An Australian Republican

“The youngest person on that balcony with Queen Elizabeth — only two weeks old — is automatically more qualified to be the head of state of Australia than anybody in your family,” he said.

Australia is about to have another referendum on whether it should secede from the Commonwealth and become a Republic, nearly 20 years after the last time we voted on this. Last time we voted ‘no’. Mostly, I think, because nobody wanted to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Besides. The Queens lovely, and her family does all that charity, and it’s a bit of a legacy thing, you know?

But then we get to that quote, and we see what we’re really losing.

My mother, who voted in the last referendum, asked for me to write about this one. “Just so it’s not all doom and gloom all the time”. She said that the last time this was voted on, there wasn’t really a sense of being informed on the issue beyond the general question. The pros and cons weren’t really discussed, and she was curious what my thoughts on the matter were.

America is a weird place. There, a Republican is right wing, and a Liberal is left wing. Here, and in most of Europe, it’s the opposite. That might be useful to keep that in mind, because here a republican is someone who wants Australia to secede. This might otherwise confuse American readers when I argue for the republican side here.

There are a few arguments I can address for monarchy, or voting to stay. Roughly in order:

1: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

It’s worked fine so far, and changing it sounds like a lot of work, confusion… probably create a mess. If the monarchy isn’t really hurting us, it doesn’t seem worth it to cause that confusion.

Besides. The Queen’s birthday is a public holiday, and Australians will go to war over losing a long weekend.

2: The Royal Family are charming, lovely people, who do a lot of good philanthropic and charity work!

They’ve been so generous to us with their patronage, and it’d be a shame to lose them.

3: Would we still be allowed in the Commonwealth Games?

Seriously, how hard we kick ass in the Commonwealth Games is a serious matter of national pride. We don’t do quite so well in the Olympics, when the Americans and Chinese and Russians and other big players are allowed in.

4: Royals are raised and educated from birth to be responsible, perfect leaders

That’s not something you can get from the general population. They make for savvy diplomats, usually have military careers to prepare for office,  and are unique in their ability to serve the country because of this.

When I say that ‘laziness’ seems to be the strongest influence behind this decision, note I say it with a bit of national pride. If you believe that ideology follows material conditions, then it seems like our national aversion to work we don’t want to have to do comes from a history of strong unions and workers rights. It’s one of the ways we’re doing a lot better than Britain, who maintain the power to fire our entire government.

We can identify what would change, to see whether it’s really ‘not broken’.

Under the Commonwealth there exists the Governer General, the Crown’s representative in Australia. While the monarchy itself doesn’t have much power over Australia and is largely token, the Governer General maintains the power to, at any time, fire the entire government. We largely trust him only to use this power in crucial deadlocks but, critically, we are relying on this being a good-faith trust issue.

This means that, currently, Australia’s entire democratically elected government can be overthrown by an unelected foreign representative.

We don’t have to imagine a circumstance where this power is abused because Australia came into a conflict of interest with British interests. As I’ve written previously, this is how Gough Whitlam was ousted.

The counterargument I’ve seen to this is that this power is important in case a ‘populist’ government needs to be kept in check. That the ability to prevent governmental deadlock is a useful ability.

I agree that the emergency reset button can be a tool to prevent certain problems caused by deadlock. Famously, the currently confusingly named Republican shutdown of the US government, which shut down government services for the duration, could not happen here. Emergency budgets would be passed for the duration as emergency elections would be called.

However, if Australia votes to become a republic, then we could still maintain that position. It would just be democratically controlled, in some way.

There’s also the fact that currently Australia doesn’t hold a Bill of Rights. The biggest argument against one is that, by stating what rights citizens have, the negative space around it is implied to be rights that aren’t held. This is a little bit absurd to me, because that negative space already exists by not having a Bill of Rights.

This isn’t a small matter. It’s been abused fairly heavily recently, as The Juice have covered.

Then there’s the charity argument. It can’t be disputed, the royal family have been in the news a lot recently for the fantastic charity work they do. This does seem to get cause and effect a bit muddled up though.

See, they can afford to give away a lot of this money because of crown wealth. Specifically, the Crown Estate, the royal private holdings. They provide most of the money to the government, but get a cool 15% of it for themselves, which is about $40 million a year.

It’s fortunate that they choose to spend so much of their millions on charity and philanthropy and being nice people. However, this is the result of having $40 million dollars to co-ordinate, and not the result of just being that kind.

They don’t generate that wealth on their own, they come from investments. The royal family ceasing to be, tomorrow, wouldn’t cause any of that capital to disappear. We could still direct those funds to good places, regardless.

But the royal family does exist, and does own that money. The fact that it is spent on charity is up to their discretion. They are entirely within their power to not do that, and it’s quite possible to imagine royals with a more selfish bent to them. The sole qualification of receiving that money is genetic.

