Abandoned, bread turns mouldy. Neglected milk
goes first sour, then rancid. Untilled fields grow rank with
weeds, and unturned ministries, corrupt. Political corruption
is a natural state, even as mouldy bread, and our nationality
is of limited protection. We are human foremost, before we are
citizens, and the human condition fails to respect national borders.
While the old adage "All power corrupts…" holds true, it fails to pierce to the core of the matter. In 1929 Lord Hewart, Lord Chief Justice of England, recounted one evening’s conversation between a distinguished Treasury official and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after a rough time in the House of Commons in which the Department hadn’t gained its desired measures. Frustrated, the civil servant expostulated over all this parliamentary palaver:
After all, what was the good of the House of Commons? And how perfectly useless was the House of Lords! Why should the work of the expert be always at the mercy of the ignorant amateur? Why should people be allowed to govern themselves when it was manifestly so much better for them to be governed by those who knew how to govern? "Seriously," he asked, "could not this country be governed by the Civil Service?" "Undoubtedly it could," replied the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "undoubtedly it could. And I am quite sure that you and your colleagues would govern the country remarkably well. But let me tell you this, my young friend: at the end of six months of it, there would not be enough lamp-posts in Whitehall to go round".
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was wryly
referring to a popular method of executing bureaucrats during
the French Revolution, by hanging them from convenient posts.
As an emblem of political principle the lamp-post should probably
be resurrected today, as a reminder that the greatest problem
in politics has never been how to get the right people into power
but how to get the wrong people out of it.
Any wielding of active authority over a complex
mass of people, any imposition of government policy, excites
resentments in disadvantaged quarters. These resentments slowly
accumulate, and the consent of the governed begins to wane. Ruling
a diverse society is like running a complicated engine: discontent
is generated within its bowels as a byproduct, like heat, and
slowly accumulates the longer the government operates, eventually
leaking throughout the system. This will destroy the society,
unless some means of shedding resentments can be found. Many
limited ways are at hand; by carefully balancing the discomfort
or by inspiring the collective imagination, by resorting to populist
policies or indulging in "bread and circuses", by finding
scapegoats for the discontent at home, or by manufacturing them
abroad through nationalism. But the people will eventually get
fed up, and want to change their rulers, whether these have been
enlightened or rogues. Enlightened policies merely defer the
execution, not commute it. Finally, more extreme measures will
be required to retain power, or the grace to go quietly.
This basic principle of discontent, which
infects the conflict of interest between constituents and their
members, seems to have been forgotten by a disturbingly large
number of people, but it’s central to achieving the republican
ideal of government "of the people, by the people, for the
people". Representative democracy both inflames the boil
and lances it. Free and fair elections are a form of catharsis,
a kind of bloodless revolution, a fresh start; a way of dumping
heat. Parliamentary sovereignty allows this frustration and discontent
expression, dragging members of the House– the ultimate
authors of all executive and legislative acts– from their
seats by ticking a box next to some other candidate’s name.
Towards the end of the 19th Century Karl Marx
claimed "The history of all hitherto existing society is
the history of class struggles". His statement still has
a bit of life in it, particularly if we remove the word "hitherto".
Stripped bare of the ideological clutter of economic class and
traditional "class struggle", the transactions of representative
democracy itself can be seen to create two "classes"
in perpetual conflict, the constituency and the elective oligarchy.
A great challenge democracy poses to (sufficiently amoral) politicians
is to devise some way in which the vast and temporary power,
lent by the electorate, can be converted into a more permanent
form before the original mandate is revoked. The greater challenge
presented to the constituency is to devise some scheme to prevent
its representatives from doing precisely this – from abusing
their mandate by employing it against its lenders. Although this
conflict of interest cannot be permanently laid to rest, electors
must at least ensure that during it they retain the upper hand
over their representatives, or else see their own sovereignty
and rights destroyed.
A number of partial solutions lie at hand.
One is having a written Constitution guarded by a strong judiciary,
but two dangers exist, the first being that judges are confined
on abstract grounds only to address justiciable issues, and on
practical grounds need the Executive to be actually containable
within the rule of law. So if the armed forces and police are
politicised, serving their political masters rather than the
law of the land, or the Executive’s grosser lawlessness
is secret, or lawfully exempted from judicial scrutiny, or defended
through further appeal to executive power wrongfully used, then
these judges cannot fulfil their duties as guardians.
