by Scott Crawford
ON THE waiting list of government reforms, the republic lacks priority. Republicans therefore wait patiently. But, with every day we wait, the claim that a republic is ‘inevitable’ becomes increasingly hollow.
A predominately republican Australian electorate, for many and varied reasons, rejected the republic proposal at the 1999 referendum. Federal Governments, hence, have not sought to revisit the issue. Perhaps they’re afraid, perhaps they don’t care, or perhaps they’re just distracted by other matters. But why should we wait for the Federal Government to act?
We often chide the lopsided nature of Australia’s federation. We debate the ‘blame-game’, and simultaneously lampoon our three-tiered system of government. We find a lot of fault with the current state of federalism in Australia. But have we forgotten the beauty of federalism? Classical Constitutional scholar A.V. Dicey noted that those seeking to be part of a federation ‘must desire Union, and not unity.’ Just because the nation does not seek to become a republic does not mean that the states need to declare defeat.
What can the states do?
Already many states have made republican-spirited reforms, for example, removing certain oaths and changing titles such as Queens Counsel to Senior Counsel. However, can we be more radical than that? Why just tinker at the edges?
In 1995 Paul Keating, in an oft-quoted speech, argued that:
Governments can wait for opinion to force their hand, or they can lead. They can wait for the world to change and respond as necessity demands, or they can see the way the world is going and point the way.
And so it is with State Governments. They can wait for the Federal Government to force their hand, or they can lead.
To date, the discussion about state constitutional issues in a republic has been centred on what they should do once Australia severs its ties with the monarchy. This has focused on the bizarre situation that could see state constitutions continue to incorporate the role of the Monarch, irrespective of Australia becoming a republic. But, why should the states wait until a republican head of state is installed federally? State constitutions will need to be amended at some stage if Australia is to become a republic. It is submitted, therefore, that these amendments should happen before the nation chooses to become a republic.
For example, currently State Governors are appointed by Her Majesty. Let’s change that now ? we need not wait. Why not allow the states to be the laboratory of policy and politics that they used to be? Let’s have the states debate their future constitutional structures. Indeed, the powers, role and function of the Gubernatorial office itself could be re-examined at a state level.
A by-product of such a movement would see an evolution toward a republic. It would inform the electorate, it would road-test new constitutional architecture, and it would help the national republican effort. It would do so by isolating our Governor-General as the colonial hangover that they are. For the states’ own sake, it also makes a lot of sense to prepare their Constitutions for a republic before we remove the Queen as the Australian head of state. Doing so now saves the states from the indignity of having to rush to change their affairs after a successful referendum on the republic (should we ever see the day).
Admittedly, there may be impediments to this process.
For example, some states require a referendum to amend their Constitutions ? but others do not. In Victoria, for instance, only the legislature needs to endorse a Constitutional amendment. If we rely on the results of the 1999 referendum, one could argue that Victoria is the most republican-spirited state in Australia ? and it can reflect this by amending its Constitution. It can break its state constitutional bonds with Monarchy and display the progressive and modern values of the state and its people in its Constitution. Victoria can lead the way and others may then follow.
Let’s stop waiting.