The Maximalist Republic: Minimalism no longer a viable option

Klaas Woldring's picture

The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) initiated the debate, but that Movement as well as the ALP and some Coalition politicians deliberately considered only the replacement of the Queen by an Australian President as Head of State. The entire 1990s debate concentrated on that change rather than on the much more important issue “What Kind of Republic?” and the process by which that could be achieved.

The initiators of the ARM assured voters time and again that this was the only change they had in mind and that people should not worry that there would be other changes. That would not happen. They assumed that Australian voters did not want any other change and probably that the level of ignorance was such that any other change would be regarded with much suspicion so as to thwart the Minimalist cause. These are elite perceptions of yesteryear. The current political establishment is lacking in imagination, creativity and courage. They appear to create political and social circumstances, which restrict people’s imagination. They operate within constitutional and legal frameworks that are virtually frozen in time.

Later positions of the ARM continue to concentrate of the question of the Head of State. There is no discussion of what kind of Republic is envisaged. The suggested process is still limited to the Head of State issue.

Most Australians want to hear a more comprehensive alternative.
Australians need a lot more information about changing to a Republic. Even many Monarchists are saying now the Republicans haven't really made their case. The Minimalists certainly have not. Their case by itself is inadequate. It is not persuasive. Let's start talking about rewriting the Constitution and shaking up the political system, If Tony Abbott wants to make a name for himself he would need to take the Liberal Party into a direction which is outside its comfort zone. But, if he can talk about abolishing the states the potential for more may well be there.
What are the principal areas in need of radical change?
Neither of our major political parties are serious about governance change. Even the Republic has been placed on the backburner in spite of obvious support for a Republic with a popularly elected President, as high as 81%, demonstrated in three different opinion polls by UMR. 
However, the need for a governance reform party is very obvious. Australia's federal system is dysfunctional. A recent High Court decision on the limitations of Federal Government's national spending, in spite of it collecting well over 80% of all revenue, confirms the urgent need for constitutional change. The decision re-establishes the states as middlemen. This decision will throw into doubt many spending decisions that a federal government has taken in the past, would need to take in the future and want to take quickly if necessary. It re-establishes the High Court as the protector of federation. Not surprising really, that IS its role as a Constitutional Court. That is the essence of federalism - a Constitutional Court that protects the original compact, which has hardly been changed largely as a result of the provisions of section 128. Thus, Australia continues to be ruled from the grave by seven judges.
Imagine that. What would the "Founding Fathers" want to do with this Constitution had they been alive? Who knows? Does it matter? But what is the reality? 
The state governments are not just superfluous. They are a hindrance to good government. The fiscal imbalance between federal and state governments is staggering already and growing. Local government everywhere is suffering as the most grossly under-funded level. This archaic inflexible constitution needs to be entirely rewritten. This is not something that can be done overnight of course. A strategic plan is required that should be introduced with extensive involvement by the public so that, at the end of the process, the Australian public owns the new Republican constitution and knows it as well. Can such a major change be expected from either of the major parties? There is no sign of that whatever. Some may point to the current preoccupation with the global financial crisis as a reason for that but this is not credible. The political will is absent. However, the time is ripe for such a move.
Very likely a new political party will have to be formed which exclusively tackles governance reform in a very defined way, with specific proposals for change. The successful candidates for such a party would be bound by that limited platform although on other public policy matters they should be free to vote in the parliament as they wished. I see this as an opportunity to recruit excellent candidates rather than a problem. 
Unless a major party moves in this direction soon this development is inevitable.
Australia should move forward now to become a Republic. There is no reason at all why the sovereign Australian people should wait for the abdication or death of the Queen. The road towards a Republic, which can be straightforward and fast, should start with a three-question plebiscite (non-binding) preferably no later that the next election. That should be followed by a referendum three months later based on the outcome of that plebiscite.
The importance of and need for governance reform is already obvious to many Australians but to get this going is quite a different matter. Indeed the stagnation in terms of governance reform is staggering. In terms of governance the major parties are solidly stuck to the status quo. Neither of them are reformist in nature. Not only do they cling to the federal system, they are also opposed to an electoral system that would provide diversity in parliament and reduce, probably remove, the dominance of the major parties. The odds are stacked against change in a big way!
There are many systemic problems.
