Revisiting the Republic

| January 5, 2024

On November 6th, 1999, the referendum as to whether Australia should become a republic failed with 54.87% of the population voting against it.

I contend this failure was due to the actual question, mandating that the Parliament appoint a president, and that there was never, as best my memory serves, a complete plan for any real change to our governance put before the Australian people. How this proposed republic would benefit Australians remained a mystery, as merely replacing the governor general with a selected – not elected – president was barely a change in our political system.

Such is the Australian people’s distrust of our politicians, with more than adequate justification, that the electorate would not have a bar of it. The silent majority spoke 24 years ago, albeit not in the spectacular fashion as the recent yes campaign referendum of 2023 failed but fail it did.

A secondary question in that 1999 referendum was whether there should be formal recognition of Indigenous peoples in a preamble to our constitution. This measure was defeated by an even more conclusive margin, with over 60% against it, though it was not helped by being tethered to the vote on the republic. Despite the referendum in 2023 drawing a line under the question of institutional recognition for now, I am sure a form of proper recognition will happen someday.

Revisiting the Republic

In a fast-changing nation with weakening ties to the ‘old country’ and an increasing sense of national pride, surely Australia must eventually opt to become a republic one day. However, the driver for this change must be improving the lives of the Australian people, not least at a time of higher taxation and inflation. Political change of this type should therefore be promoted alongside smaller government, not a measure to increase its scope.  I believe the 1999 Referendum failed not because it was too radical, but because it was not radical enough, and looked to aggrandise the current political class, rather than serve in a wider suite of reforms to improve the lot of Australia’s people.

The 1901 referendum that formed our Australian Commonwealth banded together separate British colonies to increase commerce between them and reduce the duties and taxes which inhibited such trade. It also offered national representation in our capital unhandicapped by the tyranny of vast distances and the speed at which communications at that time was possible. Of course, if a republic were to pass, it would be logical to become a single nation, rather than a conglomeration of anachronistic states. There should be a republic of Australia, not a republic of the states that comprise Australia today.

If worded correctly, a single vote could abolish all state governments as we know them today, and might be passed by a landslide, with the probable exception of the act. This would remove a costly layer of bureaucracy from every Australian’s life and tax demand. Could Australia function without state governments? Well, just thirty-five executives run the state of Texas and the major departments within it, and Texas has a population of 28 million, equally the whole of Australia.

National Funding for a Republic

Of course, a national government requires national taxation to fund a range of functions and duties for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, Australia persists in tinkering at the edges of an overly broad range of outdated taxes, which in many cases is punitive to productivity, and hinders expansion of the Australian economy. Payroll tax would disappear with the states, for example, alongside stamp duties and fuel levies. All these examples punish productivity and economic growth, to prop up a tier of government we could easily do without. The real difficulty of dealing with tax reform is the current electoral cycle, as the federal government is fearful of major change, as it may cost votes and therefore jeopardize its retention of power.

The plethora of current taxes is a product of historical precedence, with little account paid to modern technologies and the changed circumstances of the nation. Indeed, note the broader difficulty our government has with issues like cyber security and social media. Like it or loathe it, Australia is well and truly immersed in the digital age, but our system of taxation remains rooted in the early 20th century. While every government calls for Australians to innovate, the potential modernization of our taxation system which lies within its purview, has been allowed to pass us by.

While it is routinely condemned for being reactionary, Pauline Hansen’s one nation party once proposed scrapping our current tax collection methods and shifting to a single financial transactions system with all other taxes consigned to history. A shift to a republic should be accompanied by this radical and progressive move, with a 0.5% levy placed on every financial transaction both nationally and internationally, with the funds accrued electronically funnelled by the financial institutions directly to the treasury.

This levy, which could be adjusted as required to meet the current combined national taxation income, would herald a productivity boom for Australia, allowing Australian workers once again to truly prosper. The abolition of PAYE taxes might initially be inflationary, but this effect would be temporary, while the avoidance of taxation by individuals or corporations would become history. The tapping of taxation payments on contracted values paid to or by their offshore entities would close any corporate escape.

I believe this system would also encourage corporate migration to headquarter in Australia, while manufacturing and house building would be freed of the financial imposts of fuel excise and other taxes adding to the cost of transporting goods and materials.

When paid your wages or for goods being sold, 0.5% tax would be deducted, and when you spend your savings or buy goods, 0.5% would be added to the sum. If you withdrew cash at an ATM or over the counter, 0.5 % would be charged. Yes, this would be a “double dip,” but it would create a revenue stream to provide instantaneous government income, while reducing the burden of bureaucracy and opportunities for avoidance, as no annual tax returns would be required, and creative accounting would be eliminated.

Electing our Republic’s Representatives

So how could a federal government run an Australian republic without the states? I would suggest the retention of local shire councils as, despite their preference for political point scoring over public service, utilities, waste removal and roads are all best dealt with by locals at the local level. Local people currently elect a mayor when they elect their shire councillors, so I would suggest we also elect one local representative from our shire to become an Australian republic congress member.

As we have 537 different councils in our present-day states, all of which hold their elections in different months and years, such elections would see a constant flushing of old members for new, removing the distorting effect of our current political cycle. Whilst a 537-member congress seems large, it has huge advantages, and would be a reduction in political bureaucracy overall.

Australia currently has 476 MLA’s and 155 upper house representatives serving the states. Add another 151 MP’s and 76 senators in the federal government and you start to feel the weight of over-government. We have a total of 858 elected members steering our life for us and reaching their hands every deeper into our pockets. A republic as modelled above would reduce this army to just 537, lifting of a huge burden off Australian backs while giving every citizen local access to a representative at his or her council office.

This model would end the current Westminster system which tends to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, rather than guaranteeing citizen’s rights. Our current arrangements are rife with underhand deals and secret coalitions, with candidates benefiting from branch stacking to secure factional support and winning office on the back of misleading and false election promises. The backroom control of parties by power brokers and unions with further factional ambitions means our current system is corrupt, for all its traditional trappings, and requires replacing.

An Australian President

We should then let the duly elected members of our Republic Congress select their preferred candidate for President from among their own numbers, to eliminate divisive personal campaigns and reduce the risk of demagogues.  Rather than be elected for a specific term, that President would only continue in office for as long as he or she commanded their support.

Our Republican Congress would also appoint the most suitable and best qualified representatives to form the committees responsible defence, education, employment, health and other core duties of government. The employment committee would be busy at the start, as a whole host of current state public service personnel would require retraining for new, more productive careers.

There would also be a whole host of federal public servants also requiring new career pathways, not least from the Australian Tax Office, who would no longer be required to fill the government coffers. Rather than juggle a host of different state requirements, all education and skills training, trade certifications and vehicle registrations would be nationalised, alongside every service including schools and hospitals.

Roadblocks ahead

Of course, the real difficulty in achieving this sweeping Republican change lies with our current politicians. Regardless of party or region, the would never sacrifice the comfort of their current elected positions and the prevention of branch stacking in safe seats would also inconvenience many of the 76 senators, 151 MLAs and 631 state MPs who owe their position to that practice . Every plan does has its roadblocks, and other institutions might support the proposal, as trade unions would be largely unaffected, alongside local governments.

Across our globe, and throughout history, republics have often been formed in the wake of internal conflicts. Australia’s only significant civil insurrection, the famous rebellion of miners at the Eureka Stockade in Victoria in 1854, was a short-lived and localized uprising but did provoke significant change. The only issue which might cause similar social dissent today is that of immigration, but a new system which brings voters closer to their elected representatives, and reduces the power of political parties, could help reduce this tension rather than exacerbate it.