As the referendum date draws nigh, it is disconcerting that there has been little real debate or discussion about the relative merits of the alternative systems of government. The egregious Malcolm Turnbull, having read the polls, has retired from the battlefield, leaving the republican forces to be led by the ABC. The inadequate Monarchist, Kerry Jones, continues to exhibit no understanding of the importance of the monarch’s role in preserving our democracy. For make no mistake; the issue at stake in this referendum is whether or not Australian democracy can be preserved and if so, for how long.
There are three issues that we would like to canvass here. Firstly, the debate, if it can be called that, has focussed exclusively on two words – monarchy and republic. This discussion is a total waste of time, since, to all intents and purposes, Australia is, and, since Federation, has always been a republic. The choice of the name describing the nation in our Constitution, Commonwealth of Australia, conveys the republican sentiments of the founding fathers and identifies those sentiments with the English Republic of the seventeenth century. Australia is, however, a republic with a Queen.
To citizens, though, the key word is democracy. The word democracy needs to be distinguished from the word republic, since a republic may, or may not be, democratic in the way it functions. A republic can still be a republic even though it is, by every real measure, a totalitarian state. Indeed, the history of republicanism in the modern era is one of high-minded idealism degenerating into fascism, owing to the failure to combine republican principles with democratic practices.
The former Soviet Union is a case in point. Although described as a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the system of government under which it functioned was elitist in spirit and anti-democratic in operation. Thus, the Soviet Union rapidly became a vast concentration camp conducted by a tyrannical clique of fascists.
Other modern republics, professing one thing and delivering another, include the Peoples Republic of China, the German Democratic Republic, i.e., East Germany, and a host of African nations that have generated unparalleled misery for millions of people on that unhappy continent. The same applies to many South American republics. Nearer to home, the Republic of Indonesia has shown that being a republic and being a democracy are two different things.
Secondly, the proposed system of politicians appointing a President is fraught with danger and there are many examples of the abuse of citizens’ democratic rights where an appointed President and a Prime Minister act in collusion. In India, for example, the Congress Party majority in Parliament appointed a Congress Party stalwart to the office of President. Subsequently, he suspended the Constitution to allow Prime Minister Indira Ghandi to govern for two years without any constitutional constraints or elections. Significant abuses of the civil rights of citizens resulted and, in due course, the Prime Minister was assassinated.
A similar story, and one of particular relevance to Australia given the pseudo nationalistic drum beating of the republicans, is told about Sri Lanka by Professor Suri Ratnapala, of the University of Queensland, in the book Restoring the True Republic. He writes;
“I have seen first hand a republic destroyed by nationalism masquerading as republicanism. The former British colony of Ceylon was an independent nation operating under the same system of constitutional monarchy, as does Australia today. There was Cabinet responsibility, a tenured public service, an independent judiciary and free elections. Despite its monarchial form, political power was firmly in the hands of the people. In effect, independent Ceylon was, like independent Australia, a republic.”
“Politicians exploited anti-British sentiment to make a radical break with the past and, in 1972, Ceylon became a republic under the name of Sri Lanka. The Constitution provided for the Prime Minister to appoint the President and the first President was the Prime Minister’s uncle. For the first five years of its life, the Republic of Sri Lanka was administered under emergency powers proclaimed by the President. The history of Sri Lanka since it became a republic is essentially one of political turmoil and struggles against government excess. The big losers were not Queen Elizabeth and her heirs, but the common people of Sri Lanka.”
Thirdly, a most important issue that has not been brought forward by any of the stars of the republic debate is that, according to our existing Constitution, Australia is an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown. In effect, all of the colonies entered into an agreement to do three things; to establish a Federal Commonwealth, to make that Commonwealth indissoluble, that is, unable to be dissolved, and to place it under the Crown.
According to former Chief Justice, Sir Harry Gibbs, the implication is, quite clearly, that, since all of the original states agreed to establish this “indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”, all of the states must agree to dissolve it and establish another. If there is to be another union of states to replace what we now have, then a referendum to bring it about must be supported by a majority of electors in every state. The dissent of one state should cause the proposal to fail. Any attempt by a majority of states to force the issue on a minority would, in effect, be a dissolution of the Commonwealth. A new nation might be forged out of states dissenting from the proposal to establish a republic.
These are just some of the real issues of the republican debate, but you won’t hear about them on your friendly multinational TV network or read about them in your friendly multinational press. Despite the attempts of eminent constitutional scholars, such as Sir Harry Gibbs, to have these, and other, vital issues brought up for consideration by citizens, a conspiracy of silence shrouds public discussion on the republic. The media blitz obliges us to focus only on whether our Head of State should be the Queen’s man or the politicians’ man. There is no sense whatever of the feeling that it might be nice if we had the people’s man. The fundamental realities of introducing a republican system of government to this country, which should be at the centre of public discussion, are buried under a mountain of political bulldust. That this is so should be enough to frighten any intelligent person into voting NO.