Michael Danby MHR

Tel: (03) 9534 8126
Fax: (03) 9534 1575

117 Fitzroy Street
St Kilda VIC 3182


PO Box 2086
St Kilda West 3182
 

COMMITTEES: Republic Referendum Committee: Report
Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports)(10.21 a.m.) —
After hearing hundreds of witnesses from all around Australia, and after concessions by pro-republicans to achieve a unanimous report, the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum completed its inquiry. It was a great honour to serve on that committee.

The committee's recommendation for the long title was unanimous. It is my view, and the view of many people, that the committee's report revived a flagging republican cause. The Prime Minister wanted to include one element of the process in its long title for choosing the President that he and the member for Flinders think is unpopular. So be it. I hope the Australian people will, despite all the negative spoiling, decide that it is time for Australia to have one of its own citizens as head of state.

I regret that some members of the committee, who had not attended the final report writing session, questioned its achievements. I do not want to belabour the point, but it was disappointing that the authors of the minority reports were not there for the final report writing. One minority report, speaking on behalf of ordinary voters and decrying the usual `elites' who support the republic, claimed the committee's report was `too otiose'. `Otiose' means `at leisure; lazy; unoccupied; sterile; futile; serving no purpose.' `Otiose' is a word better applied not to the committee's report but to the opponents of the essence of our report—to those who oppose the republic.

One of the principal arguments of the monarchists opposed to an Australian President and a republic is to claim that under the new system the Prime Minister would have extraordinary powers to dismiss a President. Yet, on the contrary, the weight of public testimony by constitutional experts giving evidence was that the proposed system replicated the current system.

The former Liberal Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Malcolm Fraser, undermined the arguments of opponents of the referendum, such as the member for Flinders, in public testimony to the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum when it met in Melbourne. Mr Fraser, responding to fears about the Prime Minister being easily able to dismiss the President, told the committee:

What you described in your question, Mr Chairman, is the current situation, because a Prime Minister could dismiss a Governor-General and, from the moment that it is reported to the palace, the dismissal would effectively be in place. Her Majesty could say, `But I need this in writing, I need reasons—I need this, I need that,' but all that would do would buy a little time until something was put to her in writing, which she would be entitled to ask for. But she could not delay it beyond that. Effectively, from the moment of the request going to the palace by a conversation, the request would be effective.

Mr Fraser said that in testimony on 6 July at our hearing in Melbourne. He continued:

The problem with our constitution is that, having regard to the powers that the Governor-General technically has, in reading the constitution, the only thing that civilises those powers and makes them acceptable in a democracy is the capacity to be instantly dismissed, and that reality is the convention. That is the thing that brings the Governor-General's powers back to the democratic situation and which makes sure that he cannot exercise the powers which appear to be attributed to him in the constitution, unless it is so recommended by the government and the Prime Minister.

That was a former conservative Prime Minister of this country saying that the same kind of situation would apply under the proposed republic and the various bills attendant to that referendum.

It is good to see passion in this place. Passion is a good thing; commitment to a cause is noble. However, I have recently begun to wonder whether the passion expressed by opponents of Australia becoming a republic is based on an unreasoning hatred of those they consider to be the protagonists of this republic, particularly former Prime Minister Keating.

The member for Fisher's contribution in this debate, in my view, neatly encapsulated this mind-set which marks the contribution to this debate of the constitutional monarchists, whom I shall refer to from this point as the `Queen Team'. As has been pointed out by my colleague the member for Gellibrand, the Queen Team oddly do not want to associate their cause with Her Majesty. Indeed, they have spent an inordinate amount of time talking about `the current system' and how it has single-handedly been responsible for making Australia the wonderful country that it is, as if the 19 million citizens of Australia had no role.

The second line of attack of the Queen Team argues that we jeopardise all this wonderfulness by messing around with the head of state and particularly with the perceived dangers of the proposed model, which is the Keating-Turnbull model, as the members for Fisher, Mackellar and Warringah insist on calling it. The word `model' seems to occupy as much space in the vernacular of the average monarchist as the Queen. There is the most insidious and cynical aspect of the monarchist campaign—the jumping on the direct election bandwagon. I will come later to the cynicism of monarchists reducing the parliamentary model of appointment and hypocritically praising, or at least focusing on, direct elections as popular.

Let us be clear about this. The situation we have is the Queen Team forcefully arguing that, if we become a republic, it can only be with a directly elected President. Why? There is no issue of principle. The republic haters say, `Well, that is what the people want or so say the opinion polls.' This begs the question: when was the last time an opinion poll showed Australians supporting the continuation of the monarchy? If opinion polls are so important to the Queen Team, you would think that they all would have ridden off into the sunset by now.

`It is a politician's republic,' they then hiss. The always amusing Kerry Jones said on the front page of the Australian that the Prime Minister's latest long title was acceptable to her because, `It still focuses on the republican model with a president being chosen by the politicians.' Of course, Ms Jones does not want the people to be aware that currently the Governor-General is selected not by parliamentarians but by a single politician, the Prime Minister. Nor does she want too much attention drawn to the fact that she has dedicated her life to defending a hereditary institution, the Crown, which is elected by no-one at all. For all the nasty things our friends in the media say about parliamentarians, someone actually votes us in. I am not occupying my seat because I am the eldest son of Fred and Margaret Danby.

The final point in this argument is a shopping list of apparent difficulties with the proposed model, going to show how calamity will befall our unsuspecting republic. These alleged calamities have all been addressed by the Attorney-General, the Treasurer, former Prime Minister Fraser and the former Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen. They say these will be minimal if we do replace Her Majesty with an Australian President. No matter how tendentious or facile the apparent failings of the republic, we who support the republic are left with the task of knocking down these various straw men.

