“Thinking Big” is the official slogan of the 2020 Summit. It suggests an expansive, conventional wisdom-busting approach to our future. It assumes that our society, economy and system of government, while not broken, need improvement, and that this can happen by pooling our wisdom.
Also built into the Summit is an emphasis on the long-term; that is the point of having a 2020 rather than a 2010 event, even though the three-year electoral cycle might suggest the latter.
In this context constitutional reform should be taken very seriously, including not only federalism arrangements and the rights of our citizens, but also the question of moving towards an Australian republic. The need for this agenda has been highlighted by the announcement, in the week before the Summit, of our next Governor-General, Quentin Bryce.
Bryce’s appointment offers a welcome renewal of our democracy by the appointment of the first woman in the 108 years since Federation. She will generate more community interest in the position and she offers a role model to younger women in particular of the possible aspirations for any citizen within our system.
But it is only a limited renewal for two reasons. First, Bryce was appointed in the old-fashioned way, behind closed doors. The Prime Minister missed an opportunity for wider public engagement and consultation prior to the appointment. The name just appeared out of the blue, presumably after very restricted discussions between Rudd, Julia Gillard, Anna Bligh and a few other insiders. We may never know the full story.
Second, as Governor-General Michael Jeffery straightforwardly explained, Bryce has been appointed to the same honoured position of representative of the Queen in Australia that he has filled. She has not been appointed to the top job as some headlines have claimed. She will become second-in-command to the Queen rather than sitting at the apex of our constitutional system. This is a major achievement in its own right of course. She has broken through one glass ceiling for women, but another still remains for both men and women. Both the appointment process and the job itself need to change in the future.
Initially the Future of Australian Governance in 2020 agenda did not explicitly mention the republic issue, though now it is on that agenda by force of argument and weight of numbers. Those supporting the constitutional status quo have suddenly woken up to the danger to their position. They have worked hard to dismiss the republic as a legitimate topic of discussion. And they’ve implied that even if it is discussed the deck has been stacked against the monarchists.
The Prime Minister’s comments in London, the day before he discussed his recommendation of Bryce face-to-face with the Queen, welcomed an accelerated republican debate and helped push the republic closer to centre stage too. Nothing will happen without Rudd government initiative.
A closer look at the Governance section agenda shows how the republic idea is not just a necessary additional item, however, but an important ingredient under so many of its other headings. This point is often overlooked.
Australian governance cannot be revitalised, one of the government’s hopes, without addressing the republic. Keeping an unelected foreign monarch at the apex of our political system is incompatible with democratic aspirations.
No Australian citizen can aspire to the top job under the Australian Constitution so any discussion of the rights of citizens must start there. It is ridiculous and quite demeaning that a child born into a British family can one day automatically become our nation’s Head of State. No Australian person, even one with the credentials and achievements of Quentin Bryce, can ever become Australian Head of State. This fact diminishes our democracy, and ultimately our pride in one another as Australians. It mocks our claim to be an egalitarian nation.
Community engagement is yet another central theme that cannot exclude debate about a republic. The Rudd government has already promised, both in the Labor Platform and during the election campaign, to involve the community not just through a referendum but also through a plebiscite. Both will follow community engagement.
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