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The Queen is Dead: Long Live…The Republic?

For many years, indeed since the failure of the 1999 referendum on the idea of an Australian Republic, it was predicted that the death of the Queen would resurrect the idea. This may seem a little too soon (I can practically hear the cries of ‘the body’s not even cold yet’), but if not now, when? Queen Elizabeth was a wildly popular monarch; her successor, King Charles, is another matter. The death of the Queen is the precise time to re-examine the idea of an Australian Republic. This piece is not meant to be the final word on the topic, and opinions will likely vary. These are just some of the issues around the Republic that I think are ripe for discussion.

Background: The Failure of the 1999 Referendum

In 1999, a Referendum took place in Australia on the question of the nation leaving the British Empire and becoming a Republic. The problem was the model. The idea seemed to be that the people would elect the parliament, and the parliament would choose/appoint the President. In essence, this was quite a conservative model, since the people would have no say in who the President was. For this and other reasons, the people rejected the idea. Like many unsuccessful referenda, the defeat effectively killed the issue, and there has been no serious discussion since. However, it is this void that opens up the opportunity for a new discussion.

A New Hope: An Idea for a Republic

This section title is not to conflate the British with the The Empire from Star Wars (although the various conquered peoples may disagree). Rather, I seek to portray the following discussion around the Republic as a dies nova – a new day. Acknowledging the failure of the previous model, we need to either fix the problems inherent in that model or toss it aside entirely and begin from scratch. As a reformer, I want to start with the previous model.

The President (Or Head of State), Part One: Position and Powers

The major point of the previous model was that Australia should have its own head of state, rather than a representative of a foreign power. Under the previous model, the Parliament would have chosen the President. This was, in effect, the same as the monarchy (at least in practice), where the Parliament, more specifically the ruling party, chose the Governor General. So all that was being changed here was the labels. Yes, I know that the President would have been chosen with the consent of both parties, but it was still chosen by the Parliament.

It was also not clear what the powers of the President were to be. If they were similar to the Governor General’s now (signs the laws, Commander in Chief of the armed forces etc), once again we see little more than a label change. As one with a background in abstract Mathematics, you can change labels all you like; if the structure is identical, it is the same object. Undefined powers, along with a reliance on convention, can lead to all sorts of shenanigans, as contemporary readers need no reminding. If the President were to be largely ceremonial, this was no real change. However, if the President were to be a powerful office, could they overrule the Parliament and establish some sort of autocracy?

The President (Or Head of State), Part Two: Candidates, Terms and Elections

Also left unanswered in the old model were the questions of who would be allowed to be President, whether they would be elected or appointed and for how long they would serve. No mention was made of impeachment or removal and the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. I want to deal with each in turn.

First, the idea of who could be President. I would suggest any natural-born citizen has the potential to be President. When we think of an Australian Head of State, we think perhaps of people like John Hewson, or Gillian Triggs or someone similar. A statesman (statesperson is cringey). Someone who would act in the best interest of the nation. Academics whose decisions are grounded in evidence rather than who pays them. Now of course the office would ultimately become political, but we should start high.

Moving on to term limits and the nature of the position. One of the flaws in the previous model was the parliament choosing the President. The alternative would be to have Presidential elections similar to those in America. One way to get around this might be to extend parliamentary terms to four years and have Presidential elections say every three years. If the President is to be more than a ceremonial figure, they should be elected rather than appointed. As for term limits, perhaps no more than two consecutive terms of three years, for a maximum of nine years. Obviously they would have no say over their successor. Like any elected official (this should extend to the Prime Minister as well), the President should be able to be impeached and removed from office. Perhaps a 2/3 majority in both houses could achieve this.

The United States of Australia?

I sympathise with the claim that my description of an Australian Republic sounds quite American. This is the model with which I am most familiar. But if we want to really change the nature of our governance, a new coat of paint on an old car is just that: an old car with a new coat of paint. The old model was just a monarchy with a few new labels and was rightly defeated.

As for how my proposed model would work, every four years the people would elect the parliament as we do now, with the majority in the House forming a government. The Senate would serve a similar purpose to what it does now. The real change would be the President. The details of this position would need to be carefully worked out, with lawyers wrangling over details, interpretations and all that fun stuff. Is the President to be a figurehead or a real political force? I mentioned above the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President: this too would need to be made clear. The paradox here is poignant: if the President can overrule the Prime Minister, the risk for chaos is high. But if the President has little power, they are a figurehead and nothing has changed.

Conclusion: Carpe Diem

The passing of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles is the ideal time for the Republic debate to rise again. The practicalities may prove difficult, however. Mr Albanese already has one referendum he wishes to pose: that of the Voice to Parliament. A second referendum in one term may stretch the friendship a little. If he were to receive a second term (and the state of the opposition makes this likely) perhaps he can do it then. But at the very least, the issue should be raised again and discussed. Ignore the bellyaching from the monarchists (including that remarkable letter from Victorian Liberal Tim Smith to Charles) and focus on what is best for Australia. We can still remain a member of the Commonwealth (as, for instance, Canada (eh?) has done) and clean up at the Commonwealth Games, we would just not be shackled to a foreign, unelected, ceremonial institution anymore.


