12 Nov 2012

Australia's Absurd Monarchy

By Lindsay Foyle
The arguments for the Monarchy don't hold water, and we're reminded of that every time Prince Charles visits Australia. Why not have an Australian head of state instead and lose all the royal silliness, writes Lindsay Foyle
It is a sad fact that at some time in the not too distant future Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor — or Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom as she is better known — will die. At that moment her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor, will become King of the United Kingdom and 16 other countries within the Commonwealth of Nations, including Australia.

Once he is King, Charles will become head of the 54 countries that make up the Commonwealth of Nations. Of those countries 33 are republics and the rest, like Australia, are monarchies. King Charles will become Head of State of the Commonwealth of Australia, the sixth British Royal to hold the office. Charles won't have to apply for the job or even fill out a form indicating his interest. The Australian Constitution gives him the position — no questions asked. It is a job no Australian has ever held — and unless the constitution is changed — no Australian ever will.

There are some monarchists who claim the Governor General is our head of state. To put it kindly, that assertion is total rubbish. They would only have to look at section two [Governor-General] of the Australian constitution to be put right. It removes any chance of there being any question about who is Australia's Head of State:

"A Governor-General appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth, and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him."

Section six also states, "the executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative". It has been that way since 1901 when six self-governing colonies were combined to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

The need for a federal union of the independent colonies that occupied the continent of Australia and Tasmania was debated for decades before anything was done about it. Eventually, after much talk, an agreement was reached and a constitution was approved in a series of referenda, held between 1898 and 1900 by the voters in each of the individual self-governing colonies. At the time Australia's population was 3,765,339 give or take a few, but as voting was not compulsory and only 442,788 people voted yes in the final referendum and 161,077 voted no.

The vote did not turn our self-governing colonies into states or unite Australia within a Federal Government. For that to happen we required approval from the Parliament of the United Kingdom. On 9 July 1900 the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 was given Royal Assent in London by Queen Victoria. On 1 January 1901, the first day of the 20th century, the colonies became states and Australia became an independent country. Well — sort of independent. Australia will never be totally independent while it relies on a foreigner to be Head of State.

In the many years of debate that preceded federation, much attention was given to whether we should be united under a monarch or become a republic. The republicans lost the debate and now the constitution's preamble states: "The provisions of this Act referring to the Queen shall extend to Her Majesty's heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom." Accordingly, Charles will become our King when his mother dies.

The Queen being referred to in our constitution is Charles' great-great-great-great-grandmother Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria; 24 May 1819 — 22 January 1901) who was reigning when our constitution came into force.

Australian republicans assert an Australian Republic and head of state would be the final step in our journey towards full independence and nationhood. But such a change could only come about by referendum. Section 128 [Method of Constitutional Alteration] states that the changes must be agreed to by a majority of voters in Australia and by a majority of voters in a majority of states. This is difficult to achieve; of the 44 proposals put to a referendum since federation only eight have been successful.

Technically, it has always remained possible for the British government to modify the Australian Constitution as its origins lay in their parliament. While nobody dreamed of doing so, 86 years after passing the Australia Constitution Act 1900, the British parliament passed the Australia Act 1986. The new act removed the power of the United Kingdom parliament to change the Australian Constitution. It can now only be changed in accordance with the prescribed referendum procedures as set out in Section 128. To avoid any possibility of someone finding a loophole in the new act, equivalent acts had to be passed in every Australian State Parliament and the Australian Federal Parliament. It could be argued that up until 1986 we were not really independent.

But the referendum held on 6 November 1999 — when our population was 18,925,855, give or take a few — was defeated with 5,273,024 people voting yes and 6,410,787 voting no.

Monarchists claim the status quo is fine. "If it ain't broke," is their common refrain. They quietly ignore the fact that our constitution is broken, and has been since 11 November 1975, when Queen Elizabeth's representative, Governor General Sir John Robert Kerr, sacked the Australian Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam.

Despite the constitution stating the Governor General must act on advice of the Federal Executive Council (and Whitlam refusing Kerr to seek advice outside the Council) Kerr only acted after taking legal advice he was not entitled to seek, from people he was not entitled to involve, who gave advice they knew they were not entitled to give. Immediately after sacking Whitlam, Kerr appointed John Malcolm Fraser, who did have the qualifications needed (the confidence of the House or Representatives), to be the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia.

Monarchists overlook Kerr's actions and claim the following election on 13 December 1975, which Fraser won in a landslide, justifies his behaviour. But the legality of Kerr's actions and the election that followed are separate events.

Regardless of the arguments for retaining the Monarchy or not, our Monarch and head of state is unfit to be a member of the Australian parliament, yet stands above it. Section 44 [Exclusion from Eligibility] of the Australian constitution states that any person who is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power is excluded from eligibility.

Most absurdly, when Elizabeth II dies and Charles becomes King it will be his job to pass on Australia's condolences to himself as the new King and head of state of the United Kingdom. That bit of nonsense should be enough to turn any self-respecting monarchist into a republican.

