With the Queen’s Birthday to be celebrated in South Australia next weekend, it is timely to reflect on the efficacy of Australia’s existing constitutional arrangements, which, of course, include a role, however limited, for the Crown. It is even more appropriate, probably, in that the citizens of Australia are going to be asked to remove that role from the Crown in the forthcoming referendum, set down for November this year. If Australians do the bidding of those who drive the republican push, then it is quite possible that this will be the last Queen’s Birthday celebrated in this country.
It is not our intention to enter here into the debate on the question of whether Australia should become a republic. We remain unconvinced that the Constitution of Australia would be made more democratic, efficient or just, by breaking the existing links with the Crown, and we regard as fanciful the suggestion that under a republic the Head of State would give Australia a sense of unity and heal the divisions that exist in our society.
Indeed, given that the divisions and disunity are largely attributable to the actions of politicians, and that, under the republican model carried by a minority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the Head of State is to be appointed by politicians, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that we could well be worse off under the changes proposed.
But the debate about our constitutional arrangements, and proposed changes thereto, tend to ignore the democratic tradition that has always existed in Australia and that is reflected in our present Constitution.
The drafting of our Australian Constitution was undertaken at a series of Conventions of Citizens around Australia and was finally adopted by a direct referendum of all citizens. Contrast this truly democratic process with that of the United States, widely regarded as the world’s greatest democracy. In the U.S., the Constitution was drafted and adopted by a Constitutional Convention and has never been submitted to the people at a referendum. Similarly, the British, Canadian and New Zealand constitutions have never been submitted to the people for judgement.
In the same vein, Australia was amongst the first nations to introduce universal suffrage, well before the United States and Great Britain, and the South Australian Parliament was the first Parliament in the world to legislate for votes for women.
Our Senate was, from its inception, directly elected by the people, whereas in the United States, that provision was not made until earlier this century. The Upper House in Canada is still not elected and in the United Kingdom, of course, it has never been elected.
It is important to recognise the natural democratic tendency that permeates the Australian character and to understand that our present Constitution is a reflection of that spirit. That democratic instinct is something that is not present in much of what passes for political debate today, yet it is something of which we should be proud.
The republican debate has been remarkable for the lack of intelligent argument on both sides. On the one hand, the republicans seem to rely on bullying pseudo nationalism, one might even say Anglophobia, rather than presenting rational arguments of constitutional theory and practice. On the other hand, the monarchists, because they don’t seem to be able to articulate any relative advantages to Australia of a monarchy over a republic, manage to portray themselves as maundering sentimentalists clinging to the past. The appeal, false in both cases, is to the emotions, rather than to the intellect.
Australia has been ill served by both monarchists and republicans; and, it must be said by governments, oppositions and the media, all of whom have shown no interest in bringing this important debate on our Constitution up to the level it deserves. The Australian Constitution is the “owners’ manual” for the operation of our country, but none of the major players seem to be interested in pointing out that we, the citizens, are the owners.
While there is a case for constitutional reform, it should focus on introducing provisions that allow citizens to control the actions of politicians and High Court judges who defy the Constitution, rather than focussing on window dressing and the politics of division. Given the history in Australia of citizens rejecting the ambitions of politicians for amendments to the Constitution, and given the widespread distrust of politicians of every stripe, it is likely that, once again, when citizens are asked the question in November, they will say; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.