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  1. Keitha Granville

    the idea that we have an elected President is, right from the off, a potential rort. Just as the in the USA it will be the person with the most money and clout in the elite of our society. Let’s face it Joe Public is never going to have a chance, from day 1. That being the case, let’s not. The likelihood that a President would command a larger salary than the current GG is high, as would be the trappings of the role. If he or she has actual power the elected parliament would no longer be the sole arbiter of what happens in our country, one person might be able to do anything he or she fancied, or was encouraged to do by any vested interest. It’s a can of particularly wriggly worms which needs to stay shut for the moment, and only after exhaustive consultation with the electorate should we choose the model that will present the least problems for the future. Sticking with the current system seems simpler all round. caveat – I do not think Charles should be king, he is hardly a role model as a husband. More than happy to have King William on my coin.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Keitha, Howard was sneaky when he held the referendum in 1999. My memory isn’t perfect, but of what’s left of it I recall he constructed the question in a manner that didn’t provide a favourable option of electing presidents. He went with the U.S. model, which has proven over the years (and especially since) to be a Godsend for idiots (presidents and voters).

  3. RomeoCharlie29

    I think you can forget the last bit for a while, Keitha. Otherwise I agree with Tim that we should be discussing it now. As I said elsewhere it is not disrespectful to the deceased, and not disrespectful to the new King whose accession we had no say in. Before we go further, however, there needs to be some change in our current system of governing, some substantial electoral reform such as truth in political advertising, no reference to an opponent’s policies, platforms or personalities, limitations on spending and donations and real-time reporting of them. I don’t like the idea of a presidential election as in the US. I actually think the president should be selected from a small group of nominees (with military, former pollies and religious excluded) chosen by a special committee for their service to the nation. The successful candidate to require a two thirds vote of the combined Senate and Reps. These are, after all, our elected representatives. The role would be as for GG but with no power to sack a PM or elected government. A general election for President would inevitably introduce politics and, unless heavily controlled, wasteful expenditure of money.

  4. GL

    There is no way the major parties would allow the oiks to vote for a president and even if they did they would make certain the role is purely window dressing. Much simpler, and safer, if the party in power chooses who they want to fill the position.

  5. RT Murphy

    I have been hearing some folks commenting about the Republic. This has frequently taken the form of a question: Do you really want a system of government that, in recent years, has thrown up the likes of one Donald J Trump? And as to the proposition that the pollies basically choose the President: that would almost certainly guarantee that the office would be used as a reward for the worst kind of political hack imaginable (President ScumMo, anyone?)

  6. RoadKillCafe

    Worry no more, the messiah from the shire has already appointed himself to this role.

  7. Some Village Hampden

    Why do we need a “Head of State” anyway. If the role is to be largely ceremonious or formality endorsing let us just have the Chief Justice of the High Court perform these functions

  8. Anthony Judge

    Great idea to have a debate, but how meaningful and inclusive are such public debates at this time?. Great idea to consider alternatives to a monarchy, but how problematic have republics and presidents been — and how many alternative models are on the table or being researched? Have republics been more abusive than monarchies in statistical terms over past decades or centuries: wars, fraud, scandals, etc? Is the switch to a president just an instance of the current constraints of binary thinking: monarchy bad, republic good? Any change is necessarily better? Is the US model an inspiration, given the manner in which money is required, channelled and used to get election — and the behind-the-scenes deals engendering complicity with vested interests? However I find it fascinating, especially in Australia, that zero effort is made to cite specific examples of people who might be more attractive than a monarch — in comparison with those that would not. What are the personal qualities which would engage more than 50% of the population and not leave major sectors alienated? Too readily forgotten in the discussion of legal technicalities is the symbolic importance of the role in public relations — as a fundamental archetype. Many people need and want to identify with the person — and that person’s family — whether that is appropriate or not. Are we talking of “a well-rounded person”, a person “for all seasons”, a “good bloke” (in whose eyes?). Maybe we just need someone to whinge about until their symbolic execution and replacement. A scapegaot?

  9. wam

    Time to rewrite the constitution and get rid of foreign rulers, the 8 governors and their general.
    Anthony a debate on the government’s plan for a republic is important BEFORE any referendum.

  10. New England Cocky

    @ RoadKillCafe: There is more truth in your throwaway comment than too many people are prepared to admit. The Royal Australian Dictatorship overlorded by ”The One Chosen by the Eagle” was being prepared with the $18 MILLION gift of taxpayer funds to the Australian Future Leaders Foundation Ltd ”charity” supported by gg David Hurley for which in return Scummo received five (5) secret Ministries all with unlimited unilateral powers. Naturally graduates of the AFLF would become the Praetorian Guard for the future ”Dear Leader”.

