Why have a head of state?


Why have a head of state?

There's been a lot of public debate about whether Australia's head of state under a future "republican system" should be elected or selected. While the PM wants the replacement governor general to be decided by a two thirds parliamentary majority, opposition leader John Howard is trying to undercut Labor from the left with his so-called "people's" convention.

But do we want another overpaid official, hand picked by the elite, with near unlimited powers to sack governments and call out the army? Do we want another politician who can wield enormous power but is totally unaccountable to us?

If we need someone to open hospitals or flower shows, surely a hard working nurse or doctor would be more appropriate.

Australia today is only a monarchy in form. In content, it is already a republic. The Queen's representatives in Australia, the governor general and the state governors, are not hereditary monarchs but are appointed by federal and state governments.

While republicans point to governor-general John Kerr's sacking of the elected Whitlam Labor government in 1975 as an argument against the monarchy, the governor general's reserve power to dismiss the elected government does not stem from his or her position as the Queen's representative.

The British monarchy has no such power. Rather, this power was enshrined in the Australian Constitution by the Australian ruling class, and can only be invoked if the Senate blocks the government's money supply and the government of the day refuses to call an election to resolve the deadlock between the two houses of parliament.

Keating's president would have the same undemocratic powers as a governor-general. Keating does not intend to codify the head of state's reserve powers (as recommended by the Republican Advisory Committee) nor allow them to be subject to a High Court challenge.

Labor's primary objective in this nationalistic push is to change the figurehead and leave the whole undemocratic system of government and parliamentary privilege intact.

Welcoming the cosmetic approach, the Financial Review editorialised that Labor was "capitalising on a perceived need for change" but that "existing political structures need to remain firmly in place". But there should be no doubt that there is bipartisan support for this reactionary formula.

While Labor is pushing the republic as a way of mythologising a "united national interest" which it believes will help it sell its economic restructuring program, John Howard has no choice but to fall in behind.

The Democrats have, more or less, bought Labor's package while the Greens have taken a slightly more critical view. But for real, as opposed to simply formal, reforms under a republican government, progressives need to expose the bankruptcy of Keating's plans and campaign around the substantive issues.

Firstly, the Australian Constitution, drawn up by a handful of the elite to protect their interests, contains no bill of rights. As a minimum step, we should demand a social and economic bill of rights to protect the interests of Aboriginal people, women and oppressed minorities.

Further, judges, boards of management in public sector enterprises and other public officials must be popularly elected and be made accountable. Undemocratic electoral laws should be abolished and proportional representation should be introduced into the lower house making the senate redundant.

Shorter parliamentary terms and the right of voters to recall their parliamentary representatives would also go some considerable way to rectify the undemocratic parliamentary system where parties with a minority of votes can win government and those without a lot of money are effectively disenfranchised.