The latest straw man is the allegation that we will change the flag if we vote for an Australian republic. There is no such plan to change the flag in the bills. I was there through all the report writing and I can attest to that. Changing the flag, as most parliamentarians know, would entail entirely separate legislation. One wonders if the Queen Team is aware of other places which have managed to replace a monarch as a head of state without civil war, major constitutional crises or the sky falling in on their heads.

To achieve their spoiler ends, the Reith-Murray-Cleary axis exaggerates the powers of the Prime Minister to dismiss the President and points to this as one of the fatal flaws of the proposition. But the primacy of parliament, over even a shadow head of state, is the fulcrum of responsible government. The English fought a civil war to establish that principle. Charles I was sent to the block to establish that right of citizens. It is clear that, under the Westminster system of responsible parliamentary government, a Prime Minister had to have the ability to remove the head of state.

In the old system, it is the Governor-General and, under the new system, it is the President who can be removed. This is deliberate; it is designed in the unlikely event of conflict between the Prime Minister and the President to resolve a constitutional impasse. There is no hatred of Britain implied in this change to this new model. Britain established the Westminster parliamentary system and that system is the reason why so many people find the Australian democratic system so attractive.

Moreover, under the new republic, the Prime Minister will be constrained by having to bring dismissal back to the parliament within 30 days and having to convince the House of Representatives of the wisdom of his actions. Of course, no such restraint exists on a Prime Minister now. Only those who, in bad faith, advance the monarchist cause deliberately understate the gravity of the Prime Minister dismissing a President. Can you imagine any cabinet blithely agreeing to dismiss a Governor-General or a President, or any party meekly agreeing to approve the removal of a President? Only people with no memory of Australian [start page 9131] history or with an absurd lack of knowledge of the constraints of political reality would accept this.

I remind Senator Murray and some others in this place that, if a prime minister were forced to sack the President, it would be vital for a government to decisively resolve the issue by being able, with a clear majority in the House of Representatives, to determine the matter. It may annoy the Australian Democrats, who cannot get people elected in the House of Representatives, that that is where government is formed. That is our democratic system and Senator Murray ought to be open with the Australian people if he wants to make fundamental changes to our system. I believe that what they really want is a radical change to the Australian system of democracy. I do not believe Australians would support that. I do believe that, if they have a correct understanding of what is proposed with the minimalist change, they will support the republic and the change to an Australian President.

In our system of government, we want to avoid a constitutional impasse. We want to provide the stability that underpins this country's peace and prosperity. Our democratic system is the reason millions of people have come to this country. We do not want, least of all during a test of powers, two commanders of the armed forces, two heads of the judiciary and two heads of the civil service. The dual mandate—the split of authority, the chaos—is the formula that direct election advocates like the member for Flinders stand for. I can understand why the Liberal republican conclave in the coalition camp a couple of weeks ago felt that the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business is losing all credibility over this issue.

I want to expand on a little noticed point raised in testimony that explains the necessity for not adopting a joint House dismissal similar to the proposed appointment process. This was raised by a number of witnesses, and it particularly relates to the fact that the Senate might be the primary cause of political tension that gives rise to conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. It was felt that, if the Senate, the opposition and a minor party were taken into consideration by the President in his calculations about actions he might take, he might calculate that he had the numbers in the Senate, even given a House of Representatives majority, to take a different course of political action from the Prime Minister. Again, involving both houses in the dismissal might lead to a constitutional impasse.

In my view, it is vital for the future stability of our political system that only the House of Representatives has the power to dismiss. It is vital, as it will prevent conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. Anyone relying on the actual practice of Australian politics knows that only via the parliamentary appointment model will we get people of the quality of Sir William Deane, Sir Ninian Stephen and Sir Zelman Cowen.

In his ploy to the direct electionists, the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business claimed that, if he were successful in wrecking the referendum, another constitutional convention would consider the issue of direct elections of a President. It would magically materialise, of course. The parliament would slap its thighs and say, `Oh, we've just spent $120 million on this year-long process. Let's just fund another Reith-Cleary-Murray proposal.' Simply spelling this out highlights this proposition's preposterous absurdity.

I want to conclude on the issue of direct election of a President. I have already dealt with the cynicism of the Queen Team's enthusiasm for this model, but any person who wishes to be taken seriously in this debate needs to examine the issue from the point of view of principle, not—as the monarchists do—simply because it is popular.

Let me read the contribution that Sir Zelman Cowen made to our committee which deals with why Australia ought not to go down the direct elections road. He told the committee:

What would be the case with direct popular election? Presumably, we would have competing candidates campaigning around the country to be elected as president. The most likely scenario is that the political parties would endorse candidates for election. They would very likely be a Liberal or Coalition candidate, a Labor candidate, a Democrat and so on. Where would the candidates secure the resources to run their nation-wide campaigns—to organise their speaking tours and their media conferences, to fund their media campaigns and to distribute campaign leaflets and how-to-vote cards? The most likely answer appears to be from the political parties. What surer way could there be of guaranteeing that a politician—a partisan figure—would be elected as president? Yet the election of a partisan Head of State is the antithesis of our system of constitutional parliamentary democracy which requires a non-partisan Head of State.

On what issues would the competing candidates campaign? What would be the issues on which they would debate to gain advantage, one over the other? Presumably, they would, like ordinary politicians appeal to certain sections of the community by advancing policies to favour this group or that, to emphasise this priority or that. Again, this seems to me to be the antithesis of our sort of parliamentary democracy in which the Head of State stands for all the people, and policy issues are debated and decided in Parliament and in elections for Members of Parliament. Under direct election, it is highly likely that we will end up with a president elected with, say, 51% of the vote, after distribution of preferences, to a runner-up's 49 %.

 
     
 

Authorised by Michael Danby 117 Fitzroy Street St Kilda VIC 3182