    @ wam: A sensible condition for the forward progress into the 21st century political world.

    I would note that the present policy of surrendering sovereignty to the USA (United States of Apartheid) would require revoking.

  11. Terence Mills

    Section 59 of our Constitution says : SECT 59. Disallowance by the Queen.

    The Queen may disallow any law within one year from the Governor-General’s assent, and such disallowance on being made known by the Governor-General by speech or message to each of the Houses of the Parliament, or by Proclamation, shall annul the law from the day when the disallowance is so made known.

    Shortly, the Constitution will be changed to substitute “The King” for “The Queen”. So, you may say why is the whole section not being removed after all it is now obsolete ? Well, we would have to have a referendum to remove this and other spent sections.

    In my view we need a Constitutional Convention, not only to consider recognition of aboriginal peoples but to tidy up this now largely obsolete document that no longer meets our needs – among other things we need to incorporate a Bill of Rights for all Australians.

  12. Dr Tim Jones

    Terence, how is the Constitution changed without a referendum? I know it only changes one word, but still?

  13. paul walter

    Dr. Tim Jones, isnt Terence’ s point, “why not remove the diseased part”.?
    Like, if you have cancer you remove the whole lot, not half and leave the rest there.?
    I go with him on the underlying part also, how is it that foreign interests like the British Establishment through Kerr in ’75 have such say in OUR democracy. Is it democracy if things are botaxed to remove conversation on the evil bits and it has taken historians along time to work thru these complexities, but it is not hard to grasp for conclusins, given what was at stake.?

  14. Jon Chesterson

    No roses ever in
    a garden fair, no rose
    a colour spare, no head
    a queen or king shall bear’
    said Alice,
    ‘a republic can’t compare’.

    Queen of Spades, 2010 AB

  15. Neil Hogan

    Terrence Mills – The Australian constitution was written when Queen Victoria was the monarch and since her passing on January 22, 1901 we have had Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII & George VI as Kings before Elizabeth II ascended to the throne as Queen on the death of her father on February 6, 1952 so my question to you is, “Was our constitution changed when our monarch was a King and if so was it changed again when the Queen ascended to the throne?”

  16. Terence Mills


    Good points.

    My understanding is that the change from Queen to King in the Constitution is not the type of alteration envisaged by section 128 and requiring a referendum.

    Only the monarch has changed, not the monarchy which goes on eternally………….a bit like Blue Hills used to.

  17. Lawriejay

    Presidents Rinehart, Harvey, Forrest or Clive Palmer, we have the millionaires to do it???

  18. SP,

    Perhaps the head of state could be selected/elected as follows.
    Each state nominates 3 candidates (as they already have some mechanism to find governors*) and the territories 1 each (total of 20). The final candidate is selected/elected by a combined preferential vote of the houses of parliament with input/votes assigned to The Voice (should it eventuate). The term of the head of state should be fixed at say 5 years and the selection timetable also fixed and out of sync with the federal election cycle.
    This should minimize partisanship (as it is rare for one party to dominate in all states, and federally in the house of representatives and the senate all at the same time) without creating a head of state position that is overly powerful** (ie where a head of state could claim some kind of mandate due to election).
    It would be nice if this could all be done on a newly agreed “Australia Day” ceremony (not in January). Maybe the winter solstice would be a good time, nothing much going on around then.

    *Or maybe the Governors of each state plus 2 further candidates are put into the mix.

    Direct election seems too radical and parliamentary appointment by the winner of the latest election seems too partisan.

  19. Arnd

    RT Murphy,

    “Do you really want a system of government that, in recent years, has thrown up the likes of one Donald J Trump?”

    As against that, do you really want to hang on to a system of governance that has thrown up the likes of Tony Abbott and Scotty from Marketing, and on the mother country itself, BoJo and Liz Truss and their motley crews of profound incompetents?

  20. Terence Mills

    Seems there is an outcry after the NRLW disciplined player Caitlin Moran who has indigenous heritage : she posted this on social media and thinks it’s alright to do so :

    Today’s a good f***** day, uncle Luke [country music artist Luke Coombs] announces his tour, and this dumb dog [Queen Elizabeth] dies, Happy f***ing Friday.”

    The NRL gave her a one-match suspension, a quarter of her salary in fines and mandatory counselling about off-field and online protocol.

  21. leefe

    The whole “politicians’ republic” line is the most specious argument you could ever make. It’s somehow worse to have parliament choose a head of state than to have that head of state being an overseas based person with no tie to the country, who has their position purely due to the lottery of birth and who is represented in Australia by a person chosen by the Prime Minister? Give me the policians’ republic over a politician’s constitutional monarchy any day.

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