Features Australia

Pirate Pete walks Kerr’s plank

The Palace Letters prove it never was time for a republic

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

A dwindling cohort of aggrieved baby boomers joined in a lachrymose chorus of reignited rage last week when correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace was finally published. Amid the reassuring strains of the It’s Time jingle and the cheap ephemeral accolades of the Twitter mob, Professor Jenny Hocking discerned a ‘smoking gun’ linking the Queen to the termination of Gough Whitlam’s scandal- ridden, accident-prone government. The republic, we were assured yet again, is inevitable. It’s time! — apparently. However, the most striking lesson of last week is how little relevance the Australian republic now possesses. Uneasy sleeps the head that wears a bandana. The Crown has never looked more firmly in place in our Constitution.

A number of factors have contributed to this. One of the few journalists with a legitimate claim to also being a public intellectual — Paul Kelly of the Australian — identified the deficiencies in the republican movement when he warned against inciting resentment against the Crown in general and this monarch in particular. Even more so than it was in 1999, the republic is an elite obsession. It is badly led. The centre of gravity of Australian politics is moderately right of centre. Our electoral history demonstrates that. Moreover, there is an innate and healthy scepticism about constitutional change. Referenda routinely fail. Just look at the record. Eight have passed since federation. None have surmounted the ‘double majority’ requirement of Section 128 of the Constitution without broad bi-partisan support. The folly of appointing a sneering atheist fan boy of the Labor party as its prominent face demonstrates just how out of touch the Australian Republican Movement is from contemporary Australia. Indeed, the common sense of the Australian people was vividly displayed in 1977 when they resoundingly voted for an amendment that ensured that state premiers could not again flout the electorate by sham appointments to fill casual vacancies in the Senate. The perversion of the popular will as reflected in the double dissolution election of 18 May, 1974 was the condition precedent for the supply crisis. The people were able to comfortably dispatch Whitlam and his rabble at consecutive elections, while codifying the convention that had enabled blocking of supply. They were non-binary long before Sam Smith encountered his vivacious inner Madonna.

It is, nonetheless, amusing to be smeared as un-Australian and a lickspittle to foreign interests by many of the same people who fawn over Daniel Andrews and his embrace of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Their cars are adorned with bumper stickers lamenting the cruelty of Australia towards refugees. They are sanguine and silent about the fate of Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But it is not merely the jejune tone of their arguments that doom them to failure. There are important matters of substance at stake in this debate. Malcolm Turnbull at least acknowledged that the reserve powers of the Crown would need to be addressed in 1999. The present leadership seem to be as unfamiliar with the text and structure of the Constitution as they are with the real-life concerns of their fellow citizens.

That is the reason that I have abandoned the republican cause completely. I voted for it 1999. Even then, I recognised that a popularly elected president would completely undermine the Federation compact and necessitate the complete overhaul of the Constitution. Even then I recognised the impossibility of conferring such popular legitimacy on a single person who would wield executive power without sitting in the legislature. It is simply not possible to accommodate this within the Foundational compact. In the intervening years, I have become more conservative. That instinctively leads me to demand that change be incremental, rigorously justified and not cause more harm than good to our liberties and the institutions that guarantee them. The republic fails to meet any of these criteria.

Firstly, since 1999, the Left has become increasingly illiberal, intolerant and toxic. It is impossible to trust any of their grand schemes for human improvement, which are mainly deformed offspring of the ultimate fantasy about human salvation — Marxism. Paradoxically, a critique of capitalism which aspired to the withering away of the state in the wake of the dictatorship of the proletariat, now scoffs at the prosaic aspirations of workers. The one enduring remnant is contempt for people of faith. Religion is the opiate of the people comrade, remember? Sadly, for the illegitimate offspring of Marx faith in God is stronger among immigrant communities. Just look at the rejection of same-sex marriage in safe Labor electorates with substantial Muslim and Eastern Orthodox populations. Yet we are constantly told that the Crown is irrelevant to multi-cultural Australia. The most strident atheists are tainted by their white privilege. That is a global phenomenon. I relish the prospect of Pirate Pete taking his campaign for his Dinky Di, Digger, Cobber Republic to western Sydney as soon as mass gatherings are permitted.

It is disappointing to see eminent professors of law like George Williams disputing whether the Reserve Powers even exist, when the most sober advocates of a minimalist republic accepted their existence in 1999, even to the point of entertaining their codification. Moreover, since 1999, the High Court in significant cases, especially Pape v. Commissioner of Taxation have held that in addition to the formal text and structure of the Constitution the Australian Commonwealth also inherited the Royal Prerogative into our polity. While not finding it necessary to define its precise scope in deciding either Pape or the earlier case of Davis v. Commonwealth, the Court left no doubt that the Royal Prerogative had been received into the colonies and the commonwealth at Federation.

As an unemployed paralegal, I defer to Professor Williams, but I look forward with scarcely contained excitement to the eighth edition of his textbook on constitutional law for him to dismantle the leading judgement of Chief Justice French in Pape and the beatified icon of Labor lawyers Justice Mary Gaudron in Davis.

Yes, Virginia, there is a governor-general who possesses reserve powers. Most Australians are more concerned about despots in Beijing than Buckingham Palace. It’s not time for a republic. I doubt it ever need be.

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