This is more an argument for getting rid of the monarchy in Britain than it is for an Australian Republic, but the point remains that the Royals can do good things because they have access to those resources, and not just because they’re good people. They’d still have that financial power if they were bad people, and there are no particularly satisfying controls for what would happen in that case.

But it’s not just the monarchy that we need to think of, as we’re also influenced by British parliament. I asked a British friend of mine what he thought of Australia trying to secede, and he said;

Our non-military foreign policy has typically been a tug of war between a bunch of middle class xenophobes on one side and the worst types of cynical “center left” Oxbridge educated slugs on the other.

There you have it then.

For the Commonwealth Games, I have a less satisfying answer; We’re just going to have to settle for kicking their asses in Eurovision instead, now. If you’re really holding out on a Bill of Rights just so you can have a kiddy pool Olympics to thrash in, well, I’m afraid I don’t have a better answer for you. Maybe we can ask nicely?

That leaves us with the final argument, and while it’s the least common it’s probably the most interesting one to me. Royalty is raised from birth for the position and the responsibility, to be the best diplomats, the best leaders, the best people possible for the role. The finest teachers from the crib.

While they might just be figureheads, they’re crafted figureheads for the role. A jewel in the nation’s crown. A family of the best people it can produce to shine on the world stage.

This is surprisingly a centrist opinion to hold according to the NYTimes.

The first time I heard this, my immediate thought is that human beings are wildly unpredictable. We don’t know what conditions make the best leaders, and we know that simply trying to breed them doesn’t work out. Royal families all through history are a testament to the failure of dynasties to make consistently good rulers in a lineage.

What if, instead, there were a way for anyone to run for the leadership position, from any background? The odds that a perfectly incubated leader like would be better than any given person might be high, but I wouldn’t put good odds on them being better than every given person of 30,000,000, would you?

It also runs into the question of who gets to decide and define what makes a good leader. The kind of person who has $40,000,000 a year in passive income might not be especially representative of the general population, or even have much connection with it.

Let’s forget all that for a moment, though, and just assume it works out for the best. Then what?

There are two outcomes. Either this person truly is just a figurehead. An influential one with a lot of money, sure, but no power to affect public policy in any way. In which case you’ve just spent an impossible amount of time, effort, money and resources on creating someone who’s good for functions and dinner parties.

The alternative is that they’re not just figureheads. They’re intended to have actual political power and, again, their power comes from their genetics. If you want to see how that ends up, then I’d point out how many people risked their lives all across the world, for hundreds of years, to depose monarchs and end monarchy.

None of those countries seem to have enough people decide that was a bad decision and go back to the old system.

So, when wondering how to vote in the next referendum, maybe Australians should choose to get rid of ours.

4 thoughts on “An Australian Republican

  1. I feel that the issue of “negative space” around rights is nearly sidestepped by the United States Constitution, as our Bill of Rights does not enumerate the rights that belong to the people; it enumerates what powers the federal government has, and (in theory) what the limitations of those powers are, and anything that is *not* explicitly defined as a power that the government has instead belongs to the people by nature.

    Because rights are not granted, but are intrinsic, any “right” that is granted by a government can be taken away at any time for any reason, and thus is not a right at all.

    But that’s an American perspective that is very much influenced by American cultural mores, and so may not appeal to an Australian for the same reasons an Australian perspective may not appeal to me.

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    1. It sort of depends on the phrasing. Is the government saying, “We are granting you these rights”, or is the government saying, “We acknowledge that you have these rights, and that the government does not have the power to abridge them”. (Which they clearly have, but whether a government respects the rights of its people is a different topic all together.)

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      1. Generally speaking, the language used is, “The right of the People shall not…” rather than “The People shall have the right….”

        The latter certainly implies that the right in question has been granted, but the former explicitly acknowledges that the right exists irrespective of the government’s stance.

        But again, this is an American perspective and, depending on whom you ask, is just an opinion, so bear that in mind.

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  2. I don’t think that you’d have to leave the Commonwealth if you voted out the queen. From their Wikipedia article: “The Queen is head of state of 16 member states, known as the Commonwealth realms, while 32 other members are republics and five others have different monarchs.”
    Also, Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That’s an entirely separate issue from who your head of state is; I think someone is promoting a false dichotomy, there.
    Your points about the qualifications for leadership are well taken, but there’s something to be said for a leader that gets to lead without being in the pocket of special interest groups. As a Canadian looking south, that’s a thought not far from my mind.
    Other options: Canada maintains a separate line of succession from Britain. As the monarch of Britain is by law also the head of the Church of England, the British line of succession disallows the crown from going to anyone either divorced, or not Anglican. Canada does not have that restriction in its succession candidates, meaning there is a theoretical future where Canada’s Governor-General answers to someone other than England’s ruling monarch.
    Alternatively, according to the BBC (https://youtu.be/DsVzDf-KhXU) the true king of Britain already lives in Australia. King Michael Hastings, of the house of Hastings, currently lives in Jerilderie, New South Wales. Let’s see your monarchists take that to a ballot!

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