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ACM Home arrow Anthems arrow Convenor's Column Archive arrow Australia's Head of State has been independent since at least 1936.

Australia's Head of State has been independent since at least 1936. Print E-mail
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Thursday, 20 February 2003

Republicans tried much in the referendum campaign to build up enthusiasm for a republican Head of State. Until then most Australians were not much aware of the term, which is essentially diplomatic. It is not used in any of our constitutions, state or federal. What then is a Head of State? He or she is the person held out by our government to other governments and the UN as our Head of State. The Head of State receives, for example, a 21-gun salute. He or she receives the credentials of foreign Ambassadors. He or she or they (you can have more than one) may also be the Head of Government, as in the US. The Head of State may be powerless or powerful, even a bloody tyrant, as Hitler was. (Stalin wasn't, being merely the Secretary General of the Party and at times, only, Head of Government). Where there is a separate Head of Government, the Head of State usually, but not always, appoints the Head of Government, usually called the Prime Minister. The republican argument that we did not have an Australian Head of State was undermined completely by the fact that the Governor-General is treated internationally as our Head of State. The Keating government had formally declared him to be precisely that In other words we already have a resident Australian Head of State. (Mr Howard refers to him as the effective Head of State). Some constitutional monarchists think the Governor-General should actually be declared Head of State by legislation. This would not do more than recognise what is already a fact And anyway, can you imagine what a frolic some MPs would have over such a bill, especially in the Senate?

 

It is fascinating to see that Bob Carr, Premier of New South Wales, (Daily Telegraph 27 January 2003) wants the Governor-General to be declared Head of State. Whether this would be by legislation or by executive decision is not clear. He sees this as a first simple step towards working for a republic, which he notes many see as inevitable. He also suggests that instead of talking about a "republic" we should use the word “Commonwealth", "that expressive term used by republicans in the 17th century and adopted as the label for our own democracy in 1901". During the referendum debate, even republican newspapers made fun of the ARM when it tried to ensure the words "republic" and "president" did not appear in the referendum question. They knew that both words have unfortunate connotations. Now that the nation's most prominent Premier accepts that the Governor-General is the Head of State - and wants a declaration to this effect - the arguments for constitutional change are fast disappearing. Except the argument based on inevitability. And if a republic is inevitable (which I don't believe for one moment.), you don't have to do anything about it, do you?

 

New Zealand and Canadian governments counsel against the proposed marriage of King Edward VIII to Mrs Wallis Simpson was given to the King through the British Prime Minister. But constitutionally, each Prime Minister was entitled to advise the King directly. It was assumed that the full implications of the Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster had not been fully appreciated in 1936. Documents released in London on 30 January 2003 now reveal that 24 days before the abdication, on 5 December 1936, in a "most secret" telegram, Australian Prime Minister Joe Lyons advised The King that the marriage "would not be approved by my government". According to The Australian of 31 January 2003, Lyons said The King should abdicate even if he did not marry because confidence in him and the Crown had been shaken. But when he learned that the King had decided to abdicate, Lyons changed his mind and sent another telegram saying : "We beg to ask. in the name of your Majesty's subject... that Your Majesty will reconsider your decision and continue to reign over us."

 

Not withstanding recent media reports to the contrary, at no stage did Lyons threaten to withdraw Australia from The Commonwealth. This demonstrates that by 1936 Australia was already fully independent and that the Australian Crown was already separate from the British Crown. It confirms the proposition that we don't need to become a republic to be independent - we have been independent for at least about three quarters of a century. This, unfortunately, does not stop some people from arguing we should become a republic for the non-reason - so that we can be independent from Britain!
 
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