|The Queen, the Governor-General and Us|
|Written by Sir David Smith|
|Saturday, 12 June 2004|
National Museum of Australia
Transcript as released by the Office of Research and Education
SIR DAVID SMITH: I thank the Museum’s Acting Director, Mr. Craddock Morton, for inviting me to give today’s Sunday afternoon talk on this Queen’s Birthday weekend.
As some of you will know, this Museum has mounted a wonderful exhibition of the Queen’s 1954 tour of Australia. If you haven’t already seen it, I commend it to you. That 1954 Royal visit was the first to Australia by a reigning monarch, and was part of a six month’s tour by the young and new Queen to “her other realms and territories”. It had begun in London on 23 November 1953, and by the time the Royal Yacht Gothic sailed into Sydney Harbour on 3 February 1954, the Royal party had already been to Bermuda, Jamaica, Panama, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. The Australian tour was to take two months, and covered all States and the Australian Capital Territory.
My own first glimpse of the Queen was over the foresight of my .303 army rifle, with my view obstructed by my fixed bayonet. I was then a national serviceman doing my military training at Puckapunyal, in Victoria, and our Battalion had been included in the detachments from the three Services that lined the streets of Melbourne for the Queen’s Royal progress on the afternoon of 24 February 1954.
It was a very hot day, with not a breath of breeze, as only Melbourne can produce in high summer. Reveille had been sounded that morning before dawn, and it was almost dark again before we were back in camp that evening. In between we had been trucked from Puckapunyal to Dysart railway siding; made a very slow journey by steam train from Dysart to Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station; marched to a Carlton Drill Hall where we had a cut lunch and changed into our winter uniforms, our summer uniforms having been deemed by the Army to be too informal for street-lining duties on such an important occasion; marched to our allotted street in Melbourne’s Central Business District and taken up our places on each side of the road; stood for ages in the hot sun, sweltering in our heavy winter uniforms; had given the royal salute as the Queen drove past; marched back to the railway station; endured another long and slow train ride; and finally were packed again onto trucks for the last leg of our journey back to camp.
For all of this we had caught only the merest glimpse of the Queen and the Duke as we stood presenting arms, eyes straight ahead, as the cavalcade of cars swept past. Little did I know then just how much the Queen, and the Governor-General’s ceremonial Rolls Royce in which she drove past, would feature in my work and my life in the years that lay ahead.
The atmosphere and the fervour of that first visit had to be experienced to be believed, and the exhibition here captures something of the mood of that time. Streets were decorated with archways, flags and bunting, buildings were decorated and illuminated, homes were decorated, even our motor vehicles were decorated, as we all entered into the spirit engendered by the visit. It was before the days of television, and we relied on newspapers and magazines, radio, and cinema newsreel film to bring us the scope and the detail and the colour of this first and last Royal visit of its kind. Australians travelled long distances – in some cases hundreds of miles – just to catch a glimpse of the Royal couple, and it was estimated that 75 percent of Australians saw the Queen at least once during the visit.
As the Queen became a more frequent visitor, the pattern of her visits changed, as did the relationship between her and us. After the lengthy, wide ranging and very formal first visit in 1954, subsequent visits tended to become shorter, were usually built around some specific main purpose, and were certainly less formal. For some, the familiarity has meant a loss of the essential mystique of monarchy. For others it has meant the development of a uniquely Australian attitude towards the monarchy – an attitude based on respect and affection rather than deference and awe. Whether we continue to see the monarchy as relevant, or whether we see it as dated and redundant, it still manages to sell a lot of newspapers, magazines and books, so it certainly hasn’t lost all of its magical quality.
If I might be permitted a short commercial break, tomorrow at 12.30 pm, in the Senate Chamber at Old Parliament House, I am to give a talk on the Queen’s visits to Australia.
Today, in this National Museum, which houses so many reminders of Australia’s history, I want to say something about our constitutional history. I propose to speak about the Queen and her representative, the Governor-General, and the roles which each of them plays in Australia’s system of government as a constitutional monarchy. And the third leg of my tripod will be us – the Australian people who live under that system of government, and under the Constitution that regulates that system of government – for our Constitution does not belong to the Government or to the Parliament; it belongs to us.
