“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.” — Lewis Carroll
This famous quote from Through the Looking Glass is part of a clever discussion about semantics. The populist drivel which passes for debate on the proposed “abolition” of the monarchy also appears to be about words and their meanings. “Sovereignty,” “independence” and “democracy” are given different meanings by the various protagonists in the squabble. It’s part of a policy to ensure that the real legal and political consequences of the proposed “narrow and technical” amendments to the Constitution are not subjected to detailed public scrutiny before the referendum on November 6.
The head of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM), Malcolm Turnbull, is the main player in this game of deceit. Some of ARM’s propaganda is laughable, such as the assertion that Australia has to ditch the Queen because she won’t cheer for “our side” in international sporting events. Much more alarming is Turnbull’s attempts to rig the poll by conning the electorate. On July 5, he told a Senate Committee that he wanted to leave the word “republic” out of the referendum question and to include an assertion that the Queen is currently Head of State. Stung by the almost universal uproar at this transparent ruse, Turnbull, a prominent lawyer, retreated on the republic, but still wants his opinion about the Queen to remain in the text of the question, despite the fact that it is incorrect, and has been for over sixty years.
The High Court ruled on 23 June that One Nation candidate, Heather Hill, was ineligible to take a seat in the Senate, because she was the citizen of a “foreign power” — the United Kingdom (UK). This was not a radical decision. The court merely gave judicial notice to what Parliament had long before decided. As journalist Paul Kelly aptly put it: “The Queen of Australia is a legal fiction.” As a citizen of the UK, she is also ineligible to hold office in Australia.
The Australian electorate is not being asked to establish an “independent republic.” It is meant to rubber stamp a fundamentally anti-democratic shift in political power in favour of the Prime Minister — a proposal which must be defeated.
Evolving independence. On January 1, 1920, Australia was recognised internationally as an independent nation and founding member of the League of Nations. Internally, the government still needed approval from London for its activities. But in 1923, an Imperial Conference granted the various Governors-General of the “Dominions” equal status with the King. Since then, the Governor-General has been Australian Head of State. Federal Parliament became fully independent from London following the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1942. From that date, no British law could have effect without the consent of the federal Parliament, and Parliament could repeal any British law — except the Constitution and the Statute itself.
In 1986, the federal Parliament enacted the Australia Act. Its full title reveals the legal and political status of this country.
“An Act to bring constitutional arrangements affecting the Commonwealth and the states into conformity with the status of the Commonwealth of Australia as a sovereign, independent and federal nation.”
The Act granted the states independence from Britain, giving Premiers the power to appoint state Governors. The federal Parliament granted itself and the states the power to repeal any imperial legislation — including the Statute of Westminster and the Constitution Act — and ended all judicial appeals to the Queen. The apron strings to “Mother England” were finally and irrevocably cut.
Unfettered power. One of the harsh lessons of the American Revolution was that government power must be limited. British colonial rule had been the essence of tyranny — cruel, unjust and unaccountable — but even the most “benign” of autocrats will turn against the protections against a despotic administration. Very soon, a Bill of Rights was incorporated to enshrine some fundamental democratic principles in the basic law.
Although some High Court judgements have discovered “implied rights” in the Constitution, democracy, even in the U.S. sense, is alien to Australian law. The Constitution is a colonial document intended to maintain central rule from London. In 1931, the decrepit British Empire granted sovereignty not to the people, but to the federal Parliament. Central power then moved to Canberra.
The Queen may be a legal fiction, but the undemocratic and unaccountable powers of the Parliament are not. In Australia, despite the veneer of regular elections, it is supreme, with virtually unlimited scope to legislate as it wants.
Sharing the continent. The First Nations that survived two centuries of colonial war have never ceded their sovereignty, yet governments have extinguished many of their rights. Without full constitutional recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, the declaration of a republic by the population of the white settler State — called the Commonwealth of Australia — would quite likely destroy what rights remain. Native Title derives from ancient feudal rules about customary use of land, which are embodied in the Crown. Removal of the Crown may sever the link upon which Indigenous land claims depend. Even the most democratic of republican models would be a dictatorship by the invading nation.
ARMed and dangerous. The huge public support for a republic is due to the desire for a real say in how the country is run, after decades of government attacks on living standards and legal rights. The vast majority of electors want to choose their own Head of State.
But any movement toward real constitutional change would upset the cosy arrangement whereby big business firmly controls the government. The task of the ruling class is to rush through a proposal which will maintain the status quo.
This is where Turnbull comes in. Adding a few dupes makes ARM look like a broad organisation. Circulating propaganda about a supposed dependency on England and need for a “new Australia into the future,” it bullies the historic Constitutional Convention to transform the population’s justifiable distrust of the political process into a scheme to disenfranchise themselves for good. If Turnbull’s proposal succeeds, democratic constitutional reform will be stymied.
Puppet President. The office of Governor-General is portrayed by the ARM as a ceremonial appointment. In fact the Governor-General, as Head of State, is potentially the most powerful person in the country. The Governor-General is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The incumbent can dismiss Ministers, dissolve Parliament, call elections, even administer the country. Usually these powers are exercised only on the “advice” of the Prime Minister.
However, as the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government showed, the Governor-General is able to act independently. This formal, rarely used, independence is the only legal balance against an authoritarian government. Under the proposed constitutional amendments, the Governor-General’s successor, the President, will be an appointed lackey, subject to instant dismissal by the Prime Minister. Even if Parliament disagrees with the sacking, the Prime Minister remains in office, and can keep tossing out acting Presidents until he runs out of state Governors or finds one he likes.
The proposed method of appointing the President is a further affront to democracy. No member of a political party is eligible, so hundreds of thousands of citizens are disqualified, unless they sacrifice their right to participate in politics. The Nominating Committee is to be hand-picked by the PM, the leaders of the parliamentary parties and the state Premiers. The candidate is to be “elected” by a two-thirds majority of Parliament. Any odds on the first President not being a straight, white, wealthy man?
There’s a term for this kind of political arrangement: oligarchy. The proposed “republic” would be the opposite of democracy — a dictatorship by an exclusive élite, the members of the government party.
The people must rule. Capitalist democracy, even at its best, is no substitute for direct participation in government — that is, socialism. However, socialists have always stood for democratic reforms and against autocracy. The question in all political struggles, “which is to be master.”
Except in name, the monarchy has been erased in Australia through the development of local institutions of political power. Australian “independence” is therefore not an issue. What is at issue is the outdated colonial Constitution, the powers it confers on unaccountable politicians, and the plan to further centralise those powers.
A new Constitution must include a Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual freedoms and outlawing all forms of discrimination. It must recognise Indigenous sovereignty and invite First Nations into a voluntary federation. It must provide that all political offices are filled by direct election and that any qualified resident is eligible to stand.
Vote No to the Howard-Turnbull monocracy. Hold out for a genuine republic!