Delicacy in the republican debate after the death of the Queen shouldn’t delay a Voice to Parliament or the reformation of our flawed constitution. By Thomas Keneally.

What King Charles means for the republican movement

Britain’s King Charles III at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, this week.
Britain’s King Charles III at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, this week.
Credit: Peter Byrne / Reuters

The editorials all say the same thing: “Don’t mention the republic”; “Show a bit of couth for once.”

It’s a little like mentioning north but not south, light but not darkness. I do pause and praise the spectre of the Queen. She’s defeated all of us postcolonial republicans. In an obvious sense, she’s done us like a dinner. Fair play. 

For me, the Australian republic does, however, glimmer beyond her shoulder, or more accurately over Charles’s – Carolus Tertius Rex’s. It does not take from him, not really. It does not deny the success of his line. But the republic will enrich, vivify and enlarge our antipodean spirits. 

The idea that we shouldn’t, out of politeness, say “Republic, yah, yah, yah!” is wrong in several ways. We have pressing and recently focused-upon business to attend to and we cannot waste another decade on good manners. With all the pressure of an 80,000-year column of time, of 80,000 human years passing before we began our own small history as settlers, we must first of all acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty, which was never surrendered, and we must install the Voice

These are issues that have, through ignorance and lack of human imagination, bided their time, but now are at referendum temperature and cannot be delayed or substituted. We want the chance to repent of our quarter-of-a-millennium of denial and meanness and legal and theological trickery that added up to the convenient fiction of terra nullius. 

But now there’s another issue no one seems to have noticed. It’s a matter that to my mind is fundamental to our constitutional health. That is, Scott Morrison’s generalissimo Franco episode. In the past, influenced by Westminster conventions, ministers resigned if ill-advised or put into the wrong by bureaucrats. One federal minister was stood down over an undeclared Paddington Bear not listed on a customs form. A Liberal premier of New South Wales resigned for not declaring a bottle of wine, admittedly an expensive one. But under Morrison, ministers including Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert stuck on in situations that would have once demanded ministerial resignations. 

Compare an undeclared toy with an uninvestigated blind trust and you see how far we have fallen. We did not even know that, about the same time, Morrison was signing himself into most of the portfolios you need to be Mao or Pinochet. He may, through this gross overreach, end up being the one who will finally cure us of all constitutional squeamishness, negligence and delay.

Simple truth: the solicitor-general said there was nothing illegal in the arrangements, that what these jokers were doing was just fine. That being so, we should all have panicked at once. Now, the apparent difficulty of changing the constitution seemed just one bar against altering it. Yet there have been successful referendums – the one to do with legislative powers on matters involving Aboriginal people in 1967 was massively successful. I wish the same success to the Voice. May it have all meaningful parliamentary leaders behind it, because that’s the key to a favourable outcome. 

One of the results of the constitution’s difficulty of reform has been a legal reverence for the document, as if it were run up by Jehovah, Abraham and Queen Victoria in ethereal form and changes should be resisted. It was in fact run up by men. Fallible men. One, always hard-up, a tippler, Edmund (Toby) Barton; another, an eccentric Renaissance man and seance-attender, Alfred Deakin; another, a wise Adelaide brawler named Charles Kingston. All racists in modern terms. All helped by brilliant colonial constitutional experts such as John Quick and Robert Garran, who analysed, elucidated and defended the basis of every phrase, every noun and adjective included in the document. 

Remember, Barton, Deakin and Kingston had to get our constitution passed by the British parliament, which happened in July 1900, in Westminster. They had some trouble getting it legislated and were under pressure to give the governor-general spacious powers, just in case Australia went socialist and nationalised British business – 1900 was, after all, an era of revolution. There had even been the world’s first labour government in Queensland.

And so the British legislators who, one summer day, dreaming of Brighton and Bournemouth, passed the Australian Constitution Bill, were reassured by the reserve and executive powers given to the governor-general. The governor-general has the power to appoint a prime minister if the result of an election is not clear or to dismiss one if they have lost the support of the house. He has the power to refuse a request for a double dissolution and to sack a prime minister if he or she breaks the law. Just in that lot are ambiguities a spiv such as Morrison could drive a camel train through. 

