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"The year of constitutional viagra": address as part of the 1999 Queensland Young Liberal Convention, Gold Coast International Hotel.

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Cnr of Staghorn Ave & Gold Coast Highway


10am, 17 JANUARY 1999










Welcome to 1999 which the massed ranks of punditry have already solemnised as the year when Australia can at last find its identity as a mature nation; finally cut the umbilical cord to mother England; and become a republic after 200 years of constitutional adolescence. Welcome, above all, to the year of portentous speeches!


New Year editorialists have already observed and Australia Day orators will soon insist that 1999 is REALLY BIG. 1999 is the most important year in Australia’s post-war history, it seems, because this is the year of the republic referendum.. Australia’s previous national plebiscites were about such trifles as conscription, the communist party, the power to control prices, and whether to count Aborigines as part of the Australian people. But this one is special because it’s about replacing an Australian governor-genera1 with an Australian president and thus changing the whole course of history. Forget the detail, feel the brave new world of an Australian republic.


Republicanism has become a kind of national feel-good pill or constitutional viagra to be prescribed whether we need it or not. That’s why it’s good to be among people healthy enough to have little interest in viagra (of any sort) and young enough to think that birthdays (even national birthdays) are for parties rather than for resolutions t 9 change the world before it’s too late.


In 1999, republicans should finally stop treating Australians as a nation of constitutional simpletons and face up to the consequences of change. They have to demonstrate how change will benefit Australia or (at the very least) how Australia can become a republic without putting its existing constitutional safeguards at risk. If, as Paul Kelly has pointed out, a good monarchy is better than a bad republic, 1999 should be the year Australians subject the Keating/Turnbull republic to at least as much scrutiny as the GST.


The Keating/Turnbull republic deserves to fail because its proponents hare been unable to explain exactly how it will cope under stress. The true test of a constitution is not worthy sentiment but the ability to cope in times of crisis. Unfortunately - because this is the constitution which republicans are inviting Australians to live under the republican model which emerged from last year’s constitutional convention ½ a mixture of mickey mouse populism and constitutional brinkmanship.


The idea that every zealot and Civic worthy will be able to nominate someone for president (and have those nominations taken seriously by big party leaders) is pure pap. The involvement of the parliamentary opposition in the selection process is supposed to guarantee that a president is "above politics” but is more likely to create a new power centre in opposition to the government of the day.


Far more will be expected of a president nominated by both the prime minister and the opposition leader, endorsed by a two thirds majority of the parliament and armed with the bravado of a new republic: than of any governor-general. The president will be expected t’ have an opinion on everything but not to arouse dissent; to provide moral leadership but not to undermine anyone else’s authority; and to solve problems without doing deals.


Sooner rather than later, a president will be giving helpful advice to governments in trouble: to cut unpopular taxes; to increase popular spending; to do more for the under-privileged and so on. Given great authority but, for the duration of his term, accountability to no—one, a president will have “power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.


It’s amazing how many people still think that writing to the Queen will solve their problems. In a republic, every thwarted community “representative” will look to the president as arbiter of last resort, Cheaper than the courts and more likely to say yes” than flinty hearted ministers who have to raise the money before they can make heroes of themselves.


Of course, under the Keating/Turnbull model, the government of the day will be able to remove an interfering president by mere prime ministerial letter. It sounds simple but in the real world of politics, in a fight between the president and the prime min ister, there's no prize for guessing whose side the opposition will take: Because it must be debated and ratified by the House of Representatives, at the very least, the dismissal of a president with ideas above his station will create a political crisis to dwarf that of 1975. More likely, because any replacement president will need opposition support, Australia will be president-less for a long period while the opposition backs the “rightful president” and refuses to co—operate with a government which has launched a constitutional COUP against the head of state.


Suppose, anticipating this and doubtless egged on by the opposition, the president decides to strike first by sacking his prime minister. This will be a direct challenge to the authority of the people’s house which, under party discipline, will reiterate its confidence in the former prime minister — who will then purport o sack the president. Australia would have a prime minister and a pretender, plus a president and a pretender -and, until the High Court sorted out the mess, no way to be sure which was which.


