Originally published in The Australian, 2 August 2017
Bill Shorten must be getting cocky and taking his opinion poll lead for granted because he’s giving people more and more reasons to vote against him. The latest is his commitment to have a plebiscite on becoming a republic in the first term of a Labor government. This would cost about $150 million – the same amount he refuses to spend giving the public a say on same sex marriage. And a “yes” vote wouldn’t settle the big question: which is whether a president should be directly elected by the people; or chosen by the government and rubber-stamped by the parliament.
This attack on the monarchy is just the latest instalment in the green-left’s war on our way of life that Shorten-Labor has largely made its own: there’s same sex marriage which, after this term of parliament, every Labor MP will be bound to support; there’s the assault on Christianity (such as the strictures against scripture classes) that’s most noticeable in Labor states; there’s the attack on the traditional family epitomised by the social engineering, gender fluidity “Safe Schools” programme that Victorian Labor is making compulsory; and there’s the envy-exploiting campaign against “inequality” by planning even higher taxes on our most productive people. Each one of these is a cynical attempt to exploit grievances for votes in ways that will divide and diminish our country.
Added to these, there’s now this revival of the fatuous notion that we can’t truly be Australian without a “resident for president”. This idea that the Anzacs were culturally compromised or that our Olympic athletes have been confused about which country they were representing because of the crown doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny but it’s implicit in the republican argument that we can’t really be Australian without change. In fact, we have faced all the challenges of the past two centuries as what John Howard has described as a “crowned republic”: with the republican virtues of representative democracy and freedom under the law plus the monarchical benefit of national continuity and a focus of loyalty that’s above politics.
Sure, the Queen is the monarch of Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, PNG and some other countries as well as Australia. Yes, she spends most of her time in London and is represented here by a distinguished Australian governor-general (currently former military chief Sir Peter Cosgrove) who’s appointed like a judge rather than elected like a politician. Of course, Australians are a down-to-earth people eager to scorn anyone with airs and graces. But we haven’t kept the crown from some urge to tug the forelock. We’ve kept it because our history has given us a better system of government than anything cooked-up by the wisdom (or arrogance) of just one generation.
It’s much easier to sneer at a system of government than it is to come up with a better one. And if we were questioning how ours might practically be improved there’s much to change with far more real impact on people’s lives – like the senate that’s become a house of rejection rather than review; and the federation that’s become a dog’s breakfast of divided responsibilities.
To win plaudits at the Australian Republican Movement’s annual dinner, the opposition leader has just promised a plebiscite that could undermine the legitimacy of our existing system of government without putting anything in its place. If his proposed plebiscite were to pass, because the people had been persuaded to support the republican principle but no particular republican practice, our constitution would be discredited even though the means of choosing a president remained far from settled.
No one with our country’s best interests at heart could answer the question “should we become a republic?” without knowing what sort of a republic it would be. When a republic was last put to a vote, in 1999, some republicans rejected the proposed model because it didn’t give the people a vote. In calling for a plebiscite before any particular type of republic had been decided, Shorten is hoping to maximise support without making the hard choices that becoming a republic would involve. It’s fundamentally dishonest because, apart from absolutists on both sides, the most common response to Shorten’s question would be “it depends”.
A republic with the head of state elected by the people could give us a celebrity president who would soon be competing with the prime minister of the day. Should there be change, at first glance, giving everyone a say seems sensible but having a head of state with the legitimacy of direct election by everyone would fundamentally change the nature of the office. Why would a president elected by all voters be confined to official events while the prime minister elected only by MPs makes all the big decisions?
Even a president nominated by the government and ratified by 75 per cent of all MPs would have a cross-party mandate bigger than that of the most resoundingly elected prime minister. As well, the type of people prepared to run the gauntlet of popular election or even parliamentary selection are likely to be quite different from those prepared to be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. Why would an exemplary Australian of proven standing submit to the indignities of a political contest – other than to have a significant say in running the country?
The argument that “the government should be re-elected because the alternative is worse” is not normally compelling but, thanks to Shorten’s latest ploy, it’s just become a whole lot more powerful.