Rethinking Australian republicism

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The idea of breaking away from Britain also seems of marginal relevance to an Australia attempting to place itself more effectively in a globalizing international landscape and the idea that becoming a republic would somehow help our image in Asia is harder to sustain in a context in which the complexity of the cultural politics of individual nations is better understood than it was at the time of the referendum.

The Rethinking Australian Republicanism Workshop was held on Saturday, 1 September 2001 and Sunday, 2 September 2001 at the Sebel Suites, corner Albert and Charlotte Streets, Brisbane. The workshop was opened by Professor Jim Walter, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Arts) Griffith University. Although the referendum about the republic aroused considerable passions at the time, various attempts to revive the debate have proved unsuccessful. It is clear that the main issues through which Paul Keating attempted to encourage Australians to bond with the idea of an Australian republic have dated badly. There is now little interest in the idea that Australians are in some sense historically immature or have failed to complete their national identity process. The idea of breaking away from Britain also seems of marginal relevance to an Australia attempting to place itself more effectively in a globalizing international landscape and the idea that becoming a republic would somehow help our image in Asia is harder to sustain in a context in which the complexity of the cultural politics of individual nations is better understood than it was at the time of the referendum. In this context it seemed useful to ask how should we now think about the Australian republic? What ways and means to an Australian republic are likely to be successful? Is there a wider and political social vision with which the republic can and should be associated given the failure of a minimalist republicanism conceived in largely legal and constitutional terms, is there any way in which a more expansive republicanism can be made relevant and attractive to ordinary Australians? These are some of the questions addressed in the workshop.

The first day of the workshop was primarily devoted to the problem of constitutional change with a number of the leading national public intellectuals in the area reflecting on the lessons of the failed referendum in 1999 and on the experience of the constitutional convention.

Dr Brian Galligan, Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne, spoke on Renovating the Existing Republic. Professor Galligan gave a detailed analysis of voting patterns during the referendum and argued that the statistics implied that only a minor change in support is required for such a referendum to succeed. Professor Galligan’s analysis demonstrated that argued that in effect Australia has a federal republic, and that republicanising the formal head of state should be considered within that context. There was clear majority support for republicanising the head of state, and an enhanced majority for electing the head of state because various supporters of the constitutional monarchy preferred a head of state independent of politicians. The Australian people should be allowed to vote on what they preferred, and it was the responsibility of elites to facilitate that in an orderly way.

Professor George Winterton, Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, spoke on Choosing the President. Professor Winterton discussed six models for selecting a republican Head of State, focussing on the forthcoming ARM Issues Paper. He noted that public opinion polls over many years and evaluations of the 1999 referendum vote suggested that the public favoured direct popular election. Only if this method was rejected at referendum or plebiscite, would a different method such as an improved version of the 1999 model have any prospect of adoption. Professor Winterton outlined the difficulties both real and perceived with direct election, and suggested mechanisms for overcoming, or at least ameliorating, them. He stressed the necessity for trusting in the judgement of the people, but this is predicated on a mechanism which offers high-quality candidates. He accordingly proposed that there should be three avenues for the nomination of presidential candidates: the Commonwealth Parliament (by a two-thirds majority); three State or Territory Parliaments; and nomination by a prescribed number of electors, as in Iceland and Portugal.

Associate Professor Linda Hancock, Director, Public Policy and Governance Program, Deakin University discussed the consequences of the unravelling of the post Federation post World War 2 social settlement for progress towards a republic. The Republican Movement was viewed sympolically by excluded and disadvantaged groups as an opportunity for new confirmation of rights and principles confirming equality and recognition of the Indigenous owners. However, the working through of the Referendum was more focused on a particular view of the mechanics of republican reform. There is a new set of challenges today, compared with Federation, for a new social settlement that embraces new symbolic and institutional elements.

Professor Mary Kalantzis, Dean of Education at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, spoke on A Stronger Conception of the Republic. Professor Kalantzis argued that the Head of State issue may not be worth revisiting. In her view, the real question is the reinvention of Australian identity and our ways of being civic with each other. Professor Kalantzis called for radical shifts in current policy, and a new approach to the relationship between the individual and the state based on new forms of civility.

Dr Mark McKenna, ARC Queen Elizabeth Fellow at the Australian National University, spoke on Freeing the Captive Republic. Dr McKenna argued that the republic could only be advanced by focusing on the democratic process that will resolve the issue. Republicans should work towards achieving consensus on a suitable three step process – eg. non-binding plebiscite, fully elected Constitutional Convention, referendum. By striking agreement on process, direct electionists, minimalists, and republicans of every persuasion would be free to argue for the model of their choice within an agreed democratic framework. However, when the referendum question was ultimately decided, all republicans would be locked into supporting the model that emerged. If such a political strategy were adopted, republicans could display a spirit of compromise and unity. For all Australians who wish to see the concept of a republic broadened, thereby moving the culture of Australian republicanism away from nationalism towards democratic republicanism, it is necessary to work towards achieving an open democratic process that will facilitate a full national discussion. Only in the process of that discussion will the new forms of republicanism emerge.