If the text is written too sparsely, these
guardians’ capacity to intervene is impaired. But if the
text is written too densely, then a judicial aristocracy will
have been created. This is the second danger. Members of the
constituency, in embracing the judiciary as their saviours against
politician’s abuses, may be protecting their sovereignty
from one oligarchy by sacrificing it to another – rather
like the fairytale story of the Sultan who, on finding his palace
infested with rats, invited in large numbers of cats, who killed
the rodents but ended up infesting the palace themselves.
This arrangement would also end in destroying
the members of the judicial aristocracy. If an unaccountable
and supreme judiciary commited legislative or executive actions
that outrage us, dragging politicians from their seats would
become inadequate. To re-assert our sovereignty we would have
to drag the judges from their benches, an act destroying the
rule of law.
A Constitution that failed to enable frustration
and dissent against political acts from being vented through
constitutional means would be likely to invite unconstitutional
action: if the consent of the governed is withdrawn from those
in power, but cannot be reasserted through peaceful force, it
invites the use of violent force. Lacking consent, a time comes
when that force would be justified.
An alternative, partial solution to sacrificing
popular sovereignty to the judiciary rests in the few residual
powers now remaining with the Crown, for which the ancient form
of ministerial responsibility remains available in an emergency.
The Crown is a valuable modern instrument for the constituency,
as a usually passive device that in rare crisis can become active
to counteract abuses committed by politicians; a device that
cannot itself dispense solutions but only reflect the crisis
to the floor of the House or to the constituency itself to resolve,
reaffirming the ultimate sovereignty of the people. Chifley enunciated
the matter clearly when he said "To us, the throne in no
way usurps the rights of the people. It is a symbol of the liberty
of the people. With us, the prerogatives of the Crown have become
the privileges of the people".
As well as its reserve powers, the Crown holds
also hierarchical implications that uphold the rule of law, helping
to preserve practical justiciability of grievances and rights
of the individual. Servants of the executive, being servants
of the Crown, have their hierarchies constrained in a remarkable
way, whereby patently unlawful acts must be disobeyed, else the
individual servants must answer personally for their actions.
This potent device was traditionally employed in "Her Majesty’s"
prisons to uphold habeus corpus, and in "Her Majesty’s"
post offices to preserve the integrity of private communication.
It remains in use in "Her Majesty’s" police, armed
forces and courts of law, while the disastrous effects of its
absence can be seen in contemporary US history.
A modern reading of Machiavellian doctrines,
applied to a monarch in a parliamentary democracy, reveals that
her own best interests are served by aiding the constituency
over the elective oligarchy. By delivering up the wielders of
active political power to the judgement of the citizens, she
can preserve her own personal stake in the Constitution’s
survival, a stake created and perpetuated by the hereditary principle.
A constitutional monarchy therefore satisfies John Stuart Mill’s
criterion for a well-constituted office, while an elective presidency
fails it. For the Queen’s viceregal representatives a more
complex arrangement is used, a power triangle, suspended from
the permanent thread of her own discretion whether or not to
sack her representative; a discretion bound up by her own self-interest
in survival, and exercisable under the ancient form of responsibility,
using Australian ministers and advisers. Her representative can
be drawn from beyond the elective oligarchy, using whatever means
of nomination we, the community, choose to establish.
As an ultimate guarantor of parliamentary
government in sixteen independent realms throughout the world,
she represents a human emblem above the disquiet of nations.
The Queen is uniquely positioned to act as intermediary among
her governments, behind closed doors, with rights of access unparalleled
by any other official in the world by virtue of her constitutional
place. What our prime ministers and premiers, governors-general
and governors choose to communicate to her is up to them, but
our just grievances with Britain, which inevitably arise from
time to time, require communication if they are to be remedied.
Discard the Australian Throne, and never again will we have this
opportunity to speak and be heard through this special intermediary.
The greater the grievances with Britain, as one independent
country with another, the more important our links with the Palace
become. Our choice is truly one of maturity: whether to sulk
over past injustices, or ensure our complaints are heard in Whitehall
through being understood in the Palace. Diplomats come and go,
but the monarch remains.
Beyond the secluded corridors of power and
parliaments assembled, the symbolism of the Crown can be employed
in a more civilised manner than any nationalist emblem that would
replace it. Governors and Governors-General serve as figures
embodying our polity beyond party, around whom all sections of
our community can rally, despite their partisan grievances. As
distinguished personages, they can bestow the much-deserved formal
dignity and recognition to charities and individuals that work
with the poor, the hungry and the desperate, without demeaning
these bodies with the "kissing babies" cynicism of
re-election. And having no vested interest in elected office,
they can embody the supremacy of the community over its politicians;
serving as witnesses at the highest echelon of executive power
who, in times of constitutional crisis, can force an issue to
the people to decide.
