At the time this article was written David E.
Smith was professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan and
author of several books including The Invisible Crown: The First Principle of
Canadian Government and The Republican Option in Canada, Past and Present.
These days Australians are doing more than
debating whether they should become a republic. They have actually begun the
process that could lead to a vote on the matter. During the first two weeks of
February 1998, 152 delegates – half appointed by the federal and state governments,
the other half directly elected by a voluntary postal ballot – will meet in
Canberra to seek a consensus on the question whether Australia should become a
republic. If the people’s convention so decides, and also agrees on a
republican model and a timetable, a referendum will be put by the end of the
year 2,000, that is, on the eve of the country’s centenary.
Whether the convention will reach the
necessary agreement and whether the electorate will endorse what is decided
upon is far from certain at this point, although a week following the death of
the Princess of Wales, support for republicanism had reached an all-time high
of 54 percent (an increase of five percent in three months). Later in
September, Sir Zelman Cowen, constitutional scholar and a former governor
general, declared his support for a republic in a major lecture at Georgetown
University, Washington D.C. The pendulum seems to be moving toward change.
Thus Australians are doing more than talking
about severing their last link with Great Britain. But even if that were all,
they would still be some distance ahead of their Canadian cousins. Except for
proposals in 1978 (as part of an aborted constitutional amendment package) to
domesticate the position of governor general by naming its holder the First
Canadian and conferring on him or her all the prerogatives, functions and
authority belonging to the sovereign in respect of Canada, Canadians have
demonstrated scant interest in organizing to abolish (or, for that matter,
retain) the Crown. The Crown remains untouched by the constitutional
investigation and introspection of the last three decades. Only the Globe and
Mail’s quixotic editorial support for a republic at the end of the present
Queen’s reign, with the 150 Companions of the Order of Canada acting as a
presidential electoral college, contradicts this generalization.
Monarchists have long suspected Liberal
governments in Canada of acting clandestinely to undermine the Crown. Despite,
or perhaps because of, this policy, it could be maintained they have
Canadianized the monarchy so successfully that the principal argument
Australian republicans advance for their cause is never heard in Canada. George
Winterton, the constitutional scholar who has written most authoritatively on
the subject suggests that the "greatest impact" of the move to a
republic will be to "enhance Australians’ sense of national independence
and self-assurance."1 In Canada, even the suggestion that the future of
the monarchy be examined elicits few responses, and of these the majority are
usually of a mild reproving nature; overt support for change is seldom
expressed. The contrast between the two former dominions is striking.2 If, as
Australian historian John Hirst says, the Queen "cannot … serve as the
symbol of the Australian nation," why is she acceptable as a symbol of the
The reasons are complex and specific to each
country. Clearly immigration and geography are part of the story. At its
founding Australia’s population was predominantly urban, highly unionized and
except for the substantial Irish Catholic component largely Anglo-Protestant.
Until the middle of this century Canada’s population was always more
heterogeneous as well as predominantly rural and agrarian. For a long time
Australian’s isolation from the mother country enhanced her military, economic
and cultural dependency on Great Britain; Canada’s sharing a continent with
another power that spoke the language of the majority of Canadians lessened her
sense of colonial inferiority but only at the cost of a new form of dependence.
In the history of the nations that comprise
the Commonwealth, Australia’s confrontation with a republican option is hardly
new. India, who celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her independence in
1997, became a republic in 1949 (the same year Ireland became a republic on
leaving the Commonwealth). Since then, the balance has tilted even more toward
republics. The Commonwealth now numbers 28 republics, of whom only nine
(including India) are non-executive parliamentary republics. Executive power in
these countries remains in practice if not in theory within a cabinet of the
British (and Canadian) model. The other nineteen are executive republics, where
executive power is vested in practice and in theory with a president, as for
example in Kenya. The distinction between the two forms of republics has been
the subject of discussion and study in Australia, and it is fair to say that
the most useful and complete analysis of these different republican models is
to be found in publications of the Republic Advisory Committee, appointed in
1991 by the Labour Government led by Paul Keating.4
The non-executive republic is the preferred
choice of every Australian authority who has declared a preference for a
republic. The attraction of that option is that it replaces the monarch with an
indirectly elected president but at the same time seeks to retain the present
relationship between the formal head of state and the executive government.
