Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The future of the monarchy

My final thoughts on last week's events in Australia relates to the issue down under that usually generates the most interest here - the republic debate. The new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, is a firm monarchist, in contrast to his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who is a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement. So people will be wondering whether this makes the monarchy any safer in Australia, and in turn whether this will have any knock-on effects in the other Commonwealth Realms including the UK.

Personally I think the current revolving door on the Liberal Party leadership is not going to have the slightest impact one way or the other. That's because I don't think a decisive move is going to happen any time soon for three reasons:
  1. It's only ten years since the Australian public rejected a republic at a referendum and many have a "been there, done that" attitude to the question.
  2. The present Queen is personally very popular and many Australian republicans have openly stated they don't believe the issue can be won in her lifetime.
  3. Republicans are split over what form of republic they want because of a realisation of the potential consequences.
It's the third that's the main problem, whether in Australia or elsewhere (although the problem is even worse in Australia than in the UK).

The problem is that under the system of government in both countries, the monarch (or their representative the Governor General) has HUGE powers but by convention they are almost never exercised except on the formal advice of the government of the day or in exceptional political crises where the monarch/Governor General has to step in to force a resolution. The main ones I'll focus on are:
  • The ability to dissolve Parliament.
  • The ability to appoint and dismiss ministers and whole governments.
  • The ability to withhold assent to legislation.
They don't seem much but that's because the monarchy has acted with restraint, precisely because of the fear that acting wrongly will bring down the institution.

But to simply replace the monarch with a President with no other changes to the system will mean that suddenly the powers are wielded by a person with a mandate. And depending on what mandate that is - a directly elected President could claim their very election to the post as a mandate; even a parliamentary appointed President could argue they have the same legitimacy as the government of the day - there is a real danger that the powers could be used.

Imagine, for an instance, that the government of the day is going through a period of midterm unpopularity of the type early all suffer, and the opposition wish that an election could happen right now as they would win a thumping victory. Now supposing the President was from the opposition party and exercised their powers to force a snap election - would that be right? But what is to stop them? The answer isn't convention. The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw several conventions broken for the sake of political expediency, with only lip service given to higher reasons for breaking such conventions, culminating in the opposition using their control of the Senate to force an early election. (Whether Australia had a monarch, Governor General or President in the role of umpire probably wouldn't have made any difference. One might argue a President would have to face the electorate for their decision, but then the opposition did and they gained/retained control of both houses.)

Or what is to stop a President intervening to sack individual ministers under fire? Or to veto legislation? The answer would be absolutely nothing.

There are two possible ways round this, but both have their pains. The first is to rigidly define the President's powers and either reallocate some of them or remove the problem altogether - for instance the power to appoint other ministers could be transferred completely to the Prime Minister. The second is to build in a mechanism that can in the first instance allow for political or popular overriding of the President's decision and in the second remove the President from office before the expiry of their term.

Both of these can be done, but most current republics have been republics since at least the adoption of their current constitution and have developed solutions at the outset. They haven't had to radically alter their constitution when everything else is functioning normally, or have to face the political fallout. And they haven't had to answer other questions - e.g. if the Parliament can immediately override a Presidential veto, why does it take so much longer for the lower house to override a veto in the upper house and shouldn't that also be changed?

(Australia has the yet further problem that constitutional amendments must pass at referendums with the double requirement of a majority of those voting plus a majority in each of at least four states. Only 8 of the 44 referendums have passed. In the UK whilst we would probably have a referendum on the basics of the monarchy vs the general sort of republic proposed, the detail would be thrashed out in Parliament.)

That's not to say this is impossible, but for a republic to come about it will need far more than just dislike of the royals - all the remarks of the Duke of Edinburgh or the foolishness of certain younger royals or silliness from hangers on like Princess Michael of Kent are not going to bring this about. It will require much discussion and agreement on the detail and real solutions found to the potential for abuse of power. The 1999 Australian referendum saw a divide between those republicans who supported the proposed parliamentary-appointed model and those who favoured direct election and so voted against the proposal on the table - one of the details attacked the most was the proposal for the Prime Minister to be able to sack the President.

Of course once such a model is found that can work within the political traditions and culture of the country then it could well be only a matter of time before change comes. And given the links between the various Commonwealth republican movements (see Common Cause) it is probable that the basic model that works for Australia will work for other Commonwealth countries and spread there. But it will take time. A lot of time.


radical royalist said...

Although I am opposed to your republican concept I agree with your three reasons on why Australia will not see another referendum on the republic issue soon.

And it matters that the republican Turnbull was replaced by the Monarchist Abbott.
Success in an Australian referendum opinion requires:
1. bipartisan support
2. education
3. popular ownership
4. that it be sound sensible and safe

With a Monarchist as Leader of Her Majesty's Australian Opposition bipartisanship is not achievable. Besides that, the rank and file members of the Liberal Party and even more the National Party support the status quo.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Fair point about the need for bipartisanship but I'm sceptical that a referendum would have happened in the next couple of years anyway regardless of if the opposition leader is Abbott, Turnbull, Nelson, Hockey or whoever. A lot of republicans (including Turnbull) seem to have given up on achieving change in the Quee's lifetime, and instead are waiting for Prince Charles's accession before trying again. And that looks to be many years and (if they keep their current antics up) many, many Liberal leaders away.


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