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Pop Politics Understood: The Republic of the Commonwealth of Australia?

The Prime Minister is the leader of Australia, right? The Australian Constitution doesn’t think so. According to section 61, executive power is vested in the monarch as exercised by their Governor-General. What the Constitution doesn’t tell you is that the Governor-General’s power is subject to the PM’s advice. So while the Governor-General holds all the power, they’re practically powerless: a mostly invisible and ceremonial figure who signs the bills and drapes medals onto honourable Australians. Everyone can name the Prime Minister; you’d be lucky to find anyone who could name the Governor-General.

Recently, many learned the name, David Hurley, for the first time. It was revealed that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised Governor-General Hurley to appoint Morrison to five ministries without informing the government or the public. Bound by conventions, the Governor-General followed the Prime Minister’s advice.

The press grilled the former PM. How could he fail to inform the public? But others targeted the Governor-General. How could he let this happen? Why didn’t he question Morrison’s advice? Why didn’t he require public disclosure? For the first time in years, the Governor-General was thrust into the spotlight, and whenever this happens, the natural question arises: why do we even have a governor-general in the first place? Why aren’t we a republic?

Republics and Monarchies

A republic is a system of government where executive power is held by the people through their elected representatives. In contrast, a monarchy is where executive power is held by the monarch, a person who holds power until death or abdication.

Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a form of government where the monarch’s power is exercised in accordance with a prescribed constitution. This is opposed to an absolute monarchy such as Saudi Arabia where the King exercises absolute power. In this way, Australia maintains both a strong democracy and the monarchy’s sovereignty.

Much of our understanding of Australian politics doesn’t come from the text of the Constitution but rather, unwritten conventions rooted in the Westminster system of government. In this system, the Governor-General appoints the PM from the House of Representatives – specifically, the leader of the House majority – and acts on the PM’s advice. So while the Governor-General is the Australian head of state, it’s the PM who represents Australia on the world stage.

When discussing a possible Australian republic, we usually mean a “parliamentary republic.” This model is almost the same as our current system outside of one key aspect: the Crown and Governor-General are replaced with a President. This President would be a ceremonial head of state and would either be elected by the people, the Parliament, or appointed by the PM.

This is distinct from presidential republics such as the US. There, the president is elected by the people to be both head of government and head of state. In a parliamentary republic, we’d still look to the PM as our political leader while the President replaces the Governor-General who, like the Governor-General, would only act on the PM’s advice. That begs the question: if a ceremonial head of state only acts on the advice of the PM, then what’s the point of a Governor-General or President? Shouldn’t we just abolish the office altogether and make the PM the head of government and head of state?

What’s the Point of a Ceremonial Head of State?

While the Governor-General can only act on the PM’s advice, there’s one exception. By convention, the Governor-General has “reserve powers” that they can exercise at their discretion, such as the power to dismiss government ministers. Supporters for a separate head of state say reserve powers are a check on the government of the day, allowing for a Governor-General or President to act as a “constitutional umpire.” However, the use of reserve powers is rare.

This brings us to the “Dismissal”. In 1975, the Whitlam Government was blocked by the Fraser Opposition in the Senate from passing supply (money bills) until the PM called for an election. When the PM finally caved and advised the Governor-General to call a half-Senate election, the Governor-General refused. Instead, he dismissed Whitlam’s government, a power exercisable in situations where supply cannot pass the Senate. While the Governor-General acted within his legal right, there was intense public outcry that an unelected official could dismiss an elected government. Almost half a century later, the Dismissal remains controversial. However, if we expect a head of state to act as a “constitutional umpire,” then reserve powers are necessary. This feeds into the expectation that an apolitical Governor-General or President will intervene to protect our democratic institutions in the event of a constitutional crisis.

Outside of politics, a ceremonial head of state is important as a “symbol of national identity” in the same way that the King or Queen is a symbol for the UK. According to the 2004 Road to a Republic report, a separate head of state wouldn’t merely be a rubber stamper but one who “promotes the unity of the nation.”

If a separate head of state is necessary as a national symbol and constitutional umpire, then the question of a republic is really: “Who do we want our head of state to represent?” If we want a symbol to represent Australia, should they, or should they not, carry its historical colonial connotations?

What Will It Take to Become a Republic?

To become a republic, there would need to be an amendment to the Constitution to replace the monarchy with a presidential office. While any legal amendment simply requires a majority in the House of Representatives, a constitutional amendment is more complicated. Because constitutional amendments concern the nation’s highest law, the people are required to vote in a referendum.

Section 128 of the Constitution states that a proposed law must be passed through both Houses before being presented to the electors. It must then achieve a double majority: first, a majority of the population nationwide; second, separate majorities in a majority of the states. If a double majority is achieved, the bill is presented for assent and is enacted. In the Commonwealth’s history, there have been 44 referendums. Only eight have passed. The last referendum was the 1999 referendum on a republic which only reached a nationwide vote of 45.13 per cent.

There were many reasons why the referendum failed. While the Hawke-Keating Labor Government adopted republicanism as a policy in 1991, the Coalition didn’t. In the months leading to the referendum, the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy presented a unified message: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Meanwhile, the Australian Republican Movement argued that the presence of the British monarchy in Australia’s Constitution prevented Australia’s institutions and symbols from being “unequivocally and unambiguously Australian.” However, the republican movement was divided over which republic model should be adopted: should a president be directly elected or should a president be appointed by Parliament? Ultimately, when the referendum proposed for the president to be appointed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, many disappointed republicans voted “no.”

If republicans seek to win in a referendum, they should look to the most successful referendum: the 1967 Australian Referendum on Indigenous Australians, which won a 90.77 per cent majority. Its success has been attributed to a clear question, the bipartisan support of the Government and Opposition and the unchallenged campaign by pro-First Nations supporters.

Could an Australian Referendum Succeed Today?

A republic referendum is likely to be held, now that Queen Elizabeth II has passed away. As such, a debate on a republic is on the horizon with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promising a republic referendum in a potential second term. At this point, an Australian Republic isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.”

A ceremonial head of state is important as an apolitical symbol and an additional check on government power. While a referendum wouldn’t change much in our political institutions, it’ll offer Australians the opportunity to decide what these symbols and institutions represent. The fact is, symbols are important and for many, the office of governor-general represents a foreign institution with a legacy of ‘unutterable shame’ which devastated Australia’s First Nations.

While a republic wouldn’t rectify the ongoing effects of dispossession, it would mark a symbolic step away from this history, a step toward Australia’s own identity and a step toward the “Australian values” that ex-Governor-General Sir William Deane echoed through his tearful shedding of golden wattles into the Saxtenbach River after the death of fourteen Australians in 1999: a gentle reminder of Australia’s place in the shared spirit of humanity.

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