In 1953, at the behest of the Prime Minister, Robert (later Sir Robert) Menzies, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Royal Style and Titles Act 1953. The purpose of the Act was to add the word “Australia” to the Queen’s Australian style and titles. It gave the Queen the title of Queen of Australia – the first Australian Monarch to have that title.
In 1973, at the behest of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Royal Style and Titles Act 1973. The purpose of that Act was to amend the 1953 Act by removing the words “the United Kingdom” and “Defender of the Faith” from the Queen’s Australian style and titles. Whitlam had also wanted to remove the words “by the Grace of God” but the Queen would not hear of it. Contrary to popular misconception, the Whitlam Act of 1973 did not give Queen Elizabeth the title of Queen of Australia – that had been done twenty years earlier by the Menzies Act of 1953.
The Queen’s father, as the Duke of York, had opened Parliament House, Canberra, now Old Parliament House, on 9 May 1927. He had been accompanied by his Duchess, who became better known to most of us as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. As King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, they were to have visited Australia in 1949, but the King’s ill health forced the visit to be cancelled.
On 31 January 1952 the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the King’s elder daughter, and her husband, Prince Philip, left London for Kenya and a journey that was to have taken them on to Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand. After a few days in Nairobi and at Sagana Lodge in the Aberdare Mountains, the Royal couple was taken to Treetops, an enchanting hut built in a huge fig tree, arriving there on the afternoon of 5 February. By the afternoon of the next day the young Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth, was on her way back to London, following the death early that morning of her father the King. Another Royal visit to Australia had to be cancelled.
The Treetops Hotel overlooked a waterhole where at night a large variety of big game animals would come to drink. As the intention had been to provide the Royal visitors with opportunities to view wild animals in their natural environment, they were to have been accompanied by Colonel Jim Corbett, a retired former hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards, and now an honorary game warden. Jim Corbett was later to write in the Treetops visitors book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and … climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her.”
Today, half a century later, both the monarchy and the Monarch have undergone many changes. The Empire has become the Commonwealth. Former colonies are now independent nations – some of them still monarchical and many of them republics, yet all still recognising the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.
Where once there was just the one and indivisible Sovereign over all parts of the Queen’s dominions, today each of the countries that recognise the Queen as their Sovereign has a separate and distinct sovereignty from that of any of the others. In Australia, when we speak of the Queen, we mean the Queen of Australia. And as the Queen reminded us at Darling Harbour, Sydney, four years ago, on her first visit after the 1999 referendum, she has served Australia as its Queen for half of our life as a nation – half of the time since the people of the Australian colonies, already self governing, agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown.
Thus, in each of the last three years we have seen three special Royal anniversaries: 6 February 2002, the Golden Jubilee of the Queen’s accession to the throne; 2 June 2003, the Golden Jubilee of her Coronation; and on 3 February this year, the fiftieth anniversary of her first of fourteen visits to Australia.
Australia’s system of government is that of a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is our Monarch or Sovereign, and the Crown she wears is the symbol of the Australian State. It appears on the buttons and badges of rank of the Australian Defence Force, and on the buttons and badges of uniformed commonwealth and state public servants, or at least it still does in those cases where it hasn’t yet been removed in a rush of premature republicanism. Our law courts are the Queen’s courts and they administer the Queen’s justice. Members of the defence force, parliamentarians and judges take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, as does the Governor-General. I did too, fifty years ago; first on entering the Commonwealth Public Service, and again, only weeks later, at the start of my military service. Our Governments consists of the Queen’s Ministers of State, and their parliamentary opponents are more formally described as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
On her 21st birthday, 21 April 1947, in a broadcast to the Commonwealth, the young Princess Elizabeth said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
Five years later, in February 1952, just a few days after the King’s death, in her Accession speech to the Privy Council, the Queen renewed her pledge of service when she said: “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of Sovereignty. … My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to uphold the constitutional government and to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over. I know that in my resolve to follow his shining example of service and devotion I shall be inspired by the loyalty and affection of those whose Queen I have been called to be and by the counsel of their elected Parliaments. I pray God will help me to discharge worthily this happy task that has been laid upon me so early in my life.”