This is the so-called minimalist republican option. It is the one Paul Keating
envisioned and the one that seems likely to emerge from the people’s convention
if agreement is reached at all. Yet, ironically, it is not the option the
people themselves say they want. The polls repeatedly show that the public
favour a popularly elected presidency. The reason for this divergence in
preference lies in the current distrust the public in Australian, as in many
countries, display toward politicians. The problem it presents is two-fold: not
only must republican advocates convince the Australian voter to support a
republic but they must convince that voter to support a non-executive republic.
If they are successful, at the end of the day Australia will have a republic
but one where the houses of Parliament, probably with a two-thirds vote, will
select the "people’s" president. How will this be an improvement over
the present selection? True, the president will be an Australian, but so too is
the governor general nowadays. Under the change, however, that president will
radiate (albeit at one remove) what the Crown and its representative can never
embody, popular sovereignty.
In fact, contrary to what the minimalist
republican advocates say – that the change is symbolic only – it actually
constitutes a fundamental re-interpretation of the constitution. It will place
constitutional authority with the people rather than the Crown, although,
unlike the United States Constitution, that authority will be expressed in and
through Parliament to the new president. Popular sovereignty is not a new idea
in Australian constitutional interpretation. Brian Galligan, a leading
political scientist at the University of Melbourne, argues that Australia’s
founding rests on popular sovereignty – in the popular election of delegates to
the Federal Convention of 1897-8 and in the popular approval thus proposals
received afterward in each colony by way of referendum. "The real basis of
the Australian Constitution," he says. "was the consent of the
people."5 If that is the case, then the Australian constitution carries in
its heart a fundamental contradiction, one a non-executive republic may lessen
but scarcely remove.
Much of the debate over a republican future
turns on questions about the reserve or discretionary powers of the Crown and what
will happen to them. Advice of the working executive, the cabinet, is almost
always followed by the Crown in modern constitutional monarchies (although
after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975, Australians more than
most subjects of the Crown have reason to know that there are exceptions to
that convention). How to create a republic with a president who will act as the
sovereign or the sovereign’s representative is supposed to act? This is not an
antique or esoteric matter: in October 1997 India’s president refused the
recommendation of the national government to dismiss a state government and
impose direct rule from New Delhi. Legal enforcement of the convention that the
head of state must act in accordance with advice from ministers of the elected
government is an unreliable and contentious substitute. The Australian debate
has yet to resolve this conundrum, although one proposal is to retain the
appointment system for head of state but replace the Queen with a
constitutional council of eminent Australians.
Another difficult matter is federalism. Any
transition to a republic has immense implications for the states. So immense in
fact, that some proponents of republicanism have preferred to leave the
introduction of a republican form of government at the state level to the
states alone. The matter is complex because state governors in Australia are
appointed by the Crown and, since the Australia Act of 1986, on advice of the
respective state governments. Australia’s reconstitution as a republic would go
to "the very heart of federation," says Sir Harry Gibbs, former Chief
Justice of the High Court of Australia.6 It is no exaggeration to say that an
Australian republic would challenge the states to define their own
constitutional legitimacy. At the very least each state must come to terms with
the possibility of a central government that is a republic.
A move to a republican regime in Australia
would mark a clear break in legal continuity in that country. More than that,
it would require the assertion of a new basic norm to inject meaning into the
new legal order. The implications for Canada of such a transition in Australia
cannot be underestimated; in the same way Canada’s adoption of a Charter of
Rights and Freedoms has had a powerful effect on Australian attitudes toward
proposals for an entrenched Bill of Rights. The ties of empire may have
disappeared, and with them Dominion status, but the reciprocal impact of
constitutional change in the great parliamentary federations of Britain’s settler
societies remains an undeniable force.
1. George Winterton, Monarchy to Republic:
Australian Republican Government (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986), p.
2. For a history and bibliography of
Australia republicanism, see Mark McKenna, The Captive Republic: A History of
Republicanism in Australia (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
3. John Hirst, A Republican Manifesto
(Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 4.
4. Australia. Republic Advisory Committee.
An Australian Repubic: The Options, Volume 1 – The Report: Volume 2 – The
Appendices. (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1993).
5. Brian Galligan, A Federal Republic:
Australia’s Constitutional System of Government (Melbourne: Cambridge
University Press, 1995), p. 29.
6. "The States and a Republic," (a
legal opinion by Sir Harry Gibbs and the legal committee of Australians for
Constitutional Monarchy in response to the Republic Advisory Committee Report),
in M.A. Stephenson and Clive Turner, eds., Australia, Republic or Monarch? (St.
Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994) Appendix II.