An Australian head of state won’t save us from being a de facto monarchy

Australian Republican Movement chairman Peter FitzSimons used Australia Day to renew calls for an Australian head of state. AAP/Mick Tsikas

It happens this time of year with a certain monotony. There are calls for Australia to become a republic and to cast off the bonds that tie it to a supposedly outmoded past.

That would be nice if those who made these calls actually understood what is meant by a republic and if making an Australian “head of state” actually made the country more republican. Alas, that is not the case. Who is head of state will do little for republican values, in the sense that it won’t increase the amount of political virtue in Australia’s system of government.

The perils of centralisation

The republic, the res publica or public thing, is generally understood to be a political system that encompasses the common good in two ways.

First, it encourages its citizens to participate and exercise their virtue so as to enhance the life of their community.

Second, it advocates a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one person or group becomes too powerful. There are mechanisms to ensure that power is constrained and not allowed to become despotic.

Having a so-called Australian head of state will do little to achieve either of these goals. It may well lead to the opposite consequence: more power being concentrated in the hands of the executive government.

There can be no doubt that that the trajectory of government in Australia over the past 90 years, since the Engineers Case in 1920 (which “ushered in a period of literal interpretation of the Constitution”), has been towards the centralisation of political power in the hands of the Commonwealth government.

Generally such centralisation has been justified on efficiency grounds; it enhances the capacity of government to deliver services. Yet such an approach to government treats citizens not as active participants in the process of governing, but as the passive recipients of government services. The price of enhanced efficiency is an augmentation of servility.

The growth of centralisation has been matched, especially over the past 30 years, by the growth of what is best termed democratic Caesarism. To compensate for their lack of real participation in the political process, Australians increasingly have placed their faith in their prime ministers, looking to them for protection.

Prime ministers have increasingly become more than just the leaders of the party in power; the first among equals in a ministry. Instead they have become like quasi-monarchs, standing above their fellow Australians. They are now expected to have views on a whole range of topics that extend well beyond their political roles. They have become like the father – or mother – of the nation.

A way forward

For a republican, this enhancement in the power and status of the prime minister is hardly a healthy phenomenon. In fact, it is downright worrying – especially given the calibre of prime ministers in recent times.

What is the point of having an Australian head of state if the country is turning itself into a de facto monarchy? It is an elective monarchy to be sure – but in terms of the practice of government, a monarchy all the same.

Having an Australian head of state will do little to reverse this tendency. For a genuine republican, concerned with creating a political order based on virtue and committed to the common good, it is a very low priority.

Instead, a real republican would be looking at ways and means of making Australia much more of a genuine republic. This means seeking ways of enhancing virtue in the community and ensuring there are checks on the exercise of power, especially the power of the prime minister.

This can only come about if power is diffused more equally throughout the wider Australian community. It is interesting that the word “subsidiarity” has popped up in the federalism white paper process. Subsidiarity means that decision-making by central governments should only be in those matters that cannot be performed at a local level.

Subsidiarity is crucial for a republican. It enables citizens to enhance their virtue by participating in decision-making in a meaningful fashion.

If we are to create a genuine Australian republic, embedding subsidiarity in our political practice is far more important than who the head of state is. Australians should want the reality of a republic. The rest is but window-dressing.