At her Coronation in 1953, the Queen made four commitments – to God, to the service of others, to responsibility, and to showing respect for her people. At nine o’clock that evening the Queen made a radio broadcast in which she thanked her people for their support that day and declared: “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Against that background of commitment to duty and service to her people, it should have come as no surprise when, in 2002, in her Golden Jubilee address to both Houses of the British Parliament, in Westminster Hall, the Queen again pledged to continue to serve in the years to come. The media, both here and in Britain, tried to make a story out of it, as if this was something new, but there was nothing new in the renewal of the pledge to continue to serve. The Queen has a strong sense of duty, and those who know her have said that the word “abdication” is not in her vocabulary.
Let me read you something that appeared in the editorial of a major Australian daily newspaper. Under the heading “The Monarchy”, the editorial writer told his readers something of the jubilee celebrations in Britain; described as plausible the arguments being advanced by Australian republicans; and then went on to say: “Plausible or not, these arguments are assertions only. The weakness of the republican case is that it cannot demonstrate precisely how we would be more independent or unified without the Queen, how we would have better government, a better society. On the other hand, their case ignores the palpable advantages of a constitutional monarchy – advantages shining splendidly from the celebrations in Britain now. In a time of adversity, of political controversy and class bitterness, the British people are able to put aside their differences and celebrate their unity, precisely because their Monarch is outside politics and above class.
“The Monarchy, … in the person of that hard-working, long-serving, uniquely experienced civil servant, the Queen, [is] a dynamic element in the British society, working for its continuity and stability. …
“Though far away (yet quite often here) she confers these advantages on our society too. And she is, besides, a potent symbol of our origins and our heritage: mighty forces in the making of this nation, forces underpinning, not diminishing, our identity. What comparable advantages could an elected President bring?”
What comparable advantages indeed? How very well said, by the editorial writer for The Sydney Morning Herald of 9 June 1977, the Silver Jubilee year.
In the twenty-seven years that have elapsed since the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, nothing has occurred that would render that editorial any less appropriate today, other than that today’s editorial writers would lack the courage to write like that.
For several generations of Australians, the Queen is more than just a word in our Constitution, important though that is. For many of us, the monarchy was an important symbol during World War II, and we associated it then, as we associate it today, with the embodiment of a sense of duty and with the acceptance of responsibility, as well as with democratic parliamentary government under the Crown.
The Queen is mentioned many times in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, yet she has only one constitutional duty, and that is to appoint the Governor-General on the advice of the democratically elected Prime Minister. It is a duty which she performs as Queen of Australia. All of the other constitutional duties which the Queen performs in the United Kingdom or in other Commonwealth monarchical countries as Head of State are in Australia’s case performed by the Governor-General. In this respect Australia’s Constitution is unique, thanks to the skilful and far-sighted drafting of our Founding Fathers.
During 1900 Queen Victoria signed a number of constitutional documents relating to the future Commonwealth of Australia, including Letters Patent constituting the Office of Governor-General, and Instructions to the Governor-General on the manner in which he was to perform certain of his constitutional duties.
Two distinguished Australian constitutional scholars, A. Inglis Clark, who had worked with Sir Samuel Griffith on his drafts of the Constitution, and who later became Senior Judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and W. Harrison (later Sir Harrison) Moore, who had worked on the first draft of the Constitution that went to the 1897 Adelaide Convention, and who later became Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne, expressed the view that Queen Victoria’s Letters Patent and Instructions were superfluous, or even of doubtful legality, on the grounds that the Governor-General’s authority stemmed from the Australian Constitution and that not even the Sovereign could direct him in the performance of his constitutional duties.
As Inglis Clark pointed out, The British North America Act 1867 did not contain any provisions relating to the appointment of the Governor-General of Canada, or to the exercise of executive authority in that Dominion, that were in any way similar to the provisions contained in sections 2 and 61 of the Australian Constitution relating to the powers and functions of our Governor-General; nor did the Constitutions of any of the Australian States contain any similar provisions relating to the State Governors. These provisions were peculiar to the Australian Constitution and they conferred upon our Governor-General a statutory position which the Imperial Parliament had not conferred upon any other Governor or Governor-General in any other part of the British Empire. Our Founding Fathers had indeed drafted exceedingly well.
Unfortunately, British Ministers advising Queen Victoria failed to appreciate the unique features of the Australian Constitution, and Australian Ministers failed to appreciate the significance of the Letters Patent and Royal Instructions which Queen Victoria had issued. No notice was taken of the views of Clark and Moore, in Britain or in Australia, and between 1902 and 1920, King Edward VII and King George V were to issue further Instructions on the advice of British Ministers, and in 1958 Queen Elizabeth II issued further Instructions on the advice of Australian Ministers.
