Constitutional matters

The Voice to Parliament

Precise wording of the proposed constitutional amendment to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament is yet to be settled. The present proposal reads:

  1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
  2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

On last weekend’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue discussed the referendum issues with two constitutional lawyers – Cheryl Saunders of the University of Melbourne and Greg Craven of the Australian Catholic University.

They agreed that the first and third parts are straightforward: they establish a body with the protection and symbolic status of being written into the Constitution, while giving Parliament control over how it is to operate. That’s in keeping with the general tone of the Constitution.

Most discussion, without any firm conclusion, was about the second part, particularly the interpretation of “make representations”, and its scope. Will the body make representations only to Parliament or also to executive government? Will the body handle only matters that have specific consequences for indigenous people or will it have a wider remit? Will its operations apply only to new legislation and policies or will it cast a wider net?

Recalling the deceitful misrepresentations spread around by monarchists in the 1999 republic referendum, Craven was particularly concerned about ways to ensure that the discussion is around straightforward issues that are hard to misrepresent or lie about.

Sorry Albo – while you were away the republic debate found new life

“They call no biped lord or sir” wrote Henry Lawson in his poem The Shearers. Similarly his Song of the republic captures the confidence, energy and enthusiasm of Australians in the years between Federation and 1914 before the country succumbed to the deadly hand of British imperialism.

For the next 40 years it was left to The Bulletin to carry the republican message. But that republicanism was bundled with xenophobic nationalism and racism: “Australia for the White Man” read The Bulletin’s banner. Not much thought was given to the “non-white” people who had been here for 60 000 years or more.

This history presents a problem for republicans in Australia because the movement can so easily be associated with the ugliest side of nationalism. Among many who have embraced globalization of ideas and cultures, and who have seen terrible sins committed in the name of nationalism, any hint of nationalism evokes disgust. And younger Australians find no resonance in the writings of Henry Lawson, Daniel Deniehy or other nineteenth century voices for an Australia independent of Britain.

Guy Rundle is acutely aware of this problem in his Crikey article ‘We made a country worth living in’: how Australia’s republicans can win in 5 years. Unfortunately it’s paywalled, but to summarize his main point, he fears that any affirmation of Australian nationalism can be seen as something dug up out of our nineteenth century colonialist past. For much of the twentieth century we had a nationalist left represented by the union movement, but what remains of the union movement is more concerned with superannuation provisions and collective bargaining than the struggles of 1891. It’s ironic that those who are most eager to break from our colonialist past fear that their cause may be associated with the worst of colonialism.

So how can republicans win? By re-asserting the Australian story in a new light – a story that celebrates the best of our achievements writes Rundle:

We were the ones who made the eight-hour day. We resisted conscription. We made a life worth living for working people decades before most. We remade ourselves in 1948. We made the Mardi Gras from illegality to global celebration of love in a generation. We came together, Black and white, at Wave Hill to resist Vestey, a British agribusiness firm, denying Black people workers’ rights and land. It’s a question of making that “we” all of us.

It would be useful if that story could integrate with the 60 000 year-old story, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart does.

Thomas Keneally, like Rundle, hopes that “the republic will enrich, vivify and enlarge our antipodean spirits”, but he is very much concerned with constitutional matters. His article in The Saturday PaperWhat King Charles means for the republican movement – is mainly about the reserve powers of the governor-general: they’re far more extensive than anyone could imagine.

Crispin Hull also addresses the governor-general’s reserve powers in his article What does the GG do?, and concludes that whatever way we look at those powers, we can do without the position:

If the Governor-General is to blindly follow whatever the Prime Minister says, why bother with a Governor-General? If, on the other hand, the Governor-General has some power in the polity to not blindly follow that advice (read “direction”) how dangerous and undemocratic is it to have an unelected, unaccountable official wielding that power? Either way, we would be better off without the position of Governor-General.

He goes on to suggest practical ways in which the functions normally exercised by a head of state – calling elections, appointing a head of government and signing bills – can all take place without a person occupying the role.

More provocatively Martyn Goddard asks on his Policy Post Is our unwritten constitution worth the paper it’s not written on? Don’t get the idea that Goddard has become an iconoclast, however. It’s actually a description of the mechanisms that guide our separation of powers and sources of authority. These are a written constitution that is deliberately open on many matters, the unwritten but assumed powers of the head of state (particularly in relation to the prime minister’s advice), the courts that have been called upon in the UK but not as yet in Australia to settle disputes about the responsibilities of the head of state, and the conventions themselves.

