The Rudd Government recently issued its media release on the Australia 2020 Summit. This could become a worthwhile democratic exercise aimed to assist the Government to develop a 10-year public policy program. Amazingly, a discussion on the republic is not on the agenda. How can that be?
This article will argue that the achievement of a republic should definitely be part of the Summit debate to create a positive climate of public sentiment towards restructuring Australia.
There are other limitations in the agenda, for example, item 9 reads:
The future of Australian governance: renewed democracy, a more open government (including the role of the media), the structure of the Federation and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
The very way the item is phrased suggests a bias towards trying to maintain federation. Excluding its replacement by a more appropriate form of governance would greatly limit the flows of ideas.
Industrial relations is also omitted from item 10 on the agenda. Does that mean that alternative systems of IR are not to be considered? One would hope not.
The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Lisa Pryor recently made a forthright call for both a high-level governance inquiry AND reformist action (February 2, 2008). A similar call was made by this writer as a member of an ABC-TV Difference of Opinion panel (September 30, 2007). The system problems at both federal and state levels urgently require constitutional and structural change, not more piecemeal tinkering.
Some action could happen right now if the ALP was so inclined, but certainly immediately after the Australia 2020 Summit. The Rudd Government may luckily have become the rainmaker but it has already shied away from the republic maker role. To postpone the republic to their second term in office, as Mr Rudd has indicated, is unnecessary, undesirable and counterproductive.
It is unnecessary for many reasons. It is in fact difficult to find even one good reason why it should be postponed. Yes, there is a full agenda of election promises and pressures to cope with economic threats and climate change. But there is plenty of talent and fresh energy in this team. The nation has procrastinated for far too long on the republic question. The Howard government has done precisely nothing after the referendum failed in 1999. Why is it also undesirable and plainly counterproductive not to discuss the republic now?
First, in spite of all the rhetoric suggesting that the Rudd Government is in it for the long haul there may in fact not be a second term. A second term cannot be taken for granted at all - even though the Coalition is now in disarray everywhere.
Second, there are so many reforms that must be an integral part of the strategic question "What kind of republic shall it be?" that treating it as an afterthought makes no sense. To discuss a range of reformist ideas at the Summit - and more widely - without considering the republic is like putting the cart before the horse. Mr Rudd, please remove this rock in the road! It must be very much part of the overall deal. Delaying discussion of the republic will merely compound the problems of system failure.
Ms Pryor correctly identified a major system crisis. Its components are the multiple aspects of dysfunctional federal-state relations, the IR crisis, the electoral system, the party system, an archaic Constitution, and endless major city governance issues. With climate change, economic threats and inflation pressures looming large Australia cannot afford more system failure. But do we need a "Royal" Commission and should a judge head this inquiry as she suggested? We are concerned here with issues of both constitutional renewal and public management. Very few of them are competent in both areas. However, not even listing for debate the republic again relegates that debate to a minimalist issue - a position both the ALP and the Australian Republican Movement have continued to espouse. Not connecting the republic issue and constitutional change with the enormous range of public policy areas is to seriously limit the potential of harnessing the “best ideas across the nation”.
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