Republicans have two responses to this: first, to say that it’s wrong to focus on hypotheticals; and, second, to claim that the existing system could also involve a “race to the telephone”. T his “don’t trouble me with the details” approach is hardly fitting for a constitution which presumably should last at least as long (and cope just as well) as the present Australian constitution. Malcolm Turnbull has rather airily suggested that people should vote for his republic (regardless of whether they think it’s an:, good) and only then debate whether it’s possible to improve this model.


At the very least, a republican constitution subject to almost immediate “fine-tuning” risks looking as dated as hot-pants and caftans. Bad constitutions are far harder to change than bad laws or bad governments. Yet people who wouldn’t let their kids go to the bench without sunscreen and hats now seem to think that Australia should play Russian roulette with its constitution.


The point about the existing system is that it has handled all the challenges of the century. There is no doubt about who is captain and who is referee. In theory, a governor-general can challenge a prime minister but, in practice, except in times of extreme crisis (which a governor-general cannot generate), every knows who is really in charge.


No republican of any substance has explained how a republic might handle these obvious and predictable challenges. What’s worse, on this issue the great fourth estate which rightly wants to know every detail of every conceivable political misdeed has so far been prepared to accept soothing noises instead of answers. Where are the guardians of democracy when Australia needs them most?


As Michael Warby has pointed out, the Labor movement has rarely felt much reverence for a constitution it had no part in framing. For this generation of Labor, a brand new republic (and the fewer genuflections to the past the better) is a way of establishing “ownership” of Australia’s institutions. For the media, a professional preference for change over Continuity and for “spontaneity” over order may help to explain journalists’ giddy love affair with the idea of a republic. For middle aged radicals who Long ago became part of the establishment, perhaps supporting a republic is a way of proving that they’ve kept their ideals. For the ALP’s media sympathisers, campaigning for a republic may have become a professionally tolerated way of waging proxy war against John Howard. Beyond that, explaining the media’s infatuation with constitutional change is like trying to analyse the psychological consequences of a full moon.


A veritable ‘who’s who” of Australian journalism are avowed republicans and, in their “think pieces” and editorials keep returning to The subject like dogs to well-chewed bones. People who have been discussing Australian affairs for years without ever mentioning Her Majesty now affect to think that expunging the Queen is key national priority.


In Australia, the real millennium bug has nothing to do with computers but afflicts everyone who thinks there are risk—free ways to engage in constitutional hang-gliding. For the next 12 months at least, Australians should take the same precautions with s tatements about our constitutional destiny as with Sydney tap water. For opinion formers, the key challenge of 1999 is to allow their sceptical heads to have at least some influence over their republican hearts.


Luckily, Australians generally have a low tolerance threshold for high-minded humbug. The best of the republican boosters can go back to making money or writing novels which they’re good at. A serious constitutional debate would make more of the contributions of Professors Cheryl Saunders and George Winterton, who match their republican zeal with real constitutional expertise and who have pointed out the oddity (in the Keating/Turnbull/Convention model) of coupling bi-partisan appointment with partisan dismissal of a president.


If the republican blue-bloods are serious about changing just the head of state rather than the system of government, why not give more attention to Richard McGarvie’s proposed constitutiona3 council which is by far the nearest facsimile of a monarchy without the queen? Or to Bob Hawke’s suggestion to delay becoming a republic till the end of the current reign -which might at least temper the emotional fall—out of change.


If, on the other hand, they want to engage in useful constitutional spring cleaning, why not also consider making the Senate more like the House of Lords with the power to review but not to reject (for more than a few months anyway) a government’s legislative programme?


Despite meagre resources and minimal media attention, elect—the-president republicans such as Ted Mack, Clem Jones, Tim Costello and Phil Cleary scored almost as many constitutional Convention votes as the republican establishment. Their desire to further democratise our constitution seems more truly republican than the “anti-Vietnam RSL” hang-ups (as Paddy McGuinness has described it, of the republican clerisy. If constitutional change is ever to rate higher on the Richter scale of public interest than (say) a one day international against Sri Lanka, it will have to involve an elected president.