In 1916, in a Canadian case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and again in 1922, during the hearing of an application by the Australian State Governments for special leave to appeal to the Privy Council from the High Court’s decision in the Engineers’ Case, Viscount Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, made special reference to the provisions of section 61 of the Australian Constitution. As he put it, section 61 “put the Sovereign in the position of having parted, so far as the affairs of the Commonwealth [of Australia] are concerned, with every shadow of active intervention in their affairs and handing them over, unlike the case of Canada, to the Governor-General.”
At the 1926 Imperial Conference, the Empire’s Prime Ministers declared that the Governor-General of a Dominion was no longer to be the representative of His Majesty’s Government in Britain, and that it was no longer in accordance with a Governor-General’s constitutional position for him to continue as the formal channel of communication between the two Governments. The Conference further resolved that, henceforth, a Governor-General would stand in the same constitutional relationship with his Dominion Government, and hold the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominion, as did the King with the British Government and in relation to public affairs in Great Britain. It was also decided that a Governor-General should be provided by his Dominion Government with copies of all important documents and should be kept as fully informed of Cabinet business and public affairs in the Dominion as was the King in Great Britain.
The 1930 Imperial Conference decided that recommendations to the King for the appointment of a Governor-General would be made by the Prime Minister of the Dominion concerned, and not by British Ministers as had been the case until then. This decision further strengthened the constitutional role of Governors-General and their relationships with their Dominion Governments. The Conference decision was taken at the height of, and in support of, action which had been initiated earlier that year by Australia’s Prime Minister, J.H. Scullin, in insisting on advising the King on the appointment of Australia’s next Governor-General. Scullin’s insistence on the right to recommend the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs as Australia’s first Australian-born Governor-General became the genesis of the new rule for the appointment of Governors-General throughout the Empire.
Our early Governors-General were British. They were appointed by the Sovereign on the advice of British Ministers and were in reality British civil servants. Their role was to represent British interests in Australia. Their principal duties and responsibilities were to the British Government. But the 1926 and the 1930 Imperial Conference decisions changed the status of the Vice-Regal office and established a new relationship between the Governor-General and the Australian Government. We were able to alter our constitutional arrangements to meet evolving constitutional needs, but without having to alter one word of the Constitution itself. These changes are further examples of the far-sightedness of our Founding Fathers, and evidence of the adaptability and flexibility of our allegedly outmoded Constitution.
In 1953, in the course of preparing for the 1954 Royal visit to Australia, Prime Minister Menzies had wanted to involve the Queen in some of the formal processes of government, in addition to the inevitable public appearances and social occasions. But the Government’s legal advisers suddenly discovered what had been apparent to Clark and Moore at the time of federation. The Commonwealth Solicitor-General, Sir Kenneth Bailey, gave the Prime Minister a legal opinion that, other than the power to appoint or remove the Governor-General, the Constitution placed all other constitutional powers in the hands of the Governor-General; that the Governor-General exercised these constitutional powers in his own right, and not as a representative of the Sovereign; and that the Governor-General’s powers could not be exercised by the Sovereign, not even when she was in Australia.
In 1975 another Commonwealth Solicitor-General, Mr. (later Sir) Maurice Byers, gave Prime Minister Gough Whitlam a legal opinion that the Governor-General’s constitutional powers could not properly be the subject of Royal Instructions, thus again echoing the views expressed at the time of federation by Clark and Moore, and confirming that all constitutional powers and functions, except the power to appoint or remove the Governor-General, had been given to the Governor-General by the Constitution on 1 January 1901.
The dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General on 11 November 1975 was to provide confirmation of the correctness of all the legal opinions which had been given over the previous seventy-four years. Writing after the event, Sir John Kerr, a former Chief Justice of New South Wales, said: “I did not tell the Queen in advance that I intended to exercise these powers on 11 November. I did not ask her approval. The decisions I took were without the Queen’s advance knowledge. The reason for this was that I believed, if dismissal action were to be taken, that it could be taken only by me and that it must be done on my sole responsibility. My view was that to inform Her Majesty in advance of what I intended to do, and when, would be to risk involving her in an Australian political and constitutional crisis in relation to which she had no legal powers; and I must not take such a risk.”
