Countdown to Republic

From the March-April 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

No one was singing “God Save the Queen” when members of Australia’s foremost political parties gathered February 9 to plot a strategy to dump the British monarch as head of state.

The plan retains the current separation of roles between the head of government (prime minister) and the proposed head of state (president) with the latter performing a largely ceremonial role. The head of state in Australia would be a non-executive president—a largely symbolic position, above day-to-day politics, representing the nation rather than a political party or the government.

This is quite different to the United States system, where the head of state and the head of government are one and the same person and where the President runs the country and makes political decisions. The Australian office of president would retain the powers, which the Australian governor-general currently uses under the conventions, or traditions, that have developed over this century. The president’s non-reserve powers will be clearly defined, stating that the president acts on the advice of the duly elected government—reflecting the current practice with the governor-general.

Being a remnant of the British empire, Australia, like other Commonwealth nations such as Canada and New Zealand, still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. Although that has almost no effect on national affairs, the queen’s representative, the governor-general, has one crucial power—to dismiss a corrupt, abusive, or non-functional government.

“It is the government’s view that Australia’s head of state should be an Australian—that Australia should become a republic by the year 2001,” said former Prime Minister Paul Keating, in a 1995 speech to the House of Representatives. Mr. Keating, who served as head of the Labor party, is best known for steering Australia toward a republic and distancing ties with the United Kingdom. This strategy successfully diverted the public’s attention away from its most pressing political problem: a rapidly failing economy.

Anti-monarchists, Australia’s relationship to its former colonial master has sown confusion in its international dealings. “It is beyond doubt that this confusion rests on the fact that our head of state is also the head of state of the United Kingdom,” said chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler, who spent 30 years as an Australian diplomat. Butler said he had run into confusion “about exactly who we are, and worse, who we really belong to.”

In November 1999, the Australian public will decide in a constitutional referendum whether the “lucky country” will become a republic by the centenary of Federation, January 1, 2001.