From the Archives, 1998: Concessions open the way to a republic
31st January 2023

First published in The Age on February 3, 1998

Concessions open the way forward

John Howard has made two important concessions that increase the chance of Australia becoming a republic by the centenary of Federation.

Malcolm Turnbull at the Constitutional Convention, looking less than cosy with John Howard, the monarchist he said “broke the heart of a nation”. Credit:Andrew Meares

The Prime Minister has offered republicans at the Constitutional Convention a referendum next year if only they can agree on a model to be put to the people.

The alternative if they fail is a non-binding plebiscite by 2000 which would drag out and complicate the process, making change before January 2001 impossible.

Mr Howard has also given direction on what model should emerge, suggesting he may tolerate a less minimalist republic than that proposed by Richard McGarvie.

There is now a reasonable prospect that Mr Howard will accept a model where the head of state is appointed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament, but could be dismissed by a simple majority of the House of Representatives. This compromise was openly contemplated yesterday by the leading republican, Mr Malcolm Turnbull.

Constitutional Convention delegates stand during the national anthem at Old Parliament House Canberra.Credit:Andrew Meares

Certainly, Mr Howard reaffirmed his view that no alternative would be better than what we have, but he has left himself room to play the great facilitator.

The result after the first day of an unpredictable process is that Australia is a small step closer to having one of its own installed as head of state.

It is also that Mr Howard has very nearly put himself in a position where he wins, no matter which way the debate rolls.

If the convention works, he has played a constructive role. If it fails, it will represent a vindication of his Burkean view that the symbols may be anachronistic, but the system ain’t broke.

While a number of republicans yesterday pressed the case for a popularly elected president, day one saw the arguments against such a model pressed by Mr Howard, the Labor leader, Mr Kim Beazley, and Mr Turnbull.

Their first line of rebuttal was to portray direct election as incompatible with Australia’s version of the Westminster system of government, with Mr Howard saying it would inevitably create a rival power to the Parliament.

The second was to question the notion that direct election would be more democratic and more likely to throw up a concensus candidate who is above politics. As Mr Turnbull reflected late yesterday: “The critical thing to remember about direct election is you’re actually giving the choice of the president to at best 50 per cent plus one of the population. If you had a field of four or five people, the winning candidate may be the first preference choice of 25 or 30 per cent of the population.

“The great virtue of (appointment by) the two-thirds majority of Parliament is that it gives support through directly elected representatives of virtually all the people,” Mr Turnbull said.

The third was to highlight the difficulty of defining the powers of a popularly elected president. Mr Howard underscored this when he told the convention: “Given the almost unique power enjoyed by the Australian Senate, a process of codification would, amongst other things, involve expressly providing in the Constitution that an elected president would have the power to do what Sir John Kerr did in 1975.”

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