Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Right Royal Republic

I am a republican. Small-R, if you please. I am in favour of a two-thirds-of-parliament appointed Head of State for Australia. This represents a minimal change to the existing Westminster system, while providing the nation the dignity of a citizen as the formal Head of State. I also reckon we should keep the name - Governor-General, not President. I am not swayed by the pageantry or the fact that the good Prince seems like a good bloke, as it appears many are.

I know, the whole thing can become constitutionally complicated. Should we codify the powers of the Head of State or not? What about the State Governors who are also currently Vice-Regal appointments? What happens in the event of a constitutional crisis? There are arguments that our Governor-General is the Head of State already and that the Queen is the Sovereign.

I know, I know it is complicated. But this gets back to the post I put up a couple of days ago about the diminution of reasonable debate. Can't we work these things out? The lead-up to the actual Republic Referendum in 1999 was a shouting match that left the public uninformed about what was being proposed. I heard and still hear people gripe to the effect that "we don't want to be like America", or hear them pointing to failed states around the world, from the Soviet Union to Zimbabwe and saying that they are examples of republics. All of which exhibits gross ignorance of the nature of the proposed change. There are plenty of Parliamentary Republics where the President has basically ceremonial and reserve powers analogous to Australia's Governor-General, and in no way was anyone suggesting the type of executive presidency like the US, where the President is both Head of State and Government. And pointing to failed states as examples of what happens when a local citizen gets in charge I think is demeaning to the history and institutions and people of this country. As is pointing to a poll the day after a significant event and proclaiming that the pomp and circumstance surrounding a pair of pretty foreigners is enough to change people's minds about the political system governing their nation.

Do I particularly mind that there are people who hold a different view? Not really. This is not an issue upon which I would die in a ditch. However, there is a principle at stake, and I think it should be argued; calmly and rationally. For all the flaws and shortcomings of debate, the referendum went down in an example of democratic participation. I don't generally accept that the majority of Australians (especially the post-1960s generations) have an abiding love for the institution of monarchy in itself. Neither do I suspect that the affection with which the current Queen is viewed has a heck of a lot to do with it. I think in addition to a lot of apathy and a bit of ignorance, there is a great inertia in the view that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". It is a view I hold in high regard. Is there anything fundamentally "broken" in the current system? No, I don't think so, at least not insofar as the operation of the parliamentary and executive system goes. As I said earlier, it is a matter of principle that the Head of State be a citizen, whose authority is derived from a mandate of the people (insert Monty Python "Holy Grail" bit here...).

But if we can't argue these issues of princple in an informed way, what hope is there on the substantive day-to-day things? Taxes. Spending priorities. Going to war. Perhaps I'll write on the issue further in a later post, but one of the inequities inherent in the system (cue Python again) is the electoral system itself. While I did not vote for the Greens in the last election, the party gained 12% of the primary vote across the nation, yet received only one seat in the 150-seat house. While the preferential system allows the redistribution of these votes ostensibly providing a modicum of recognition, it obviously does not result in the views of those voters - almost 1.5 million out of a total of 12.5 million - being substantively addressed by representation in the lower house. Now, changing the voting system is arguably a bigger deal, which would have a significant impact on the day-to-day operation of politics in the country. How can we possibly have a serious debate about that in today's environment?

Earlier I implied that deciding upon great issues of state should not necessarily be swayed by the emotional impact of such a thing as a Royal Wedding. But that would be to deny the emotional aspects which colour both sides. Ties of history and tradition on one. Ambition of self-government and self-respect on the other. A bit of distance should probably be left. But in the end, the issue will come up again, and I hope the debate can be civil and reasonable.

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