dislike of monarchy. It is the dislike of
an absolute monarchy, absolute power. The Crown, held in check by the rule
of law and the representative bodies of government is perfectly compatible
with traditional republican ideals. On the other hand, Australian
republicanism, typified by the likes of Paul Keating, Malcolm Turnbull and
Greg Barns, is merely a dislike of monarchy, because it is English.
The republicanism espoused by Paddy O’Brien was more than the
nationalistic symbolism of the ARM; indeed despite his obvious Gaelic
roots, nationalism never came into it. He recognised that the symbol of
the Crown was powerful and provided a check. O’Brien regarded the ARM
plan, removing any reference to the Queen and Governor-General in the
Constitution, replacing them with a President elected by a two-thirds
majority of a joint parliamentary sitting, as dangerous. It would increase
the dominance of the parties; the executive and legislature would be ever
tightly bound and the loss of the symbol of the Crown would leave a gaping
hole in the body politic. O’Brien wanted to replace the sovereignty of
the Crown with one of the People. He argued for a strengthen of the
independence of states, a rigorous separation of powers, and an elected
Head of State, like the Crown, to ensure the protection of the people. O’Brien’s
model was and is truly republican. The ARM’s model is,
counter-intuitively, less Republican. Rather than divide, it fuses.