All this is to be expunged in the name of
an Australian "Head of State", despite the fact our
Governor-General can easily fulfil that job description, and
has already been accorded honours as such abroad. Only minor
alterations need be performed before this figure is exalted properly,
as a distinguished and distinctive Australian State figure, beyond
the schisms of party and creed. Yet this is, in truth, inconvenient
for our elected leaders; it abrades the gloss from their own
temporary mandate. Hence we had a Prime Minister, on one hand
extolling the virtues of a distinctive Australian "Head
of State"… then on the other, going to Yizhak Rabin’s
State funeral alone, leaving the Governor-General at home. The
Prime Minister giveth and the Prime Minister taketh away.
In this era the Australian people are filled
with a justified disillusionment with our politicians, a righteous
disenchantment with the elective oligarchy. Yet at the same time
we have in our hands a way of exalting our community over its
elected assemblies, of emphasising that our politicians are supposed
to be our servants, not our masters. And in tragic irony, it’s
precisely this avenue of reform we are now being asked to lock
off and destroy by becoming a republic.
What is the alternative? A genuine programme
Rather than becoming a republic for the Olympics in a triumph of nationalism, the Centenary of Federation and the new Millenium should be celebrated by exalting community within our country and internationally. It would represent a victory for true democratic accountability at home, an acceptance of the synthesis of our heritage, our present multicultural complexity, and our future.
Over the decades and across the world, the
bitter cycle of atrophy has been seen: fresh-faced idealism fades,
as elected leaders grow corrupted by the conflicts of interest
underpinning their power. Democracy stagnates, as politicians
employ their transient authority to acquire permanent power.
Discontent seeps up through the populace and cannot be dispersed,
the wielders of active power having entrenched themselves. The
government grows more repressive in reply to protests; halfhearted
democracy is replaced by authoritarian rule, and a new dynamic
equilibrium emerges, of mutual antagonism between the ruling
cliques and the alienated majority. Eventually the equilibrium
breaks down – usually violently – and the old cliques
are overthrown unconstitutionally, to be replaced by a new order.
Depending on who’s done the overthrowing, the new rulers
are either military – khaki oppression replacing the civilian
variety – or else popular, in which case we’re back
to the fresh-faced idealism and the merry-go-round starts around
Up until now we’ve never had to go for
a ride on this merry-go-round, although it’s a distressingly
familiar pastime to citizens of most of the rest of the world.
Yet in Australia this threat has been seen in recent years. The
Keating Government engaged in legislative attempts struck down
by the High Court, to entrench the status quo of established
parties, to favour the incumbent government and silence community
groups not represented within the system.To echo the words of
Byers QC "There cannot be democracy if the voters are gagged
and blindfolded". In the words of other protesting voices
the Keating Government has engaged in "the politics of hate...
In other words: ‘If you don’t agree with me, I’ll
not only hate you, but destroy you’." "From the
Australia Card through the political advertising ban and on,
it has attempted to infringe civil liberties. It has threatened
retaliation against those who campaigned against it in the last
election campaign, and acted upon those threats."
We are now confronted by a Bill for a republic
that can be only described as grotesque, its safeguards pathetic
or non-existent, its structure a botched camel of an idea. But
its hasty imposition upon us, and the demands of our compliance
at the risk of ridicule, cut to deeper concerns.
In June 1993 the magazine Independent Monthly
suggested a new coat of arms for the Australian Republic, supported
not by the traditional kangaroo and emu but by a shark and a
fat cat, with the Latin motto CUI BONO (translated, "For
whose benefit?") written beneath. The republican campaign
has been notable largely for the elbowing and pushing by people
with vested interests in constitutional change: a former Prime
Minister inciting nationalism, exploiting it to give flesh to
his own antipathies. A number of legal "authorities"
given free rein in the Press, fashionable figures determined
to create a judicial aristocracy, to acquire for themselves lasting
executive and legislative power over the nation which their otherwise
unremarkable careers would deny them. A queue of faces drawn
from the Sydney cocktail circuit, determined to be dining at
the top table when the spoils of patronage are divvied out after
the declaration of the Republic. These are hardly the emblems
of a polity dedicated to the public good.
Rather, they are warnings of what is to come
if we continue to walk this ideological road laid before us.