The new year should see more attention given to Manning Clark’s heir apparent, the historian Alan Atkinson, whose magisterial opening volume of The Europeans  in Australia explains our first settler radically liberal and democratic concept of the Crown. As Geoffrey Partington has pointed cut, this helps to explain why, or generations of Irish—Australians, the Crown was re-born as source of justice rather than persecution. Atkinson’s earlier epithet, the “bunyip monarchy” (a mythic rather than a tangible national presence) is probably the best stab yet at expressing the nature of the Australian Crown. His point is that the Crown (like cricket) has become indigenous to Australia.


“Do you want an Australian head of state?” has assumed the status of a republican mantra. But of all subjects, constitutiona3 debate is too important to turn upon a loaded question. In tact, the term “head of state” is not actually used in the Australian constitution and seems to be a diplomatic concept invented to work out who’s entitled to a 21 gun salute. Everything that heads of state typically do, under our constitution, is actually done by the Governor-General. And can a Crown in whose name our laws are made, to whom our office bearers swear allegiance, and which has rested lightly at the apex of our constitutional order since 1788 really be dismissed as foreign to our culture?


To Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that voting “no” to his republic constitutes lack of confidence in Australia’s future, the response could equally be made that voting “yes” signifies no confidence in our present. In fact, rejecting a republic will be a vote of no confidence in Malcolm Turnbull, the Sydney Chardonnay set who run the republican movement, and a president picked by politicians. It will be a sign that republicans whose patriotism is conditional on changing the constitutional order are not taken seriously by voters. Rejecting a republic will be a strike against a leadership caste which regards Australians as “yobs with cans in their hands” in urgent need of cultural re-education and thinks that (non—republican) Australia is little better than the “arse end of the earth”.


Of course there are aspects of Australia which people might want to change but the basic problem with the republicans’ case is that - to win an argument - they are forced to depict non— republican Australia (which is the Australia in which we all actually live now) as essentially dreary and second rate.


There may be at first blush, an incongruity about sharing a monarch with countries such as New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Canada - but only if constitution-making is approached as an exercise in text-book logic rather than the equivalent of experimental surgery on a living patient 4 Sharing a monarch with other countries while being perfectly independent of them is no odder than accepting (say) certain United Nations’ inspired limitations on how we choose to exercise our sovereignty. It’s fl:) odder than a Catholic (for instance) simultaneously upholding the doctrines of papal infallibility and the primacy of an informed conscience. It’s the kind of paradox adults live with. Demanding a republic in time for the Centenary of federation or for the opening of the Olympics is as constitutionally grown—up as the desire to lose one’s virginity or leave home before next birthday.


Lining up against Keating, Turnbull, Franca Arena, Poppy King and Ned Kelly does rather risk the wrath of the Zeitgeist. But in constitution-making, history is a better guide than fashion and the likes of Deakin, Menzies, Curtin and Chifley are better constitutional company.


As 1999 progresses, the battle to become a republic is far more likely to split the republicans than the Liberal Party. For republicans in the Cabinet, constitutional change seems to be an important issue rather than an urgent priority. Given that the existing “head of state” arrangements work perfectly well, it’s more important to get change right than to get it in. The media of course are offering to canonise the first Liberal minister to campaign for a “yes” vote. But why would any senior minister be keen to fight a losing war under Generals Beazley, Turnbull and Keating?


In the end, Australians won’t vote for a republic involving too much change to be safe but not enough Change to be exciting. Change is almost certain to be rejected by an alliance of monarchists and republicans who object to being told that they must vote for a model they don’t like. The defeat of the Keating/Turnbull republic will be good news for Australia - a little like the dismissal and defeat of the Whitlam Government -but it will make 1999 the annus horribilis of the chattering classes who could take years to recover their faith in the ordinary Voter.