Most Ministers, federal and state, are functional amateurs in their portfolio. The career politicians of the current system often have little other prior experience than first being staffers to these amateurs. Overall, we have far too many politicians for such a small population. All this can be much improved by governance reform. If we get the right people in the legislature, and as Ministers, sensible policies will follow. The existing system is also very costly. Estimates of the cost of federation alone are conservatively of the order of $30 billion per annum. The cost of the lack of quality of Ministers cannot be calculated easily but e.g. huge mistakes in faulty infrastructure contracts, unnecessary environmental degradation, transport bungles, unnecessary involvement in foreign wars, unfavourable foreign treaties, failure to act timely, faulty planning development, failure to decentralise and de-urbanise, runs into billions every year. We all know telling examples of this.
Effective decentralisation policies have been non-existent for a very long time in NSW and in Australia generally. Governance change should aim at decentralising Australia. The debates in the NSW Parliament concentrate continually on how more people can be squeezed into the Metropolitan area and its adjacent spillway regions. This situation is perhaps most conspicuous in NSW but it is also a national problem. Australia needs to look beyond the metropolitan areas. The current system of governance tends to concentrate very much on the big cities - at the expense of regional and rural Australia.
The question: What kind of Republic? then requires answers that are far more important than the Republic issue as in merely talking about a change in the Head of State. But these are the very questions that are steadfastly and deliberately ignored by the major parties - and often the media as well. That's why they are now referred to as "the old parties". But, apart from the Greens, where are the new parties? The system has squeezed out the few that got up, the one after the other. This system has little to do with democracy. That is where we also need to change the system of governance. Let the debate begin! Summing up here is the proposed limited platform.
1. Australia needs to develop its own identity as an independent, egalitarian, democratic and culturally diverse nation. The Republic should be a celebration of the many positive values of the nation.
2. The Republic should end Australia's now irrelevant ties to the British Monarchy.
3. The Republic should have a directly elected Head of State with symbolic powers and a democratic parliamentary system in which the diversity of the nation is properly reflected.
4. The functions and symbolic powers of the Head of State should be codified so that there is no confusion about the role of the Head of State.
5. Establishing a Republic should pave the way for a long overdue review of Australia's constitution, including a serious revision of Australia's expensive structure of governance.
6. One major structural change should be the replacement of the existing federation by a system of governance, which has two directly elected levels: the national level and the local government level. As part of the local level special city governments will be created for cities above a certain number of citizens. Regional administrations shall be created as adjuncts to local government or the national government. The existing Voluntary Organisation of Councils will continue as such adjuncts but others may be created in addition on the basis of environmental or biological considerations. The regional administrations shall form a mezzanine level of governance, indirectly elected by the directly elected levels of governance.
7. The electoral system of single-member electoral districts and the Hare-Clarke system of proportional representation should both be replaced by proportional representation based on an open party list system such as is used in many European countries. It should be enshrined in the Constitution. This would ensure a much greater diversity in the legislature and end the sickening, dysfunctional adversarialism in parliament.
8. The principle of "Separation of Powers" should be introduced in the governance of Australia. This means that the executive, legislature and judiciary shall be strictly separate as is the case in all parliamentary systems of governance with the exception of the Westminster system. In practice this means that the political executive (the government) is outside the legislature. This ensures that the independence of the legislature as well as the independence of the government is assured. However, all draft legislation will need to be approved by the legislature representing the sovereign people. In the Westminster system Ministers must be "in and off the Parliament" (that means elected). Thus, the political executive dominates the legislature. Not only is the Government dominant in the legislature but also the Shadow Ministry ("the Opposition"), presumably acting as an alternative Government, a situation that basically requires a two-party system for it to work. Instead Ministers would be appointed by the party or parties winning a general election, and not be members of the legislature. These parties will therefore have a very wide choice of competent personnel instead of the very limited choice inherent in the Westminster system often resulting in functional amateurism.
9. A New Constitutional Council should draw up a Strategic Plan for a process of plebiscites and constitutional referendums to achieve rapid constitutional change.
Such a staged process should involve constitutional conventions of citizens deliberating about specific aspects of constitutional change. The use of preparatory (non-binding) plebiscites is vital for the successful carriage of subsequent referendums. The Council should remain in office as a Permanent Constitutional Review Commission.


 Dr Klaas Woldring is Convenor of the Republic Now Association. He retired as Associate Professor from Southern Cross University, Lismore in 1999, where he taught Australian Politics, Management, Public Administration, Multicultural Studies, Workplace Democracy, Human Resource Management, Industrial Relations and Business Ethics. Originally from the Netherlands, he and his wife Aafke migrated to South Africa in 1959, then again in 1962 in protest of Apartheid policies to what is now known as Zambia, then once more in 1964 to Australia. In the 1980s he joined the ALP and twice stood for the federal seat of Richmond. After resigning from the ALP in 1989, he stood twice more for the Senate representing the Progressive Labour Party, which he co-founded in 1996. He has published 4 books and a large number of professional articles. This year Klaas and Aafke will have been married for 50 years, they have 4 children and 8 grandchildren.