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Debate on issues surrounding republicanism

ELLEN FANNING: It now seems to be a matter of when, not whether, Australians will debate the future of their system of government. As we've said, even those Australian leaders who support the maintenance of links with the Crown believe that 100 years after our Federation Fathers wrote the Constitution, it's time for a review. But the debate is a complex one. Are Australians interested in changing their national symbols or are they ready to make wholesale change to the basis of our government? Should we have an Australian president or do, in fact, we need one?

Well, to help answer some of those questions, I'm joined now in the studio by Professor Tony Blackshield from Macquarie University who is an expert in constitutional law; Malcolm Turnbull, the Director of the Australian Republican Movement; and Lloyd Waddy, QC, representing Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. Gentlemen, thanks for your time tonight.

First to Tony Blackshield. If we could begin with a definition. When we talk about a republic, what do you consider is up for review?

TONY BLACKSHIELD: The minimum that's up for review is changing from the Queen as head of state to a non-monarchical head of state.

ELLEN FANNING: Does it go further than that?

TONY BLACKSHIELD: It certainly has to go further than that because you have to decide how the non-monarchical head is chosen. It's possible to stop there, but I would hope that we'd go a good deal further.

ELLEN FANNING: So you're talking about wholesale constitutional change?

TONY BLACKSHIELD: There's no doubt that we need wholesale constitutional change. One pattern that might be emerging is that we might change to a republic and, while we're at it, throw in some of the other changes. I happen to think most of the other changes are more important and I'd rather see us tackle those and perhaps throw in a republic while we're about that.

ELLEN FANNING: Malcolm Turnbull, is there anything more important than just changing the symbols?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: No. I think it's the most important constitutional issue and I disagree with Tony. I think, to a true patriot, I don't think there's anything more important than the symbols of national identity, and the republican movement proposes, very simply, that we ensure that we change the Constitution to have a head of state who is an Australian citizen. The other changes are a matter of interest for politicians, constitutional lawyers and so forth, but they shouldn't stand in the way of Australia asserting its own identity.

ELLEN FANNING: And Lloyd Waddy, I take it you'd disagree with that.

LLOYD WADDY: Oh, yes. I think there are true patriots in Australia now, before we have a president. I think Tony Blackshield is being very honest when he says this is the least important thing to do and there are many other changes they want to see, and this is so, right throughout ....

ELLEN FANNING: But you do seem to be a minority. We're talking about premiers, Liberal conservative premiers all round Australia, talking about the need for the debate.

LLOYD WADDY: No, talking about joining in a debate which was forced upon them. I mean, I would hate to see the cultural cringe of Mr Goss. I mean, what racism to say he doesn't want to go through a gate with Apaches and Eskimos. What an awful thing for any politician in Australia to say. What a shocking thing, in my view, to come in on that sort of line.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, if we could talk about the issue of a head of state which seems to attract the most attention. The Prime Minister envisages an Australian chosen by Australians as an Australian head of state.

LLOYD WADDY: Yes, himself.

ELLEN FANNING: But how would he or she be chosen? Tony Blackshield - to you first.

TONY BLACKSHIELD: In terms of democracy, which I think is what we should mainly be worried about here, it's important, apparently, to have an elected head of state - if it's a president, an elected president. On the other hand, from another democratic point of view, it's important that this figurehead be what the Queen presently is, a mere figurehead, a mere symbol. If the head of state is elected, there's a danger that that gives that person too much power over the elected government.

ELLEN FANNING: Yes. Tim Fischer's point that a president, if popularly elected, could destabilise our political system because, in fact, they'd have a direct mandate where the Prime Minister wouldn't. Is that a real concern ?

TONY BLACKSHIELD: It is, because among the other constitutional problems that the mere change of head doesn't touch is the question of the reserve powers, what happened in 1975. If you simply substitute president for governor-general, you still have all those old issues unresolved. I think, at the very least, we should be trying to clarify some of those issues, but again, making the head of state elective might seem to give that person more power, where I look back at 1975 and say they should have less.

ELLEN FANNING: Malcolm Turnbull - how would you do it? How would you choose a president?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, the republican movement has been very explicit, right from its foundation, that the president - for some of the reasons Tony's canvassed - should be elected by a vote of both Houses of Parliament sitting separately. The reason for that simply is that the president's role, like the governor-general's, is essentially ceremonial, and, on moments of constitutional crisis, to act as an independent arbiter.

ELLEN FANNING: So they would still have that role? You'd still have the potential for a 1975?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, you do, and there will always be, in a constitution like ours, moments of crisis when the head of state will be required to intervene. What would be a good thing - it's not necessary but it would be a good thing - is to actually decide what those reserve powers are, what the rules are, for example, as to what the president should do if the Senate blocks supply and so forth, and actually write them down. It's not necessary. But it's important to bear in mind that the mode of electing the president that we're proposing is one which would actually reinforce the supremacy of parliament.