The contributions led to extensive further discussion. Dr John Kane, Head of the School of Politics at Griffith University was sceptical about the possibility of promoting cosmopolitan changes and emphasised the value of theorising democracy in disillusioned rather than idealistic terms. Dr Malcolm Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Griffith University, emphasised the importance of developing a new conception of social capital in the context of globalization and recent changes in the global economy. Dr Haig Patapan, a Research Fellow in the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University, argued that realism needed to be brought to bear on positive proposals for social reform which might actually reduce political support.

Profess Charles Samford, Director of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance was ill on the day but his ideas about ethics and an Australian republic will impact on the published outcomes of the workshop. As a result of Professor Samford’s illness, the workshop concluded a little early but animated conversation was continued at the workshop dinner held at Caulfields Room, Quay West Hotel.

On the second day, the weight of the discussion turned to the wider question to republicanism and social reform. Professor Wayne Hudson, Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, spoke on Globalising the Republic. Professor Hudson called for new constructive political architecture to continue the process of republicanisation in Australia. He argued that a non-traditional contemporary republicanism is now required and that this republicanism needed to recognise the continuing importance of the nation state but to moderate nation state governance with cosmopolitan perspectives. Professor Hudson outlined changes to civil society, trade unions and corporations in order to modify them in a cosmopolitan direction.

Dr John Rundell, Director of the T.R. Ashworth Centre for Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, spoke on Citizenship, Indigeneity, Multiculturalism, Federalism. In a finally crafted and complex paper Dr Rundell outlined three historical examples of mutually present, yet competing models of Australian republics. These models and historical tendencies are what are termed first, a model of national-juridical sovereignty; second, a model of multicultural corporatism; third, a model of cosmopolitan democratic federalism. Each model is posited from the background dimensions of citizenship, which in modernity is constituted as a site of condensation, and not only as a series of claims or practices.

Associate Professor David Carter, Director of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Queensland, spoke on Republicanism and Australian Nationalism. Dr Carter took up Professor Hudson’s theme of constructive political architecture but went on to argue that it might be useful to separate the Head of State issue from any question of republicanism. Indeed he was prepared to envisage a non monarchy in Australia which might well not be a republic in the empty formal sense of being a state without a monarchy but went on to argue that republicans needed to take seriously – as a worthy democratic impulse – the popular support for an elected Australian head of state. Even if it were not profoundly republican (and Australian nationalism historically had been ‘communitarian’ rather than republican) such popular support was the ground from which any adequate practice of Australian republicanism must begin. It need not be dismissed as mere populism. Dr Carter argued that analyses of media publics provided a more complex and layered model of the public than that typically offered in political theory. The diversity of publics suggests that ‘mere populism’ should not be seen as a serious problem in discussions of methods of electing the President.

Professor Ian Hunter, a professorial ARC Fellow in the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Griffith University took up the problem of religious citizenship and argued that there might be considerable merit in having the state rigorously regulate religious bodies in certain contexts.

Associate Professor Kay Saunders, of the History Department of the University of Queensland, emphasised the need to involve women in discussions of reform if political changes were to occur.

The workshop concluded at 2 o’clock.

The following recommendations resulted from the workshop:

  1. That the debate about the Republic be revived on a plebiscite model and the issue put to the Australian people by plebiscite, with the technical details to be settled by a constitutional convention.
  2. That the case for a republic be restated in terms which do not imply that Australian identity is currently deficient or that the issue is one of ‘unfinished business’.
  3. That it be made clear to the public that republicanism is about the democratic philosophy underlying our national institutions. It is not about being anti-British nor does it imply a xenophobic nationalism.
  4. That the possibility of disarticulating constitutional change from a wider raft of democratic reforms be more widely discussed. Minimalists need to accept that a directly elected President with reserve powers needs to be checked by a body of constitutional doctrine of a broadly republican kind, while maximalists need to accept that constitutional changes may be the wrong context in which to advance many desirable social changes.
  5. That steps should be taken to encourage Australians to inform themselves about the principles of democratic pluralism and citizenship, including the need for religious and racial tolerance.

The workshop also will result in a book by Wayne Hudson and A.J. Brown entitled Restructuring Australia to be published by a leading Australian press.
Wayne Hudson
Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
Griffith University

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