The governor-general is, as well, commander-in-chief of Australian military forces. Under conventions, it has always been considered, even by John Kerr, that this meant a titular and ceremonial command, not a literal and operational one. But the clause doesn’t say that, and that is another cause for concern. Indeed, there are commentators who have always said, before we become a republic we must “clean up” the reserve powers.

Not anymore. Yet with boyos such as Morrison on the scene, we’d better fix them as soon as we can – though not, I must say, without acclaiming the good sense and respect for conventions that generations of Australians have demonstrated in this matter. 

Beyond this, and again regulated by custom and convention and the good sense of our forebears, is the matter of the governor-general’s power to give royal assent to federal legislation. In practice he or she does this through their executive council. They can return a bill with a note asking legislators to “try harder”. They can also reserve a law for the king or queen’s pleasure, which can be very long indeed – prisoners and lunatics detained on that same pleasure have tended to remain so indefinitely. 

There is a final and capping convention that says none of these powers should be exercised without the advice of ministers of state. Again, this is ambiguous. Kerr argued that in dismissing Whitlam he did have advice. The basis of this was a new caretaker ministry, which he created and from which he took advice.

Abstracted from Westminster conventions, the constitution would today allow David Hurley to assume executive power. It could be hysteria to pretend he would, because he is obviously too urbane a citizen, a man, a soldier to do so. But our confidence in the virtue and the wisdom of citizenship, and in the endurance of conventions, will not necessarily be justified long-term in this post-spiv era of modern politics. Christian Porter says the powers enable a governor-general to keep Australian politics on its toes. Is that what you really want, Christian? For an unelected official to intrude in our electoral choice? Sounds like blind trust to me. 

In any case, the republic is thus well down our list of priorities. Yet the reserve powers do not exist as something deserving distant clarification and democratic definition when the republic comes. They call for it now, and promptly. 

In 1992 I became the chair of a new body, then called the Australian Republican Movement. It is noticeable to me in 2022 that becoming a republic does not cry out for remedy as events in the 1990s did. We used to get a fair beating around the head with the monarchy then. In my youth, we were unabashedly described as “British subjects”. If we took an oath or affirmation, the monarch was invoked. It we went to dinner, the monarchy was toasted or, in church, summoned as one of the props of civic probity. If we went overseas and walked into an Australian office, hoping to pass a member of what we were told we were – “a confident, multicultural, modern society” – we were hit by ubiquitous images of the monarch. Let me hasten to say, this was not her fault. We always had the power to alter it, and in 1999 we chose not to.

These days all the coronation mugs and frantic or unapologetic visibility have been removed from daily life. Even printed and minted cash, with the monarch’s head, is in many transactions redundant. The muting of the presence of the monarch was a stroke of cleverness on the part of John Howard, who I believe should have been rewarded for his service with the offer of a seat in the House of Lords and a few lord-constable-ships. He may have been, for all we know, and chose instead to live on in the Australian sun. 

Under Howard’s cunning the monarch was so reduced in public observance that it came as a shock in more recent years when I heard an American diplomat respond to an Australian ambassador’s toast to the United States, its people and constitution with a toast to “the queen of Australia”. Yes, it’s true: in international protocol we are still a mere after-murmur of a monarchy called Australian but in all real senses British. It is the mother-fluid of our polity, but we don’t see it every day as we once did and this more than anything keeps the push for a republic quiet. 

I do hope that nice man, amiable conversationalist and modern Briton King Charles III hastens the day when our sovereignty is not 17,000 kilometres offshore but instead resides in one of us. Charles is now being advised to be a non-person, a man of no edges, and I doubt that’s in him. It was in his tough mum, but she came to it much earlier in life. Now, if he helps bring on our day – by messing up, by saying what he truly believes about the Rwanda offshoring of refugees or global heating – then God bless him, King of the Britons!

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "King tide ".

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