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Democracy is our servant

By Nick Ferrett - posted Friday, 17 March 2006

So Lyn Allison wants to bid Queen Elizabeth farewell not only from our shores but from our constitution. With the glibness which partly explains the consistent failure of the republican movement, she dismisses our current constitution as the work of “upper class mediocrities” and the decision of the people at the 1999 referendum as a triumph of conservative machiavellianism - a right-wing plot. While trying to portray her view as one which a mature nation would hold, she betrays herself with the language of adolescent rebellion.

Here is what I mean.

The senator asserts that “democracy demands” that Australians be entitled to run for and elect the Australian head of state. That statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of our society. If our goal is to live lives of comparative freedom in society with one another, then democracy may be a means, but not an end. Democracy is not entitled to demand anything. It is our servant, not our master.


The argument for republicanism fails despite the prevailing sympathy for the idea of it. At a visceral level, I am sympathetic to it. The argument fails because it cannot be crystallised into a better system of government than we have now. By that, I mean that the republican movement cannot articulate how any of us will be freer, wealthier, more committed to each other, more patriotic. Republicans cannot articulate how any of those things might come about in their utopia chiefly because there is no reason to suspect that their utopia might bring any of them about.

The consistent theme of the republican argument has not had anything to do with a better system of government or a better society. Rather, the consistent theme of the republican argument has been an exercise in cultural cringe. We can’t have a “Pom” as our head of state. It’s time an Aussie was our head of state. The rest of the world doesn’t take us seriously.

All of this is nonsense. Government is not a manifestation of our society. It is a servant of our society. Its mechanisms are there to ensure that our society works, not to serve a short-sighted prejudice. There is no point in changing a system of government which has delivered a safe, civil, liberal society but there is great danger in doing so.

After nearly 20 years’ membership of the Liberal Party, a couple of years as a political staffer and six years as a barrister, I am absolutely convinced that the single most important ingredient in a system of laws and government is culture. Written rules are almost meaningless without a culture dedicated to their observance and compliance with them. I have experienced something close to all-out warfare in the Liberal Party on more than one occasion and, while on some occasions rules have been broken, it has been astounding to see what offensive things can be done entirely within the literal meaning of written rules. The troubles the Labor Party has experienced in recent times with branch-stacking in Victoria are just as good an example.

My point is that Australian society drew upon a rich culture of lawful co-existence from Great Britain when it formed in 1901. That culture grew up over 1,000 years from the time before William the Conqueror became King of England. It is the product of great and terrible battles over where power should rest in society. The eventual answer was with the people in a constitutional monarchy.

The drafters of the constitution, despite what Senator Allison baldly otherwise asserts, were great men. They were led by one of the greatest lawyers and nation-builders in our history, Sir Samuel Griffith. No one better understood than he that by drafting a constitution which did little more than establish a system of government where judicial, parliamentary and executive power were separated and balance legislative power between the Commonwealth and the states, they were allowing as much of that rich heritage to infuse our society as was possible. It is the conventions which were handed down to our society from Great Britain which formed the basis for our unwritten law, our culture of civil society.


It will be sad to see the Queen leave our shores. It will be sad to wave her goodbye having been so adolescently rude as to refuse to play her anthem at an athletic carnival which owes its existence to the office she holds. Those things are sad, but what will be diabolical is the time when, for no better reason than that because some people are a little miffed, a touch jaded, we make a significant break from a system of government which has served us well and kept us free.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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