Goddard presents a convincing argument that the next republican debate has to be about far more than a simple question about how the head of state is appointed, as was the issue in 1999. It has to deal with serious loose ends in our governance arrangements, without being too prescriptive, and the proposal put to the public must not be too complicated, which is why he favours use of the High Court to settle disputes in questions about use of reserve powers.

To return to symbolic issues Keneally observes that in earlier times we were frequently confronted with reminders of Queen Elizabeth, but they are far less present now:

These days all the coronation mugs and frantic or unapologetic visibility have been removed from daily life. Even printed and minted cash, with the monarch’s head, is in many transactions redundant. The muting of the presence of the monarch was a stroke of cleverness on the part of John Howard.

That stroke was clever because those images reminded us of the weirdness and dysfunction of our constitutional arrangements: their absence has tended to make the republic a non-issue.

Is it possible that the ABC, in sending 27 employees to the UK to cover the funeral and transition, and in saturating the news with royal pageantry, is quietly promoting the republican cause, by re-kindling those reminders?

That’s not too far from what Richard Flanagan writes in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald: Perhaps, behind the crown lies nothing at all. Is all the ABC’s “inexplicably grovelling coverage” not only about the burial of a monarch, but also about the terminal illness of the institution, at least for Australia:

Is it possible that this is a seminal historical moment but not the one the media or our leaders think it is? After all, the similarly revered Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire reigned almost as long as the Queen, some 68 years. Yet within two years of his impressive funeral in 1916 his empire was no more and his monarchy finished. Could it be that with the Queen’s death people sense the monarchy in Australia has gone on far longer than it should have and all that kept it going long past its use-by date was her?

Stan Grant on the gag

The death of Queen Elizabeth has reminded Stan Grant of the Australia at the time of her coronation and her first visit to Australia. He wasn’t yet born in 1954, but his mother recalls it. She had the good fortune of being allowed to join the school group to see the queen pass by, because someone in the extended family lent her some socks.

His piece – We aren’t supposed to talk about this – is mainly about his mother’s recollections and the ongoing conditions of First Nations Australians who lead impoverished lives. But “We aren't supposed to talk about these things this week. We aren't supposed to talk about colonisation, empire, violence about Aboriginal sovereignty, not even about the republic”.

Polls – still a strong republican sentiment

This fortnight’s Essential poll starts with Albanese’s favourability ratings (he’s still on a path to canonisation), but it is mainly to do with issues around the death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of Britain’s monarchy, including Australians’ support or otherwise for a republic.

On support for British royals, Queen Elizabeth is on top place with a positive “favourability” rating of 71 percent, followed closely by Prince William (the heir to the throne after Charles), with King Charles enjoying only 44 percent positive rating, partially offset by a 21 percent negative rating. Older people and Coalition supporters have much more favourable views of the British monarchy than others. Only 26 percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 give King Charles a positive rating.

More Australians support our becoming a republic than oppose the idea, but in recent months there has been a pickup in opposition to a republic. There is a surprising gender difference: men are more republican-inclined than women. Young people are much more in support of a republic than older people – dispelling monarchists’ claim that younger people have turned off the republic. The partisan differences are very strong, confirming that the Coalition has a solid support base among people with little faith in their own country.

The results for the idea of King Charles as head of state are much the same as for a republic, except that there is no stark gender difference. Coalition supporters seem to dread the idea of having an Australian in our highest office.

About 58 percent say they have been interested in Queen Elizabeth’s passing and King Charles’s accession, while 42 percent have not been interested. (Why didn’t someone tell the ABC it was less than 100 percent?) The next question is about whether the media has given enough information about the events: only 10 percent respond “less information than I need”.

Albanese seems to have picked the mood of the people by travelling to the UK to attend the funeral, but there is less support – only 38 percent – for suspending Parliament. Younger people are less supportive of the prime minister’s responses, except for the public holiday – that’s turned out to be a clear winner.

There is also a survey published in The Age, revealing broadly similar results as the Essential survey, apart from a finding that between January this year and now, support for a republic has fallen from 54 percent to 46 percent. As with the Essential survey it finds that opposition to a republic has risen. These findings go against the commonly-expressed idea that support for a republic would rise after the death of Queen Elizabeth, but perhaps Essential should come back in six months when recent events fade from mind.

At this stage the general conclusion is that support for a republic is split around 50-50. It would be informative if surveys could reveal what Australians understand by the term “republic”, because it can have negative connotations, particularly if people have in mind the dysfunctional US system as a model. Maybe Australians should be asked in a plebiscite if they would like to see our governor-general appointed by a process that is independent of the UK, before there is any referendum.