Our society, like that of other Western societies, seems to be
descending into a kind of 21st Century feudalism,
ruled by oligarchs. The flow of conventional information is dominated
by a handful of media barons. Economic rationalism has been imposed
by our governments, privatising even essential services like
prisons and telecommunications, despite the profound implications
for personal liberty. Wielders of vast amounts of capital moving
globally, making and crippling governments, have emerged. All
these are developments potentially poisonous to the liberty of
the citizen. It is no coincidence that many are also anathema
to the traditions of Westminster, which holds that governments
only deserve the allegiance and obedience of the people provided
certain traditional rights and liberties are upheld. It is impossible
in this context to ignore the phenomenal wealth of the ARM’s
leading figures or the ways such wealth is capable of being misused
in the service of active power in a republic. It would appear
the ARM is emerging as the party for the 21st Century
The most disastrous myth of the 20th
Century has been the belief that politics is merely a form of
economics with the numbers removed for easier reading; that governments
can be dismantled and constructed with cold dispassionate logic.
But humans are more than units of consumption and supply; we
do not associate and dissociate our societies and alliances like
beads upon an abacus. Humans will not deny their own desires
when endowed with the power of office, or swallow their discontent
when in the streets. A failure to understand this, and a desire
to dismantle our polity’s safeguards in the name of greater
"efficiency", threatens our future with arbitrary government
by an entrenched oligarchy, leading to eventual tyranny. In this
environment, the 21st Century barons leading the ARM
could doubtless flourish.
Yet it is the monarchists who have been mocked
and ostracised as, at best, "lickspittles" and "forelock-tuggers"
to a "foreign" Queen and a quaintly outdated world
view, at worst despised as little better than a traitor-class
to our own country, our allegiance supposedly prostituted to
foreign interests. Labelled "rednecks" by scribblers
whose own intellectual qualifications consist of a black turtleneck
skivvy and a half-read copy of Derrida, we’ve been obliged
to endure the lofty ridicule of conformity.
Niccolò’s ghost[laughs]: You should have read a letter I wrote in exile – in exile, although within my beloved Florence, following the restoration of the Medici. [Quoting from his own letter to Francesco Vittori, 10th December 1513.]
When evening comes, I go back home,
and go to my study. On the threshold I take off my work clothes,
covered in mud and filth, and put on the clothes an ambassador
would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers
who have long since died. There I am warmly welcolmed, and I
feed on the only food I find nourishing, and was born to savour.
I am not ashamed to talk to them, and to ask them to explain
their actions. And they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours
go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry –
I am no longer afraid of poverty, or frightened of death. I live
entirely through them.
Author: The disdain
of the brave new world is endurable, because it’s neither
brave nor new. Egotism and ignorance have been distinguishing
traits of the modern republican movement in this country, traits
also attendant upon the darkest periods of human history across
thousands of years. The intellectual cowardice of the debate
has been a refusal to address the implications of this history–
the thought it may hold unflattering lessons about our own natures,
which may demand precautions more stringent than glib assurances
or maudlin appeals. Many diseases exist in the body politic,
and will continue to exist in the centuries to come, being derived
not from peculiar circumstances but through the fact of our own
mortality. In Westminster’s constitutional monarchy and
viceregal representations throughout the world, a defence exists
to some of these distempers. Derived from centuries of history,
an inoculation drawn from the human condition that causes the
disease, the Crown is neither a perfect remedy nor protects against
all disorders...and yet so successful has it been that it remains
the emblem of half the world’s six oldest surviving democracies,
and of others older than democratic government in many Western
European countries. And at this time at the turning point of
millennia, it also provides a partial defence against another
plague afflicting the entire world, including my own country:
nationalism. It is a sad indictment, that a foreign observer
like President von Weiszacker can appreciate our Crown’s
quality in providing some protection against that most despicable
and virulent of modern diseases, while our own trite commentators
We are the free possessors of a free society,
remarkable in the eyes of the world, beautiful and rare. But
it is also fragile, as all free systems of human society are
fragile, and an ancient archive of human experience has gone
into constructing the greenhouse that preserves it.
Edmund Burke defined society as a partnership
in every virtue which, as its end can’t be obtained except
over many generations, becomes "a partnership not only between
those who are living, but between those who are living, those
who are dead, and those who are to be born." The decision
now before the people is not whether they want "an
Australian as Australia’s Head of State". The wording
of that question is dishonest and misleading; everything republicans
want in the way of a distinctively Australian figure of State
can be achieved already. Nor is the question merely one of whose
face should adorn our coins. The true question before us is which
political system best serves the trust placed in us, as the living
tenants of the partnership among all generations of Australians,
living, dead or yet to be born. Our audience is a multitude across
the centuries, regardless how few they may be in our own time.
And our choice will cast light or shadow across their lives.
[Author puts down his
pen and sits, silently staring at the Ghost sitting opposite.]