Australia's Crowned Republic: Does The Prime Minister Get The Crown Or Not?
Written by Lloyd Waddy RFD QC   
Sunday, 20 August 2000
The issue as to whether or not Australia might become a republic boils down to one fundamental question: 'What is the best system of government for this nation which straddles a continent?'

The debate is not the personality of the monarch or the supposed national identity of the country. It is not about those who see a future trade in Asia or those who dislike the British. It is not about independence. Australia is already a fully independent country. It is purely about what form of government we feel will best suit the nation we have forged over the last 200 years as we seek to harness the promise of the 21st century.

The debate is not about the nation 'maturing' as though it were some form of cheese. Change is not the same as progress.

The one question to be asked when change is proposed is, 'Will it be more beneficial than what is being changed?'. In my opinion, it would be far from beneficial to change from our Australian variant of constitutional monarchy.
We already live in a crowned republic.

The essence of a republic is that power of government proceeds from the governed. Australians selected constitutional monarchy voluntarily and voted for it overwhelmingly when we became a nation in 1901.Our Constitution was not imposed upon us. No blood was shed when we achieved nationhood. Our forefathers and foremothers 'agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown'. 'Commonwealth' means Republic - and was the name Cromwell adopted for his short-lived republic in the 17th century.

Constitutional monarchy, whilst it has ancient roots, is no more antiquated than eating or breathing. Constitutional monarchy is a system of government whereby the Head of State in whose name executive power is exercised is hereditary and thus above politics. The monarch's representatives' exercise the Queen's powers on her behalf, not their own, although the Queen has no personal role to play in their exercise.

The existence of a monarchy denies ultimate power to ambitious, self-seeking individuals, who as President with their own mandate would exercise their own powers in their own right - and in favour of their own political party. Constitutional monarchies tend to be stable because ultimate power is denied political favouritism.

Constitutional monarchy is common in the OECD countries including Norway, Sweden, Britain and Spain and common in Asia, for instance, Japan, Malaysia, New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. If one looks at the Pacific Rim, one can add Canada. The system is not old fashioned merely because it has endured for a millennium. In fact, it was recently re-adopted in Spain.

Our Australian constitutional monarchy is the result of a thousand years of development stemming from the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Our inherited constitutional history can be characterised as a continuing struggle by the people to reign-in the executive power. In the time of the British Republic known as 'The Commonwealth', 'the people' cut the head off the king and Cromwell assumed full executive power. So disastrous was the experiment that the people soon restored the hated Stuart dynasty and then again despaired of it. By the Glorious (and bloodless) Revolution of 1688, constitutional monarchy, as we now know it, was established again at the request of the people. England has never flirted with republicanism again.

Our Australian Constitutional Monarchy evolved from this model. It was adopted as the express choice of the Australian people voting in each State. Each of our seven constitutions is monarchical. Nationally we chose to add a federal element and Senate based loosely on the United States and Canadian models and we reserved to the people alone the power to alter the constitution (an element borrowed from Switzerland). The people of Australia have steadfastly and regularly rejected most proposed 'improvements' to our Constitution ever since to the fury of many politicians.

Our system of government has the benefit that whilst all power is formally vested in the monarch. In constitutional theory, 'the monarch can do no wrong' because the monarch always acts on the advice of advisers who are held politically liable for their advice. The chief adviser is colloquially called the Prime Minister and is that person who commands the majority in the Lower House, and can secure Supply, (i.e., the money to sustain the executive government), from the entire Parliament. Failure to obtain Supply or failure to ensure and certify that the advice tendered to the Crown is within the law can lead to the dismissal of a Prime Minister. Apart from that, virtually all day-to-day power of a political nature and of an executive nature resides in the Prime Minister and his Ministry. This system has been characterised by Lord Hailsham in Britain as 'elected dictatorship'.

However, in Australia, by having seven sovereign governments we have managed to split the power that any elected official may achieve. By having three-year elections we keep the politicians accountable in the short term, unlike the British system which runs on a five-year electoral system. We keep our politicians on a short rein!

In effect, our system separates the exercise of political power from the titular 'glory' of the State and denies ultimate personal power to people with delusions of grandeur or political or vested interest. No wonder so many politicians hate it.

Our Head of State arrangements comprise the Queen as titular Head and the Governor-General and Governors of the States as the de facto Heads of State.

The Queen's representatives in Australia exercise the monarch's powers under the Constitution. The Governor-General is nominated personally by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Queen on such advice. He or she thus has no popular electoral base and exercises the vice-regal powers only as representative of the Queen, acting 99% of the time on advice. As to the reserve powers, however, the representative acts on his or her own initiative and judgement. The reserve powers are available only to preserve the integrity of the Constitution. Their use by Sir John Kerr in 1975 resulted in an immediate election by the people of a new ministry (which could have been the old one) - a totally democratic solution to a political crisis. Our Constitution, I believe, worked well.

