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Why exactly do we need a republic?

By Nick Ferrett - posted Thursday, 23 September 2004

In 1999, I voted in favour of the referendum to create a republic. I nearly didn’t. That was because I was so turned off by those who campaigned for the republic. Their air of “we know best” brought out my urge to defy them. At the last minute I decided that on an issue so important, one must be impervious to such small feelings. I voted “yes”.

I voted “yes” even though I was not attracted to the model on offer. It seemed to offer nothing more than symbolic change. I was persuaded that there was something inherently wrong with an important constitutional office being open only to a particular (but not particularly impressive) gene pool. At one level, I am still attracted to that view, but in the intervening years I have become more utilitarian in my views. In the language of the management consultant, I have become more “outcome-oriented”.

I ask these simple questions about the conversion to a republic, “Who would be better off?” and “Who would be more free?”


The answer to each is simple: “Nobody”.

Those questions and the identical answer encapsulate the difficulty for the republican movement: there is no good reason to waste time on their cause other than symbolism. “Ah”, you say, “but symbolism is important.” Yes it is, but not so important as to depart from a stable political system for an unknown one.

The other thing defined by those questions and the answers is the motif of the republican movement: its adherents dislike the idea of the monarchy because of what it is rather than because of its effect on the system of government. The motivation of the republican movement is not to pursue constitutional change for the better of the community at large, but rather to wipe out what it sees as a stain on our system of government. That is not a good enough reason for a constitutional change, particularly for the liberal who understands that government is not an end in itself. It satisfies liberal principles when it allows the pursuit of liberal principles within society. The current order does that to a greater extent, and the lesser extent to which it inhibits that pursuit has nothing to do with the fact of our constitutional monarchy.

The arrogance of the republican movement, its obsession with form over substance, is nowhere more evident than in the piece recently published on this site under the name of the ARM’s National Director, Ms Henry. Monarchists (as she generally calls all those who oppose her point of view) will supposedly simply roll out old arguments. She sneers that they have “nothing new to say” as though only an argument not previously stated has any validity. Her piece attempts thereby to define those who disagree with her out of the debate. That is the scariest thing about these self-appointed agents of constitutional change: they cannot brook the expression of an opposing view.

There are many exponents of the republic amongst the conservative and liberal tendencies in the Australian population but it is overwhelmingly a movement being run from the left. As such it bears the hallmarks of any modern left wing political campaign: an attempt to suppress opposing views together with an effort to make the choice one between the fashionable and the unfashionable.

The point of all this is that I simply don’t feel safe supporting constitutional change driven by such people. We have a state in which people are secure in their national identity. We have a state of which the citizens are generally proud. We have a state identified abroad as an independent and prosperous nation. There is simply no compelling argument, only a vague emotional one.


If we are to have constitutional change, let it be real and important - and let it be debated in a mature fashion. Let us address issues like the fact that the House of Representatives, designed as a deliberative assembly and a check on the executive, lacks the wherewithal to fulfil that role. Let us examine the fact that parliament’s house of review, the Senate, includes members of the government whose processes it is supposed to review.

The sad thing for the republican movement is that in a reform of the system of government to one which separates the executive from the legislature so that the executive might more easily be held accountable, there would be compelling reasons to have an Australian head of state in the form of a US-style executive president. The thing is that they doubt that they can achieve such change so they won’t fight for it. They don’t particularly want it. They just want to assuage their prejudice against the monarchy.

Their prejudices do not constitute a sufficient argument for change.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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