Soundtrack the revolution: Björk - Declare Independence
I’ve got to tell you, Screw Rock ‘n’ Rollers, I’m getting a little impatient. This is the fourth Queen’s Birthday message I’ve posted on this blog, and though I don’t want to have to be posting many more of them, I fear I might have to. The first two posts, in 2006 and 2007 were, if you remember (and I’m sure you do), bitter and angry, weighed down with the hopelessness of the task of freeing Australia from the clutches of a foreign monarch our then-leader ardently admired. But my message last year was optimistic; we’d just elected a Republican Prime Minister, of a party who had the creation of an Australian Republic as part of its platform, and the Opposition was on the verge of electing as their leader Malcolm Turnbull, the former leader of the Australian Republican Movement (and subsequently did so). Sure, Kevin Rudd, the PM, had said a republic wasn’t a first term priority for him, and that was fair enough. It took some time to wake the country up from Howard-era futility.
But now? It’s seeming like we just hit our collective snooze button on the issue. Rudd seems as uninterested in bringing about change as his Monarchist predecessor, and Turnbull, in a genuine Judas moment, said he thinks we should wait until England’s Queen dies before we sever our ties with her institution. It is true that little would convince Australians to finally abandon our passion for apathy (well, on this issue, anyway) like the prospect of a King Charles as our sovereign; we’d probably feel compelled to give each other continuous wedgies until we all stopped looking like such dweebs.
But this is the wrong approach to take. Not only is it profoundly wrong for Australia to gain its maturity by default; not only would we be denying ourselves the opportunity to declare to a woman with a sense of entitlement so great that the sun does not set on it and who hasn’t done a single worthwhile thing in her entire life, that we are no longer willing to cling to the hem of her gown like some groveling pack of pseudo-Englishmen; we would be putting off a fundamentally important piece of governmental reform that needed to happen a long time ago.
Australians are a pragmatic people who do not like to change things unless we are forced to. We like to think our system works.
It does not work. We do have to change things.
We have had two Constitutional crises in the past four decades. The more famous of the two, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Governor General John Kerr, is a clear systemic problem that remains a significant source of bitterness for much of the population more than thirty years later, and could easily be repeated again today. The problem in this case wasn’t, as many people believe, that Whitlam was dismissed, though that was a bad outcome to a difficult situation that should have been allowed to play itself out politically. No, the problem was that the man who chose to intervene had Constitutional authority without having popular authority. John Kerr was perfectly within his rights to dismiss the Prime Minister, just as every Governor General before or since has been. But by the 1970s, the Australian people no longer saw the Crown as a legitimate authority, and Kerr, in exercising power derived from an authority the people did not perceive as legitimate, demonstrated the weakness of our Constitution.
The Governor General is a part of our system, and as much as we wish to pretend otherwise, cannot be a mere figurehead. He or she has the role of intervening in disputes Parliament cannot solve for itself. We would hope these disputes were rare, but our system must be equipped for the emergencies our history has shown can occur. In those situations, only a Governor General who can claim to represent the interests of the people, whether because he or she has been directly elected by them, or appointed by their representatives, can properly resolve that situation. The creation of an Australian Republic will mark our final separation from our colonial masters, but it should not be about Great Britain. It should be about creating a system of Government that works for Australia.
The second constitutional crisis occurred when the Governor General Peter Hollingworth was accused of tolerating sexual abuse within the diocese he presided over while Archbishop of Brisbane. At that time he lost the support of the Australian people, but for many months refused to resign. Again, the problem derived from a disconnect between what the Constitution said on the Governor General and what the people thought of the Governor General.
Hollingworth, like all Governors General, did not represent the Australian people and had no responsibility to them. He represented the Queen, and, probably to maintain the pretence of non-interference (doing nothing is still interfering), the Queen did not recall him as her representative. By tradition, the Queen allows the Governor General to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, but as the then Prime Minister Howard did not respond to the people’s displeasure with Hollingworth, Australians had no ability to engineer the dismissal of an official they had lost their trust in. This anti-democratic situation lasted until Hollingworth resigned; it could have lasted until the next election and beyond if he had not done so.
A President, on the other hand, even one with the limited duties of our current Governor General, would represent and be answerable to the people. An Australian Presidency would have safeguards designed to allow the Australian people to withdraw their endorsement of their President if need be, such as an impeachment procedure.
Ours is a system that has hung together through too much reliance on good fortune. It is time to change that. We should vote by plebiscite on an Australian Republic at the Federal election to be held next year, and move to hold a referendum at the election after that. I’ve written too many of these Queen’s Birthday posts already.