Because the Crown itself is trusted and normally only operates on the advice of democratically elected advisers, the Governor-General has been entrusted with vast powers. These include the command of the armed forces, the power to call and prorogue Parliament and the power to choose the Ministry, whether the ministers be in Parliament or not. The brake on undue or improper exercise of the Governor-General's power is the threat of his or her instant recall by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The rest of the vast powers of the executive remain under the control of the Prime Minister so long as he or she can obtain the Supply (money) necessary to exercise them and acts legally. In our system the Prime Minister is not mentioned in the Constitution and resigns (or can be removed) on losing the confidence of the members of the Lower House.

Our resultant system is diffuse but extremely efficient. However, it would tend to invest a President with dictatorial powers if a President were given the Governor-General's present powers for a fixed term and no other checks and balances were brought in. A President would exercise his powers not as representative of a benign monarch but as a party-political player; the consequent danger to the State is obvious. As 80% of voters say that they want to elect the President, he or she would have a vast personal mandate.

I agree with Barry Jones, the former President of the ALP that I would not want an elected President (i.e, a politician) taking a role as head of the executive government, commanding the armed forces or being able to dismiss Parliament at will. But if not the President, who will have these powers? The Prime Minister, of course, who else? Who, one might ask, would ever vote to give any Prime Minister even more power?

The 'minimalist' position is thus exposed as the sham it always has been. It seems to be being abandoned by all who have previously championed it.

It is clear that any change to a republic will inevitably alter the balance of power between Head of State and Prime Minister. It would be a backward step to have two possibly conflicting centres of elected power each claiming a mandate for their policies (as in say France or the USA) and dangerous to give more power to the Prime Minister.

However, if the republicans wish to press on they must satisfy the people that their system is at least both as safe as the present one and as efficient. After all, the present one has endured, successfully, federally for almost a century and much longer in the States and, of course, overseas.

Similarly, republicans must convince simultaneously each of the States to change its own individual Constitution and also a majority in all States either to abandon the impartiality of the Governor-General in resolving deadlocks between the Senate (the State's House) and the House of Representatives or to abandon the Senate's power over money bills.

Additionally, they must explain on whose behalf the new sovereign heads (who will replace State Governors) of the individual sovereign States will exercise their powers. Are they severally to be Head of State (i.e, president) in their own right? At present the Governor-General is accorded his status of primus inter pares by State Governors only as an act of courtesy. 'Vice-President' is not a choice, as a totally different sovereignty will be exercised in each State to that of the Federation. No replacement system would be, to say the least, an improvement on our present system where we have one indivisible Crown, where each of the Vice-Regal representatives acts on behalf of the one monarch, thus uniting our federation.

Finally, perhaps, republicans also face the challenge of accomplishing all this within a framework of our existing Commonwealth Constitution. It is based firmly on the original federal compact of 'one indissoluble Federation under the Crown'. If the Crown can be removed, cannot, say, 'indissolubility' and then 'federation'? If the Queen can be removed as one element of the Commonwealth Parliament, cannot the Senate and/or the House of Representatives? Indeed, can the High Court itself - the (very) loose canon in all this sea of change - be removed under Section 128? What hidden doctrines of social change will the adventurist judges of the twenty-first century read into a simple word like 'President'? What then of monarchical conventions?

All this vast potential constitutional upheaval is opened up by republicans because some complain that the Queen lives in England! In 1900 our Constitution never envisaged that Queen Victoria would ever be able to visit Australia. Our system was designed to work with an absent monarch.

Put so bluntly the hollow chant of the Australian Republican Movement, 'We have a Queen of Australia but not an Australian Queen' is seen for what it is - a campaign being used by others 'to rewrite the Constitution in plain language,' to 'update' it, to 'modernise it' and meanwhile enhance Prime Ministerial power under the guise of correcting allegedly imperfect nationalism.

Might it not be less traumatic to Australia were the republicans to invite the monarch to reside here? That would at least preserve our system of government. However, if the monarch lived here now he or she would have no day-to-day power as all the powers vested in the monarch under the Constitution are given to the Governor-General.

Clearly, any success by the republican movement resulting in constitutional change must vest more power in the executive or put our freedom at risk. It is my personal belief that Australian voters will never vote for more power for politicians when they realize that that is the real choice they are being offered: and they will cherish the safety and stability of our present constitutional arrangements. Put more starkly, they will deny the Prime Minister the remaining powers of the Crown, and keep it firmly on the head of a Queen well above politics.