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Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 15:19

What would happen if we just didn't have a head of state?

Twitter: @austingmackell

Dr Dog
Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 16:00

I agree with everything you have to say Lindsay. Betty Windsor must be the last foreign head of state for Australia.

At the same time I get a feeling of anxiety when I think of the process and potential pitfalls along the way to developing the new constitution. When my partner and I tried to sign up to be active in the last Republican campaign I was told they didn't need our help. Apparently Malcolm had it in the bag.

I would like to hear from a lot more people about the model of both republic and referendum before I throw my support behind any group.

Perhaps Austin is right, what are heads of state for except to cut ribbons and excite school kids? If we are to have a president I think they should serve as speaker of the lower house. We could get some work out of them and at the same time inject an air of problem solving into the proceedings instead of the usual partisan gimcrackery.

Chris Maltby
Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 17:02

There are some interesting options for dealing with this issue (and perhaps the need for a referendum to clean up the wording regarding the sovereign). Read the Wikipedia page on <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_of_Settlement_1701">The Act of Settlement, 1701</a> and the section under Australia for some thoughts.

It's now very strange that s2 of the Australian Constitution should still read "<em>The provisions of this Act referring to the Queen shall extend to Her Majesty's heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.</em>" - especially as the <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia_Act_1986">Australia Act, 1986</a> specifically provides that all inherited laws from the UK (including the Act of Settlement) are now within Australia's power to amend or replace - assented to by the very same Sovereign.

A suitable change to this Act by the Australian Parliament could see a person chosen by election or appointment made the lawful successor to QE2.

Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 08:31


Yes, of course the arguments for a foreign monarchy are absurd, however the majority of Australians voted against a republic a few years ago and will do so again if the Conservative parties campaign against the proposition.

The combination of scare campaigns, the colonial cringe and compulsory voting will sabotage any republican referendum.

Australia is a de facto republic already and that's good enough for most voters.

Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 14:28

I don't want an elected monarch (Governor General or whatever) any more than an hereditary one.

I think Westminster is a far more democratic system than many republican ones - where reform can come to focus on the court rather than the parliament.

I think there should be a legislative arrangement to handle blocking of supply - an election being triggered after a certain period. (I'll let the lawyers handle the wording.)

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 16:45

The people spoke when they were asked. Outer suburbs outweighed the pointy head inner suburbs.

Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 00:42

I like Dr Dogs idea of combining the roles of head of state and speaker. Regarding ribbon cutting and excited kids, why don't we just let the kids cut the ribbons. That would be even more exciting for them.

Twitter: @austingmackell

Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 09:12

I am sure that Australians would love to have a president as head of state. Then we could have an election evry four years and spend $6billion on it, only to see the richest people buy the president for the duration.
Oh yes a definite improve,ment on what we have now.

Little Devil
Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 12:54

I think a Republic system of government for Australia is long over due. But what people can't agree on is how do we elect/appoint a president. Do we elect one by popular vote, if so how can they be above politics, do we let the politicians appoint a president the same way the Governor-General is appointed or is there some other way that the president is elected/appointed?

http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/australian-identity/republic/in... this is one way that the President could be elected/appointed and while we are at it the Constitution could be upgrade to fit more into modem Australia

Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 13:31

We must never forget that the referendum was designed to fail for the republican cause, as the vote was cunningly divided into 'types of Republics'.
Divide and conquer is what John Howard did on behalf of royalty.
It does seem like a very old fashioned and outdated idea, so much so that Prince Charles himself might consider abdicating in favour of a British Republic.
I wouldn't be surprised if he preferred to open up all of the palaces for conserving the arts and convert their grounds into environmentally friendly public places.

Posted Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 07:06

I would also like to add my argument for not changing the constitution. Without an Australian head of state, our government does not have total power, which rests ultimately with the Queen of England. Paradoxically, the Queen of England does not have power over Australia because she is unpopular here and the fact that the commonwealth model is out of date and no longer holds currency. If the concern we have is about the quality of our democracy, then we should focus our energies on getting corporate influence out of government. It is not so long ago that our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, was removed from office because of a campaign by mining companies. Becoming a republic does not make us any less beholden to those with real power, mining companies and countries that view us as a source of raw materials to fuel their industries. I take my hat off to New Matilda, a refreshing new publication with a good business model able to publish ordinary Australian points of view without concern for business interests.

Posted Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 20:43

Without a bill of rights what difference would there be?

I think there should be a process to becoming a republic that involves the people.
The hegemony of two parties and a monarch [who is virtually symbolic] has reached its sunset.

Why not pass the Citizenship bill first? Or concurrent then people may see some value in becoming a republic.

As for being independent I don't think we have ever been independent I think the world is a case of military power and lately that looks worse not better,

As for the way it is now the constitution empowers the government to write law, BUT there is no control on what kind of law and with Bicameralism reduced to two parties in two houses I think constituted rights is the best check and balance against steam-roll legislation.