After the Governor-General had withdrawn the Prime Minister’s Commission, the Speaker of the House of Representatives wrote to the Queen to ask her to restore Whitlam to office as Prime Minister. In the reply from Buckingham Palace, Mr. Speaker was told by the Queen’s Private Secretary: “As we understand the situation here, the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General, and the Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia, is watching events in Canberra with close interest and attention, but it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act.”
As the defining Head of State power is the power to appoint and remove the Prime Minister, that reply confirmed, if confirmation were needed, that the Governor-General is indeed Australia’s constitutional Head of State. Even so, it took another nine years before the matter was finally resolved.
On 21 August 1984 Prime Minister Bob Hawke advised the Queen to revoke Queen Victoria’s Letters Patent, and all Royal Instructions to the Governor-General, and to issue new Letters Patent. In the words of the Prime Minister, this would “achieve the objective of modernising the administrative arrangements of the Office of Governor-General and, at the same time, clarify His Excellency’s position under the Constitution.” At last, the Letters Patent that had purported to create an office that had already been created by the Australian Constitution, and the Royal Instructions that should never have been issued, were revoked. The 1901 views of Clarke and Moore were finally vindicated, and the Governor-General was acknowledged to be what he had in fact always been, namely, the holder of an independent office as Australia’s Head of State, and not subject to any Royal Instructions.
I turn now to us – the Australian people – for it is our Constitution that determines what powers the Queen and the Governor-General shall have, a Constitution that was drafted by us, that came into being with our approval, and that may only be altered with our approval.
In the 1890s our Founding Fathers crafted and drafted a better Constitution than they have been credited with. Although they were producing a Constitution for a Dominion that was not yet fully independent, they were also drafting a Constitution that would enable Australia to become a fully independent sovereign nation of the world, without one word of the Constitution needing to be altered. In particular, they gave to the Governor-General an additional independent constitutional position not given to any other representative of the Crown anywhere else in the British Empire. Sadly it took Australian Governments eighty-four years to realise that fact. Sadder still, most Australians still don’t realise it.
As a constitutional monarchist I support our present Constitution and our present system of government. As a democrat, I acknowledge the right of my fellow Australians to seek to alter our Constitution and to propose that we adopt a different system of government, provided only that they do so honestly and truthfully, and that they acknowledge my right to oppose them, and to do so without being subject to abuse and vilification.
If constitutional change requires the approval of the Australian electorate, it also requires an informed electorate. Sadly, as two Commonwealth Government inquiries, established by the Hawke and Keating Governments respectively, have shown, Australians are abysmally ignorant of just how they are governed or what their Constitution says and means. During the debate leading up to the 1999 constitutional referendum on the Keating/Turnbull republic, this lack of knowledge on the part of the electorate enabled some republicans to misrepresent our present Constitution and to deceive and mislead the Australian people about the changes they wished to make to it. These republicans were able to invent weird and wonderful reasons for wanting to remove the monarchy from our Constitution. Let me just give a few of the worst examples.
A former federal Minister of the Crown told us that the monarchy was responsible for the then high unemployment level, the recession we had to have, the business excesses of the late 1980s, and the exodus from Australia of our top scientists. An arts bureaucrat told us that the monarchy was responsible for stifling artistic talent, and our artists were promised that the republic would enable them to fully express themselves as artists. Trade officials said that our present constitutional arrangements were harmful to the overseas promotion of our products and services. Another trade official wanted us to change our Constitution because the French were confused by it.
Business leaders promised us that the republic would present a windfall marketing opportunity for Australian exporters, would help us gain international recognition for our technology and our inventions, and would ensure that increased venture capital would flow back into our newer industries. They also saw the republic as an opportunity for Australia to “re-badge” and “re-brand” itself, thus reducing the nation, its history, its Constitution and its system of government to the level of a new car or a packet of detergent.
The former head of Australia’s foreign service complained that he had found it difficult to explain our Constitution to a foreign dictator President of a republic, and gave that as a reason for altering it. A former New South Wales Minister of the Crown displayed his ignorance by describing our constitutional arrangements in terms that had ceased to be true two years before he was born. A former Chief Justice of the High Court told us that he became a republican at the age of eight while watching body-line bowling in the 1932/33 test cricket series. He later went on to claim that he had discovered hidden in our Constitution a robust constitutional convention that in fact does not exist, and never has existed, and he tried to justify his flight of fancy by basing it on precedents that have in fact never occurred!