At the moment, the Prime Minister can appoint and/or sack the Governor-General at a moment's notice. The Queen has to do as he says. There's no question about that. And so what we're proposing would actually give a considerable degree of security and integrity to the office of the head of state, and that's why conservatives, like Tim Fischer, I think are quite right in identifying the approach we're taking as being the correct constitutional approach.

ELLEN FANNING: Well Lloyd Waddy, if you leave aside the issue of the royalist argument, is there anything wrong, is there anything instable, if you like, about replacing the Governor-General with the president?

LLOYD WADDY: Yes. I think there is a great deal. I'm a prime minister's man on this. I think that Australians elect the Prime Minister who exercises his power only with the consent of his Cabinet, them only with the consent of the Caucus, them only with the consent of the Parliament, and they only get supply if they carry both Houses. Now, once you put a president above all that and give him a mandate by all the chosen representatives in Australia, you introduce a potential Yeltsin situation where a man's there for five years. I mean, they're very frank about what powers they're going to change but, you see, the present Governor-General can dismiss the Parliament; summon the Parliament; can appoint a Prime Minister outside the Parliament; commands the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

The Government of Australia and each of the States is vested in the Queen, at the moment, and the Governor-General only acts as her representative. Now, by having the president, the problem is that you are going to give those powers personally to a man, you're going to give him a mandate ....

ELLEN FANNING: Or a woman.

LLOYD WADDY: Or a woman, of course. Of course, we have a woman as Queen. I think the feminists would be happy with her, wouldn't they?

ELLEN FANNING: Well, Professor Blackshield, do we - if we're going to move towards a republic, do we need to include something in any new constitution that says: This is how we get rid of a president if it becomes a problem.

TONY BLACKSHIELD: Oh, I think we should, and I also agree that we should do as much as we can to clarify the reserve powers or whatever other name we chose to give them. I agree that you can't get rid of those powers altogether unless you radically change our system, but it's worth looking at what the New South Wales Parliament has been doing as it experiments with a four-year term. They have been codifying, clarifying, defining as far as they can, the reserve powers of the Governor, including a nice little clause that says in exercising whatever powers he has, he should be guided by the wishes of the Parliament.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, you'd have to agree then, Malcolm Turnbull, that, I mean, once you get into this debate about how do you have a republic and do you have a president, you really stir up a hornet's nest. It's not as simple as just changing the symbols and on we go.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, that's absolutely wrong. I mean, it can actually be done very, very simply. All you need to do to change a constitution, as George Winterton's demonstrated, is essentially to remove the references to Governor-General and Queen, insert a reference to president; write a clause which states the president shall be appointed by a vote of both Houses of Parliament and can be removed in the same way. If you want to go further, you can state that the president shall, in the discharge of his duties, act on the advice of the executive council - which is the Cabinet - and you can say that insofar as he has reserve powers, you can spell out what they are and state what he should do in certain circumstances.

ELLEN FANNING: Is it that simple, Lloyd Waddy?

LLOYD WADDY: I don't think it's that simple. I think we've got a fantastic constitution, at the moment. The people want it. The people will never vote for change. They know what happened in '75, and 60 per cent supported it immediately. The same happened here with Lang. They want an umpire. They want it independent and they want the Queen above all, and they won't vote for a president.

ELLEN FANNING: One last question I could put to you, Lloyd Waddy. There's some suggestion, today, that we could need an Act of the British Parliament to remove our links to the monarchy.

LLOYD WADDY: Yes.

ELLEN FANNING: Doesn't that really prove that we are dependent, that there is a dependency there?

LLOYD WADDY: No, I don't think so, at all. I think we're totally independent and have been since Federation.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Oh, that's absolute rubbish. I mean, that - frankly Lloyd Waddy, for Lloyd to say we were independent since Federation demonstrates that in the course of this debate he has learnt nothing about the constitutional history of this country.

LLOYD WADDY: I could just be right, Malcolm.

TONY BLACKSHIELD: I won't go back to 1901, but I'd say we've been completely independent since 1986, so that all that's left is the symbolism. I've heard the suggestion that we would need to go back to the British Parliament to change the so-called covering clauses. The Constitutional Commission that looked at all these issues in 1988 said: No; the Australian people, in referendum, can now do all of that. I believe that's the correct answer. But I believe we should make it easier for the Australian people to do it, and that's probably the most important constitutional change of all.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, it's obviously a debate we're going to continue to have. Malcolm Turnbull, one final comment?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Yes, just one point about '75. You see, there's something anomalous with Lloyd Waddy saying he's a prime minister's man and liking the head of state being appointed by the Prime Minister, and then referring to how many people supported what Kerr did in '75. The fact is that if Whitlam had got to the phone to the Palace a minute before Kerr sacked him, he could have had Kerr sacked. So you see, this is the problem.

LLOYD WADDY: But he would have had to answer for it. He would have had to answer for it to the people.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: No. True conservatives, people who value the way the Constitution really works, will support the republican movement's proposals for electing the president.

ELLEN FANNING: It's a debate we'll continue to have, no doubt. We'll have to leave it there, gentlemen. Malcolm Turnbull, Lloyd Waddy, QC and Professor Tony Blackshield - thanks for your time tonight.