Minister for the Republic

Matt Thistlethwaite

Matt Thithlethwaite MP

We have an Assistant Minister for the Republic in Australia, Matt Thistlethwaite MP. He also serves as the Member for Kingsford Smith, Assistant Minister for Defence (Minister: Richard Marles MP), And the Assistant Minister for Veterans Affairs (Minister: Matt Keogh MP).

This keeps the log fires burning in the republican camp, but not much else at the moment. Both Defence and Veterans Affairs have Departments with staff and functions. It is not clear what the intent of the new position is, save that it will probably be good for a few lunches, and an odd talk.

One of our problems is Australians don't make enough of our Constitution, and we do not know what is in it most of the time. Section 3 of the Constitution made it lawful for Queen Victoria to Proclaim the Commonwealth, by which we became an independent nation. We did not have or need a War of Independence, yet the Queen's authority to act in the matter came from the constitution. It is then clear in Part 1, the Governor General is the Head of State, and it is the Governor General who may call and prorogue parliament, even here they must call parliament every year so that there are never 12 months without parliament sitting. The Governor General cannot act without parliament.

In Chapter 2 (sections 61-70) the notion of Executive Government is laid out. The Governor General does not act alone, but on the advice of the Federal Executive, and section 63 makes that very clear.


The dismissal of the Whitlam Government, following a decisive act by the Governor General, has remained a sore point in our history. Despite the fact that it is now nearly 50 years after the event. In the politics of the day, the Government had failed to secure supply, and so was not able to continue the business of Government. The scheme in which Malcolm Fraser played a part, allowed for the passage of the supply bills, the proroguing of Parliament and a double dissolution. The ultimate effect of this was that the Public Service continued, and we went to the polls to decide who should govern us.

Goff's impassioned speech of the day contained the log remembered words:

Long may we say God Save The Queen, because nothing will save the Governor General!

It was a great example of the stunning oratory that Gough Whitlam was capable of and famous for, and I think has been part of the Labor brand since that time, and people still talk of maintaining the rage.

Goff Dismissal Speach
John Howard


In May of 1997, the Constitutional Convention was held to consider the question of becoming a republic. Of the 152 delegates, of whom half had been popularly elected, discussion focussed on what sort of republic, if a republic, and if it should be put to the people. Ultimately 73 delegates voted in favour, 57 against, and 22 abstained, making for a 47.3% majority.

In November the matter went to a referendum where two questions were put:

  1. To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.
  2. To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.

The first passed only in the ACT and was lost by over 1.1 million votes overall, and the second was lost everywhere by 2.5 million votes overall.

Not a Simple Change

The words 'Governor General' appears 98 times in the Constitution, and not simply in one section but rather widely spread throughout the whole Constitution. There are a further 76 references to 'The Queen', which also clearly will need to be looked at. The constitution covers 42 pages, and with the notes, it is now a 50 Page Document.

The two dangers here are quite simple, firstly that it represents a major redraft of much of the constitution, and would not simply be accomplished with a 'find and replace function, but rather each section would need to be considered in detail to ensure all is in order, and secondly there is the concern of what else might be smuggled into or out of the Constitution, intentionally or unintentionally. There is the other question, given that this change represents a core change to the document, should we not also too to clean up and sort out other parts that have laboured to fulfil their purpose, given the changing circumstances of the passage of time? I would cite section 44, which was interpreted by the High Court to mean something it could not have meant at the time it was drafted, despite the fact that changing the constitution requires a referendum.

The last couple of years have reminded us, the States are Sovereign, they have parliaments and Governors, and as such, each still has a relationship with the Crown.


So what would we gain?

The illusory notion of somehow being more independent than we already are.

The function of the Head of State is currently exercised in Australia by the Governor-General. The Governor-General is appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Ministers of the Crown (essentially the Federal Executive). The Governor-General rears an oath or affirmation of office to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Generally, they serve for five years, and the position is (certainly intended to be) largely at arm's length from the daily round of political life.


So what would we lose?

One of the purposes of the Constitution is to protect the people from the Government. This may seem an unusual expression, however Governments are entrusted with great power, yet that power must be limited. They are required to act with justice and with equity. The last bastion of defence against an unruly government is the Crown (in our case the Governor-General). Laws become laws on the assent of the Governor-General, who is our last line of defence.

Republican models in the main vest this power in a President, however, the President is as such part of the political process, and not at arm's length from it.

How do we Choose?

At the Moment: The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the Federal Executive, and is then sworn into office by the Supreme Court Justice. In the main, they serve for five years and are largely external to the political process of the day. The Governor-General is not so much a leader, as the reserve power of decency and order. The English tradition of the Prime Minister's weekly meetings with the Queen to keep her abreast of the goings-on of parliament and nation has not translated to the Australian experience. In a sense, the Prime Minister is the seat of the action, and the Governor-General has a subsidiary role to play.

Direct Election: This model is favoured by many who take the Republican position (though not all). It is more or less the model used in the United States of America. As such they do not have a Prime Minister and occasionally refer to the leader of the house though many of us do not know who that person is. The model effectively amplifies the Role of the President and conversely diminishes the role of the Prime Minister. It also amplifies the role of the major Political Parties and makes the Head of State a significantly political position.

Indirect  Election: Under this model, the President would be elected by a secondary group, perhaps the Houses of Parliament, perhaps the cabinet, or perhaps a body of electors specifically composed for this purpose.

Appointment: Perhaps the President could be appointed by a third person.

Does it Matter?

Of course, the mode of appointment of a president has a significant bearing on the way that role would be exercised. Clearly, if you were opting for the direct election model then the likely outcome would be that the President would have a significant remit in the business of government.

If we opt for some kind of appointment process, outside of the political round then the role would need to be likely to retain something of the more formal and symbolic roles, which the current Governor-General exercises.

One of the features of the US system is that the only recall is to the courts and this has resulted in a more litigious society, often finding more expression in law rather than justice.

In the Westminster system part of the role of 'The Crown', be it the Queen in England, or the Governor-General in Australia, is to uphold natural law, preserve equity, and where necessary, protect the people from the parliament.

Those who what a republic need to provide the assurances that we are giving up this protection for nothing in return.

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