In all of this the republicans were aided and abetted by biased media who had their own commercial interests to serve. Paul Kelly, then editor-in-chief of The Australian, made this clear when he told a constitutional forum that the media would support constitutional change because “The media has a vested interest in change – change equates to news, and news is the lifeblood of the media.” In other words, the media support constitutional change, not because it will be good for Australia but because it is good for their business.
During the referendum debate, far from being reporters and commentators, the media became shameless advocates for just one side of the argument, so much so that a senior British journalist, out here to cover the referendum for The (London) Daily Telegraph, sent back this comment: “I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end.”
And let us not forget how Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb tried to persuade a Parliamentary Committee to change the title of the Bill that was to amend our Constitution. The purpose of the Bill was to create a republic with a President replacing the Queen and the Governor-General. Turnbull and Robb objected to the inclusion of the words “republic” and “President” on the grounds that they were confusing and misleading. Robb also urged the removal of a reference to the proposed method of election of the President by the Parliament because he felt it might provoke a negative reaction from voters. These two republican leaders wanted us to approve a particular constitutional amendment, but they did not want us to know just what that the effects of that amendment would be. So much for an informed electorate.
The sad thing is that ignorance about our Constitution is just as pronounced among members of Parliament as it is in the general community. During the 1997 debate in the House of Representatives on the legislation which established the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the last word on the Bill was had by the honourable Member for Werriwa, Mark Latham, a member who had served on parliamentary committees dealing with public administration and constitutional affairs and who was then, of all things, the Opposition’s shadow minister for education. In the course of his speech he revealed his total ignorance of the basic provisions of our Constitution in relation to the powers and functions of the Queen and the Governor-General. In his attempts to describe these provisions he was dead wrong: his description of our constitutional arrangements was simply not true. I don’t think he was being mischievous or that he deliberately misled the Parliament – like so many other Australians, he just doesn’t know any better.
And now that he is Leader of the Opposition he has revived the republic debate, promising a series of non-binding plebiscites that will lead, he hopes, to a republic with a popularly-elected President. What he seems not to know, or perhaps he doesn’t care, is that, long ago, those republicans who know something of our system of government, including most Labor leaders, declared that a popularly-elected President would be an absolute disaster under our Constitution.
I refer to people like Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Anthony Mason, Sir Gerard Brennan, Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating, Malcolm Turnbull, Bob Carr, Neville Wran, Professor Greg Craven, Professor George Williams, amongst many others, who vigorously opposed a popularly elected President during the lead-up to the 1999 referendum, but who have remained strangely silent now that Mark Latham has expressed his support for such a disastrous proposal. I wonder what has happened to Bob Carr’s previous view that a good monarchy was better than a bad republic?
Those two great constitutional scholars and commentators, John Quick and Robert Garran, in their 1901 scholarly and definitive work on the Australian Constitution, reminded us of the reasons why our Founding Fathers had ensured that the Constitution could not be altered by Parliament or by Government, as happens in most countries of the world, but could be altered only with the approval of the people, and then only by the double majority provided for in section 128 of the Constitution. As Quick and Garran put it, “These safeguards have been provided, not in order to prevent or indefinitely resist change in any direction, but in order to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible, and inevitable.” Clearly the mindless repetition of “it’s inevitable” is not sufficient.
Two years ago, Professor Cheryl Saunders, who led the Constitutional Centenary Foundation for a decade, said that “If there is to be further consideration of a republic, there should be at least three elements of the information campaign. The first should explain the current arrangements and the implications of the move to a republic. The second should explain the proposed alternative. The third should be designed to deal with queries that arise during the campaign, before the vote takes place.”
Sadly, the republican movement does not want an informed electorate, and their campaign during the nineties was based on two falsehoods. We were told that the republic would give us our independence from Britain, but we have long been a sovereign and independent nation, with no legal or constitutional ties to Britain. We were told that the republic would give us an Australian Head of State, but we already have one in the Governor-General. Such outright misrepresentation of Australia’s constitutional development and history has no place in an honest debate about constitutional change.
