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Our Glorious Unhead of State

The idea of an Australian republic is attractive to some, but there's a strong case for a humble head of state.

· 4 min read
Our Glorious Unhead of State
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Wikipedia.

In 1553, the King of England, Edward VI, attempted to disinherit his half-sister Mary from the throne before he died from lung disease. Edward VI was a Protestant, and his half-sister Mary was a Catholic. Concerned that she would undo religious reformation, he chose a distant cousin, Lady Jane Grey (fourth in line to the throne according to pre-existing law) as his successor. In the wake of Edward’s death, when Jane attempted to claim the throne, Mary assembled arms, ready to march on London as the legal and rightful heir. She saw off the pretender Jane, who was later beheaded.

On January 6th, 2021, amidst claims by United States President Trump that he had not lost re-election to the incoming President Joe Biden, thousands of pro-Trump supporters descended on the Capitol in Washington, DC. They entered the building and began to riot. Windows were smashed, furniture was overturned, and, in one case, a lectern was stolen. Faeces are reported to have been smeared through hallways. Similarly to the events that led to Jane’s beheading, this succession crisis was not immune to human fatalities. And a proportion of the US population still considers their current federal government illegitimate.

There has been no succession crisis following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8th, 2022. The change in head of state to King Charles III, apart from a few stationery issues, has been seamless and rather uneventful from the perspective of the Commonwealth realms abroad (those countries who share the British monarchy as their head of state). Australians will receive an extra public holiday, and Victorians will enjoy a four-day long weekend with their “Friday before the AFL Grand Final” holiday coming after the day of mourning.

However, the inevitable chatter about an Australian republic has increased in volume, much of it echoing the most audible proponent of an Australian republic, Australia’s former Prime Minister Paul Keating. Keating has said that “no great country has the monarch of another country as their head of state.”

But there might be something worth preserving in Australia’s relationship with the Crown. OECD data shows that constitutional monarchies in the Commonwealth and Scandinavia all measure above average in wellbeing. Transparency International data shows that six out of 10 of the least corrupt nations are constitutional monarchies, including Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. While, of course, there are likely to be many confounding factors, it remains plausible that the populations of constitutional monarchies are happier and better off because they enjoy the stability, certainty, and legitimacy afforded by this form of government.

One of the underappreciated aspects of constitutional monarchy is the extent to which power diffuses through the system. More so than in the United Kingdom, the concept of the Crown as an abstract perpetuity in Australia (and the other realms) allows us to have a head of state without really having one.

What comprises the Australian head of state is something of a trinity between Governor-General, Prime Minister, and King. The Prime Minister of Australia, who is not mentioned in the Constitution, provides advice to the King as to who he thinks should be Governor-General, and the King appoints the Governor-General as his representative in Australia to act as Head of State in his stead. And so while we say that the monarch is our head of state, in practice, it is the Governor-General, who acts on the advice of the Prime Minister, while the Prime Minister also takes on various roles typically undertaken by a head of state.

Many Australians view becoming a republic (in whatever form it may take) as the natural evolution of our nationhood. But it is important to note that however ceremonial the role of an Australian president may be, or however a president comes to be the president, it would introduce a new element of power into the political system. Australia would have a head of state comprised of one person.

Becoming the President would be so much more outstanding, powerful, and prestigious than becoming the boring old Governor-General. (One might suspect that visible proponents of a republic in Australia believe that maybe one day they will be glorified as president of the land.) When you think of it this way, an Australian president doesn’t gel with our staunchly egalitarian society. Why would we suffer the egomania of those who fancy themselves as the great men or women of history? A Governor-General is much more modest.

A presidency risks becoming a quinquennial beauty pageant and bride-show of the parliament or the people. Before each new appointment of a president, various candidates would need to be discussed, considered, and assessed for virtue, morals, and worthiness—an obvious requirement if the appointment is to be a bipartisan parliamentary affair or popular vote. It would, no doubt, present delightful pickings for the media, enter into the public debate, and, in turn, politicise the presidency. So much for keeping the head of state above politics.

One of the costliest mistakes nations make is in trying to revise the past. We see it contemporaneously in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there are many other examples to think about. In his 1995 “Republic Speech” Keating said: “if the plans for our nationhood were being drawn up now, by this generation of Australians and not those of a century ago, it is beyond question that we would make our head of state an Australian.” For Australia to become a republic now or later is unnecessarily revisionist.

What we have inherited is a constitution that works very well, with what one might call an “unhead of state”—an abstraction that comes into being in times of need. Our existing political system is humble and serves its people more than its politicians. We should approach any constitutional change with humility and, should it be time to evolve our head of state, perhaps we should consider how we might add to our existing system instead of taking away from it.

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