The Commonwealth of Australia or the Republic of Australia? It seems like a minor difference, and in my opinion, the change from a Commonwealth to a Republic wouldn’t change much.
But, with a recent poll showing that support for an Australian republic has now reached 50%, and the Royal Wedding just passed, it might be a good idea to start talking about this again.
A change to a republic won’t really change the way our country governs (too much), but will cost quite a bit. Essentially, we need to decide if Aussie nationalism is enough of a reason to change our entire system or government, without really changing it. This may prove somewhat difficult given the refreshing change in public image and society’s obsession with the Royal Family. Millennials, a group of people you would think would move away from the traditions and stuffiness of the Royal Family, is actually one of the largest supporting groups. Prince Wills and Harry, their openness, and the births of the royal highnesses seem to have something to do with their popularity among Gen Y.
In case we’re no longer in Grade 7 and can’t quite remember our Civics class, let me give you a quick overview of how Australia’s Parliament and legislation work.
Australia is a Constitutional Monarchy and is technically ruled by the reigning monarch of England (often referred to as the Head of State). This is a largely symbolic role as the monarch’s only true power since 1986 is selecting a Governor-General (at the advice of the Prime Minister). The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II. The Head of State appoints a Governor-General, someone to represent the monarch, at their pleasure (for as long as the monarch wishes).
When the Australian Parliament agrees to enact a new piece of legislation (law), it is sent for Royal Assent. Royal Assent occurs when the Governor-General of Australia signs the bill. Legally, the Governor-General, can decline to sign the bill into Royal Assent; however, convention follows that the Governor-General must sign.
The Governor-General acts as a check or balance for the Prime Minister and Parliament. The Governor-General’s other executive powers include:
- The power to appoint a Prime Minister if an election has resulted in a ‘hung parliament’;
- The power to dismiss a Prime Minister where he or she has lost the confidence of the Parliament;
- The power to dismiss a Prime Minister or Minister when he or she is acting unlawfully; and
- The power to refuse to dissolve the House of Representatives despite a request from the Prime Minister.
Customarily, the Governor-General does not interfere in the Parliamentary actions other than signing bills. One notable exception was the 1975 ‘Constitutional Crisis’ involving the Whitlam Labor Government. In 1975, the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and placed the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, in as a caretaker. Although within his power to do so, some criticised Kerr and saw this action as an overreach.
So, now that we’ve all had a little refresher on our learning as 12 year-olds, let’s get into the 3 key arguments for the change: independence, a shift in values, and that our “Head of State” should be chosen by Aussies, or at the very least, someone.
Australia would become completely independent from Britain. This means we wouldn’t rely on the Queen to ‘lead’ our country and we wouldn’t answer to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, but rather to the Constitution of Australia. Given the Queen doesn’t really have any powers, Australia has its own set of laws made by Australia, and the Constitution would largely remain the same if we became a Republic, this argument seems a bit pointless.
The real argument is in removing the powers of the Governor-General. However, if Australia becomes a Republic, then these powers will likely be transferred to a President. So, nothing really changes and independence is simply symbolic. Both sides of the debate argue symbolism is important, it’s just a matter of whether they argue it is important to appear with the Commonwealth, or for Australia.
2. A shift in values
The second argument from the Republicans is that Australia’s Head of State should carry Australian values and be an Aussie. Republicans argue that as long as the English monarch is our Head of State, Australia’s interests will not come first and Aussie views will not be represented.
Although the actual Head of State, the monarch, is English (and always will be), since 1989 the monarch has always chosen an Australian-born Governor-General. So the change will once again be mostly symbolic.
According to our current system, the Head of State will always be a member of the Royal Family of England, and the monarch chooses the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Pro-Republicans argue that this system takes away any power from Aussie voters and places all control in the hands of the monarch.
Pro-Republicans suggest, that Aussies, given the chance, would elect an Aussie who shares their values and understands the people and country.
So, if we do really want to become a Republic, how does Australia go about doing this?
Firstly, the government would likely propose a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a non-binding vote often used to gauge public opinion. The government does not legally need to act in favour of the majority opinion of a plebiscite. Despite not having a legal obligation to act on the majority view from the plebiscite, it is likely the government would do so, much like the recent plebiscite on Australian marriage equality. This is costly and estimates expect it will cost about the same as the Marriage Equality survey – $122 million.
If the plebiscite shows a majority in favour of a Republic, a Referendum will be called, at an additional cost to the taxpayers. A referendum asks citizens if a change to the Constitution should be made and is passed if the majority vote in favour of the change. This is legally-binding, provided it obtains Royal Assent.
Keep in mind that, in 1999, Australia already called a referendum to vote on whether we should become a republic. The ‘yes’ effort was led by Malcolm Turnbull and received a majority vote against a Republic (54.87%). This is in spite of earlier polls showing Republicans had the votes.
If passed, the Governor-General role would cease to exist and instead become a President, much like Germany. Their powers would be much the same, however, they would be chosen by the Aussie people, rather than appointed by the monarch. Opinions vary on how the president would be chosen: some suggest an election by the people, either mandatory or optional, others suggest the Parliament should appoint them. Higley & McAllister argue that the likely reason for the ‘no’ vote in the 1999 referendum was because the Parliament proposed they should elect the President. A hybrid solution comprising direct and indirect voting has also been suggested.
To remove all connections to the Commonwealth, Australia would need to change their currency and names of some buildings and institutions, which happens regularly anyway. Additionally, despite the Australian Republic Movement suggesting otherwise, Australia would probably have to change the flag (to remove our Union Jack), cut ties with events such as the Commonwealth Games, and would likely have an ‘Independence Day’ of sorts (I’m sure we’d all love another public holiday). On the other hand, Australia wouldn’t have to foot the bill for any more royal visits…
My opinion? This all seems like a bit much for some good ol’ fashioned Aussie nationalism. So, my argument is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But, if we’re dead set on a Republic, then enact this change at a time when the currency needs to be changed anyway and the state of the Commonwealth is challenged… when Queen Elizabeth dies and if Charles becomes King. (But not if Wills becomes King because he’s alright.)