Now Mark Latham wants to ask us, in a plebiscite, whether we want a republic, and then he intends to give us a popularly-elected President. Well, there is no such thing as a republic. There are 193 independent countries in the world, and more than half of them – 104 by my count – are republics. Most of these republics are different from each other, and none of them offers a better system of government than the one we have enjoyed on this continent for more than 150 years, and as a nation for more than a century. As former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Harry Gibbs, has reminded us, the fact is that most of the world’s monarchies are free and democratic societies, and most of the world’s republics are not. So when we speak of a republic, we need to know what sort of republic. Just remember that both Mary Robinson and Saddam Hussein were republican Presidents.
Asking us to vote now, and to wait to be told later what sort of republic we will get, is no way to change the system of government of this great country of ours. Our process for constitutional change requires that the Government and the Parliament tell us in advance what changes they want us to agree to, before we are asked to cast our vote. The Latham plan for a series of plebiscites first, before we go to a referendum, is just another dishonest attempt to deceive us and to frustrate the provisions of our Constitution.
As for the thought of a popularly-elected President, all of the so-called conservative republicans whom I mentioned earlier have an absolute horror of such a President. They know full well the consequences for our system of parliamentary government, were we to elect a President who would have a bigger and better mandate than the democratically-elected Prime Minister. They were outspoken enough in 1998 and 1999, yet today they remain silent.
Instead we see, from time to time, in the letters columns of our daily newspapers, calls for a republic, with a popularly-elected President, so that we might have a President who could represent those who were opposed to current government policy, a President who could act as some sort of check on the actions of the elected Parliament and the elected Government, a President who would be an alternative opposition to the Prime Minister and his Ministers.
This constitutional madness is a direct result of the dreadful precedent set by Sir William Deane while he was Governor-General. Sir William rejected the proper role of the Crown under our system of government; he discarded the traditions of his high office as Governor-General; he stepped down into the political arena from his true position above politics; and he became, as Professor Geoffrey Blainey once so eloquently put it, nothing more than the shadow minister for social services. Our constitutional history will record Sir William Deane as the first Governor-General to make it respectable for a Governor-General in office to be publicly critical of his own Government.
I had the privilege of serving under five of Sir William’s immediate predecessors – Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir John Kerr, Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Ninian Stephen and Mr. Bill Hayden. None of them ever did what Sir William Deane did, and none of them ever would. I recall an occasion when one of them rejected a suggested course of action on the grounds that he was only an appointed Governor-General, not an elected one. That was a distinction that clearly had no relevance for Sir William.
During the media speculation that preceded Sir William’s retirement, one political commentator, Malcolm Farr of The (Sydney) Daily Telegraph, in commenting on the precedent set by Sir William as an activist Governor-General, suggested that those who applauded his outspokenness might one day be less tolerant of a conservative Governor-General publicly criticising the policies of a Labor Government. He then said, “It would not be too difficult to imagine the outrage and outcry that would follow this governor-general, the accusations of abuse of office and of proper boundaries being exceeded.”
On Sir William’s retirement, amidst all the journalistic eulogies, it fell to The Australian newspaper, itself no lover of things monarchical, to sound an editorial note of caution and to give some sound advice to future Governors-General. “To the extent that the office affords a governor-general some moral authority, forays into politics or other areas of public controversy only serve to undermine it. … Sir William tried to avoid the dangers by concerning himself with problems, not solutions. Yet a number of times he went very close to crossing the line into politics, and occasionally crossed it.” What a pity The Australian withheld these words of wisdom until Sir William’s last day in office.
Australia is the world’s fifth oldest federation, and the world’s sixth oldest continuous democracy. Only Britain, the United States of America, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden are able to look back on longer periods of democratic rule, uninterrupted by dictatorship of the left or right, or by foreign conquest and occupation. It is interesting to note that four of the world’s six oldest continuous democracies are of British origin, and four are monarchies.
Our monarchy and our Monarch have served us well. Our Constitution has served us well. Only we, the people of Australia, by our votes, have the right to alter it. Those who would persuade us to alter it have an obligation to be honest and truthful. Our democracy is built on an informed electorate, and it is protected by the Crown. The next time you are asked to get rid of the Queen and the Governor-General, make sure you know what you would be getting in their place.
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