August 28, 2015

Horse 1969 - The Commonwealth Of Apathy (Why Switching To A Republic Isn't All That Great)

Roughly about once every five years, either as a smokescreen to cover over a more serious issue or because someone has had a dip in the popularity polls, the idea of an Australian Republic bubbles to the top of the collective consciousness and floats around for a while, before sinking back beneath the surface again. I'm not a staunch monarchist; I don't have any special affection for the Royal Family but by the same token I am definitely not in favour of changing to a republic either because I think that the downsides outweigh whatever imagined benefits might exist.

Republicans will argue that an independent nation should have an independent head of state and whilst there is a fair amount of truth in that, it is impossible to argue that Australia hasn't already been an independent nation in every legal sense since the Statue of Westminster Adoption Act of 1942. Australia makes laws on behalf of Australia and no other countries' laws that are passed affect Australia. There is a provision in section 58 of the Constitution for the Governor-General to hold bills aside for the monarch to sign but in practice this almost never happens because the Governor-General normally signs off on laws themselves. The Governor-General remains for all intents and purposes the last pair of hands that a bill must go through in order to become law.
Yet as the head of the armed forces and as the one who holds the power to appoint Prime Ministers and dissolve parliaments, the Governor-General is not just a bit player in a figurehead position. In the 1975 Constitutional Crisis for instance, when Sir John Kerr sacked the Whitlam Government, he did so with good reason. The government was unable to pass a budget and the deadlock was broken with the best possible solution - the dismissing of a Prime Minister, the passing of the budget that day and the calling of a Federal election.

I completely understand the desire to alter the symbolism so that it no longer includes a reminder that the British Empire simply just tuned up, stole an entire continent through the cunning use of flags and displaced many people groups; destroying culture and connection to the land in the process but none of the republican debate that I've ever heard has even so much as once talk about reconciliation and recognition of first peoples through constitutional means. Usually becoming a republic or a new nation is about deliberately severing ties with the past, but in running away from the past, what sort of future are we running towards? If Australia's involvement over the past 70 years with that other great republic, the United States of America, is anything to go by, then the future that we are symbolically running towards is another 70 years of national spinelessness and military subservience to that great power across the waves. By remaining in the monarchy, we embrace the fact that the empire has crumbled and we're fine with that.

I rather like the fact that no-one is entirely sure of what the Governor-General is supposed to do. In theory they wield all sorts of power but in practice, they almost never use it. The 1999 referendum showed that if we were to move to a republic, then people want the ability to vote for the head of state. The problem with that is that once you've voted for someone, you then expect them to do something. The rather impotent role of the current Governor-General would be altered through the process of voting and I don't know if anyone is prepared to see the consequences of that. What would happen for instance if the Governor-General and the Parliament came to an impass? In the United States it results in gridlock; in France it results in gridlock but in Ireland and Germany, that situation doesn't arise because the President remains impartial.
From what I've seen in the Australian Parliament with its ultra adversarial politics, I do not believe that an elected Governor-General either would or could remain impartial. In fact, if an elected Governor-General ran that position in the same spirit as Bronwyn Bishop did with the role of Speaker of the House of Representatives, then that's surely the best possible advert against ever becoming a republic. Electing the Governor-General must surely lead to partisan politics and that's something which I do not want to see; especially considering that the current system works so well that most people don't even know who the Governor-General even is.

The truth is that although I understand why some people might think that Australia becoming is a good idea, it just isn't compelling enough for me. We've had 115 years of remarkably stable government and even had a change of government in the middle of a world war and that didn't cause chaos. The system is demonstrably fine by operation and I don't see and conceivable reason why switching to a republic is going to make anything better at all. I can see how it might make things worse and if change for change's sake is going to make things worse, then that's even more of a reason to do nothing and keep what we already have.

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