Is there a case for reform of Australia's Constitution?
Last update: 11 January 2023

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II has revived discussion of an Australian republic.

I've never really thought about what we call Australia's system of government, but it does matter. Australia is a commonwealth:
A commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good.” For my homeland, I want nothing less.

Historically, “commonwealth” has been synonymous with “republic”. Australia has therefore apparently been a form of republic since Federation. So what's all the fuss about?

Head of State

Australia's Head of State (HoS) is largely a ceremonial position. The position is filled by the reigning British monarch, represented in Australia by the Governor General (GG). The GG generally acts only on the advice of the government, but also nominally observes the conventions of the Westminster system and responsible government. They are in a position to advise and counsel the Prime Minister (PM) and members of government on behalf of the HoS.

Australia's “Republicans” are fond of demanding that the HoS be an Australian. The Monarch is a citizen of every nation for which they act as HoS. In that sense, our HoS is an Australian.

Adult Supervision

The HoS provides oversight, checks & balances. Like an adult keeping an eye on the children.

Many early GGs were British aristocrats. While these days that might be seen as offensive, they were at least not too close to the local politics of the day. These days, the GG is not only appointed on recommendation of the PM, they're drawn from a pool of people with whom the PM will be familiar. This weakens the oversight and advisory roles of the position.

What's the worst that can happen?

At the risk of invoking Godwin:
Mussolini and Hitler both came to power in multi-party Parliamentary Democracies. Both became dictators of single-party states.

Scott Morrison showed that Australia can produce its own wannabe autocrat. Something similar is playing out in the US with Donald Trump. This time, circumstances and lack of talent frustrated Morrison's ambitions. We'd be silly to rely on always being so lucky.

Benito Mussolini and Scott Morrison
Credits: Wikimedia commons; photographer unknown/ABC News; Nick Haggarty

What went wrong?

The British, who had been a stabilising influence, lost interest. The changing character of Australian politicians contributed. Bob Menzies was the last PM who seemed to work relatively seamlessly with the British establishment.

We began to select as GG, people who are too close to local politics.

Our system has never been perfect. It relies far to much on ethics & integrity.

The system worked well enough until the 1970s. Then, Whitlam was elected. Australia's born-to-rule Conservatives were outraged.

Conservative state governments violated convention on filling Senate vacancies. The corrupted Senate then further violated convention by blocking supply. Our system of government has been degrading ever since.

The public service, which had been a source of oversight and advice, has been de-skilled, cowed and politicised.

Scott Morrison was the, probably inevitable, result. Fortunately for us, he doesn't have the skills or intelligence to pull off an effective coup.

What now?

It seems to me that talk of an Australian republic is just ego. We're already a republic. Some people are just miffed about our historical links. What they probably want is for Australia to be a sovereign state (which we supposedly aren't, while the British monarch is our HoS).

Clearly though, our system isn't working. That's mostly down to a decline in ethics & integrity among politicians and the erosion of control mechanisms.

So how could Australia become a sovereign commonwealth? We'd need to rewrite our Constitution. It's probably time for that anyway.

Things to consider include:

Which should be included in a rewritten Constitution? What should it say about them?

The structure of Parliament is set down in Chapter 1 of the Constitution. The quality of our elected representatives is not what it was. I'd go so far as to say that psychopathy is increasingly common. The only likely remedy is effective oversight.

The Constitution does not specifically mention a Head of State. Chapter 2 vests “executive power” in the Monarch. Does Australia need a HoS? The US HoS is also the Head of Government. Whether we should follow that example is questionable. In my view, we should have a HoS who has the power to dismiss a government, if necessary.

Section 67 of the Constitution mentions “civil servants”. That may refer to what I'd call public servants - or not. The significance of public service in Westminster Democracies has been recognised since (at least) the nineteenth century. Working closely with elected representatives, the Public Service is uniquely placed to observe and advise. The duty to do so, frankly and fearlessly - and to report questionable behaviour - should be written into the Constitution. Protections against political interference or retribution should also be Constitutionally guaranteed.

A body to oversee the behaviour of Federal government has been proposed for some time. To my mind, the oversight should go beyond "corruption", as defined in law. It should embrace concepts such as integrity and ethics (which aren't matters of rules or laws). That notion upsets some people, who seem to think that they're entitled to do whatever they can get away with. To protect it from the inevitable attacks, the body, its funding and independence, should have constitutional standing.

Public sector media is (or should be) a substantial part of the nation's anti-corruption infrastructure. Investigative reporting can lead to further investigation and possibly prosecution. Misbehaviour that isn't legally prosecutable can at least be publicised. Recent governments have invested a great deal of effort into stacking both the board and the staff of the ABC and into crippling it in other ways. Constitutional protection is sadly needed, both from political interference and from vexatious litigation.

Public media also has strategic implications. The demise of Radio Australia's short wave service released radio spectrum which China now uses to influence our near neighbours.

So we'd end up with executive government overseen to different degrees and from differing perspectives by four other bodies. Each of the five would be watching the other four. That should keep the bastards honest, but could the whole mechanism operate effectively?

Finally, a vision of what Australia could be.

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