Features Australia

The Unitary Republic

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

Should Australia become a republic, it will greatly damage, and possibly destroy, the independence of the States, making nation-wide experiments in social engineering far easier.

It will be a great step towards giving the Prime Minister absolute control, and bring much closer the long-term objective of the ALP and some Liberals of creating a ‘social laboratory’ with the checks and balances inherent in the federal system vastly weakened or abolished.

I have run this scenario past three former federal ministers, and they have been unable to fault my logic.

The scenario is as follows:

If Australia becomes a Republic, the Prime Minister will appoint the Head of State – El Presidente or whatever the title is.

Who, then will the State governors, at present appointed by the Queen, swear allegiance to? Obviously, to El Presidente in Canberra who can be hired or fired by the Prime Minister. It would be irrational for Australia to become a republic but the Queen to remain sovereign over some or all of the various States.

Canberra at present has no say in telling the states how to govern themselves or in appointing who governs them. The various State governors are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the State premiers, and may also be dismissed by them and only by them.

This, of course, has never happened, although at least one or two governors who turned out to be duds have been very quietly pressured to resign.

But the governors, or the Governor-General, can dismiss the governments if they get in first. This, of course, has happened twice in Australian history: with the sacking of Gough Whitlam by Sir John Kerr in 1975, and the sacking of New South Wales Premier Jack Lang by Governor Sir Philip Game in 1934. Canberra, controlling the governors, could force the states to call election after election until it gets a result which satisfies it. Though the power has hardly been over-used there is no doubt of its existence.

Governors-General and State governors also, less dramatically and radically, have the power to prorogue parliaments on the advice of the political head, or, presumably, under the reserve powers, the power to do so unilaterally.

It is no coincidence that Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Turnbull have expressed fulsome admiration for Mao TseTung, who, Turnbull avers, ‘made the Chinese stand up’. I have not the slightest desire to probe the recesses of Whitlam’s or Turnbull’s minds, but taking their speeches and actions over the long term and as a whole, one can see a consistent desire to prepare Australia for radical social engineering, which the present constitutional arrangements put a brake on.

Though he later changed his spots pretty thoroughly, Bill Hayden said of the election of the Whitlam Government, ‘Thirty years ago, Australia led the world as a social laboratory… this Government is determined to regain that position’. Both Labor and Turnbull have displayed and advocated, in the words of Don Veitch’s brilliant little 1977 book The Social Laboratory ‘an almost religious commitment to altering the society root and branch’. So far the States and the Senate – the States’ House – have inhibited such things.

Veitch continued, ‘[The Whitlam Government’s] attempts to change both institutions and attitudes should have come as no surprise as Mr Whitlam had announced at Blacktown the intentions of his Government to ‘uplift the horizons of Australia’ and to embark on a new scheme, significantly titled the Australian Assistance Plan.’ Whitlam said, ‘My substance is the most revolutionary they have ever had,’

The AAP was perhaps the most blatant attempt to bypass the States and render them irrelevant, but other such schemes have issued from both parties in Canberra. Where they look to altering the Constitution they have always been rejected by voters at referenda, but a republic will also make them easier to put into effect.

Grandiose plans for social engineering by Labor were set out in the book Towards a New Australia, essays by a collection of Labor politicians published shortly before Whitlam came to power. The realities of life under Whitlam caused those plans to be put on the back-burner by Labor but it would be extremely naïve to think they had been abandoned. As long as the States have any power, the ability of Labor ideologues to impose their vision on the rest of us, including ordinary Labor voters, will be inhibited.

With the State governors owing their allegiance to El Presidente, a radical, social-engineering Prime Minister with an overweening ambition to transform Australia and make his mark in history (think Gough Whitlam only a little more so), can hire and fire State governors until the State governments come up with suitable figure-heads. Unlike the Queen, who no-one appoints or can sack, there would be no bar to the Australian head of state being an outright political figure, indeed that would be inevitable.

Using the threat of dismissal, Canberra can use the State governors to threaten to, or actually, sack any State government that does not agree with, or carry out, its policies. Any idea of competition between Canberra and the States in providing good government, which to a limited extent exists today, would be eroded.

The process would not happen overnight but with the Constitutional revolution of the republic in place the gradual withering away of the states’ independence would only be a matter of time.

The fact El Presidente was located in Canberra, beholden to the Prime Minister, would have major consequences for the whole national psyche. There would be a new chain of authority from which the State governments – especially those of the smaller States – might be omitted.

At present, Canberra and the States have one and the same sovereign – the Queen. Canberra is not, in theory, in a superior position over the States. They are in theory equal partners. Given a republic, the States’ inferior position would be emphasised.

It would only take a couple of the States to fall obediently into line for their whole purpose to be questioned and demands for their abolition to be increased.

This has been a consistent Labor objective since the foundation of the party and its first dreams of setting up a perfect, Continent-wide unitary society.

The abolition of the Senate (Keating’s ‘unrepresentative swill’) would come next.

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