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A democratic republic

By Luke Whitington - posted Wednesday, 8 October 2008

My fellow Australians,

You know that the question of whether Australia should become a republic has been as yet unresolved. The motivations for becoming a republic are many, but the most important has always seemed to be that Australian culture and politics are, at their best, democratic and egalitarian, while monarchy is not. Why is our head of state chosen by accident of birth? And, why can’t the head of state be someone born poor, or Catholic, or black or even Tasmanian?

Australia has a history of leading the way in being the most democratic, free, and equal society in the world.


We, along with New Zealand were the first to achieve women’s voting rights. We insisted, when it was unheard of anywhere in the world, that a man should be able to vote no matter how much he earned or owned. We have always been inclined to greater democracy and fairness. So, we are embarrassed by the institution of monarchy, and most of us wish to abolish it.

The problem is - what do we replace it with? We’ve sidelined the actual monarch very effectively by making the Prime Minister and the Parliament responsible for the decisions that affect our lives, and we’ve made sure the PM and Parliament reflect us, by ensuring all of us (over 18) have a vote.

So how would we choose a new head of state?

The debate has mostly been between a head of state selected by Parliament, or one directly elected by the people. If the Parliament selects our head of state, we keep what we like about our current system - the PM doesn’t have too much power, and neither would the new head of state. This way we would avoid the problems that other countries have had when politicians get power hungry: dictatorship, persecution and tyranny.

The problem is a majority of us rejected this idea at the 1999 referendum. Many people voted against this model because it would take the decision out of our hands: the monarchists said it was a “politicians republic” and elitist. Note that they didn’t say “vote for monarchy” because most Australians don’t support the idea of unelected privileged monarchy. So the idea of a President elected by the Parliament was rejected.

Many people campaigning against that model weren’t monarchists at all, they wanted a President elected directly by the people. The irony is, that if we elect the President directly we will very likely end up with a politician, because to run for an office as important as President you would need the support of a political party. So, we’re stuck in a classic Catch-22 situation.


If you leave the selection of a head of state to Parliament, it seems as though you’re leaving it to a political elite to make the decision. However, if you elect the President directly, you’re almost certainly going to get a politician as your new head of state and this would mean massive problems for our political system because the head of state, currently the Queen, delegating to the Governor-General, has very large and undefined Reserve Powers. These powers allow the G-G to dismiss a government and call new elections, as happened in 1975, or in New South Wales in 1932. That’s a lot of power. It also allows the G-G to be the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Technically the G-G, via the Queen’s powers as monarch, could order Australian troops to fire on Australian civilians.

So what’s the solution?

Many people have examined the experience of other countries in trying to find something that would work for Australia. Other Commonwealth countries that have become republics have adopted innovative methods of selecting their head of state without losing the idea that parliament, and the PM, is the real boss. India, Ireland, and Israel all have Presidents that don’t interfere with the PM and allow the Parliament to be the people’s main voice. Yet all of them ended up with politicians being their Presidents, even if they were generally very good ones.

Perhaps we should consider some other ways of selecting a head of state and perhaps we should look further afield; maybe even into the origins of democracy itself to find a model we could use. After all, we have been at the forefront of the creation of modern democracy for the past 150 years. We could look to Athens, the birthplace of democracy.

I would like to suggest that Australia chooses its head of state from the population of Australia directly, just as we choose a jury from the populace directly. Instead of selecting a politician, or even an “eminent” Australian, a choice which always implies that someone is better than somebody else, for whatever reason, let’s select someone to oversee our politicians who is simply one of us.

The job of being head of state is currently largely symbolic, but with the important reserve powers attached. The person who is Governor-General is not usually an expert on these powers before they become the G-G. We’ve recently had a bishop, a general, and a former policeman. By selecting someone directly from the Australian population we would give them the same training as any of the previous G-Gs have had.

We would keep our politicians to make the tough decisions but the head of state would only need to be fair minded and representative of Australia. How could anyone be more representative of Australia, than an Australian who is selected directly from the population?

The problem of course would be how to select that person: here’s where the Athenians come in. When devising their system of democracy, they decided that technical and difficult positions, such as that of military commander (the strategos) would be elected by a majority of voters, just as we elect our politicians. For jobs that required someone simply to be an Athenian however, such as head of state (the archon) they chose them by chance, or lot.

They used a mechanical computer to do it. Just as we use a computer to select our juries at random to decide on the guilt or innocence of murderers, thieves, and merchant bankers, the Athenians chose their head of state randomly. It was an affirmation of their democratic outlook. If any of us could be President, then all of us should be involved in decisions that affect us. It shouldn’t be left to an elite to represent us to the world; any of us is good enough to represent the rest of us. We’ll choose the politicians based on ability, but the head of state could be any of us at all, because all citizens share equally in the future of our state.

How would this work for a country so large as Australia, with a complex political system? Well, it wouldn’t work that differently from our current system. A person (or persons - the Athenians selected 10 and gave them a month each at the top job) would be selected by lot from the electoral roll and they would serve as head of state after getting some advice and training on how to hold the tea cups correctly, and what to do if the PM comes to ask for an early election. In the event that a constitutional crisis did eventuate - very rare, but possible, they could sack the PM, and call for an early election. Once the election was over, you could select a new Head of state too.

Now at first blush this may seem unlikely or even dangerous. What if the person was a nutjob! “What if the person was a mad redneck!”, say the inner city types. “What if the person is a crazy commie pinko from Newtown”, say the country boys. Well, nothing. The G-G has no real power at the moment. They act on the advice of the PM, and are told as they enter the job what’s expected of them and how they should behave.

If the G-G sacks the PM, elections are held and a new PM comes in with absolute legitimacy and a mandate from the people. I would propose that if the new head of state sacks the PM then they should be replaced as soon as the election is declared too. All the technical questions of how this system would work in operation can be figured out. It all comes down to a question of how much faith you have in your fellow Australians. I would trust most of the people I meet in my every day life to be the person safeguarding our constitution if it was their solemn responsibility.

I believe that the average Australian has the ability to understand and carry out the duties of the current Governor-General. It is nothing but rank elitism to suggest that someone needs to have served as a judge or a politician to be able to act as our head of state.

Imagine the effect it would have on Australian civics if everyone knew that one day they could actually be the head of state, regardless of their gender, their religion, their age, what work they did, or where they lived. It would energise and involve Australians in their democracy to know that they might have to do the job one day. The system would give a 51 per cent chance of a woman being head of state. It would give a 2-3 per cent chance that an Aborigine would be head of state. It would mean that everyone had responsibility for the country, its environment and its people. Rather than just an elite interested and involved “political” class, it would be a truly democratic republic.

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About the Author

Luke F. Whitington, is a former ALP candidate for Waverley Council, currently an advisor to the President of the NSW Legislative Council and activist for human rights and democracy.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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