An independent nation like Australia should have one of its own citizens as head of state, rather than a foreign monarch says high-profile republican Malcolm Turnbull.

In his May Day Address this year, ACTU President Martin Ferguson committed the Australian union movement strongly to support the movement toward an Australian Republic. That commitment may well prove to be as historic a moment in the establishment of an Australian Republic as Paul Keating’s commitment to a republic in his election speech in March 1993.


The Australian Republic is so sensible and rational a development for this country that it is often hard for our opponents to make a reasonable, or even coherent, case against it. But the common sensical nature of the proposition that an independent nation like Australia should have one of its own citizens as head of state, rather than a foreign monarch, is both our strength and our Achilles heel.


So rational is our cause, that many Australians regard it as inevitable. Friends, history is littered with great “inevitable” causes that never came to pass. The Australian Republic is not inevitable, at least not in any of our life times. The Republic will come about only because a great many Australians work together to make it happen.


Who today could imagine this continent split up into six bickering states, each relatively independent of the other? Who could imagine Australia with no national government? The Federal Movement in the 1890s gave us a national government, but the movement to Federation had virtually collapsed by the mid 1890s and it was not until various popular organisations were established in support of the Federation that it became a reality.


Some of you may ask why the union movement should get involved in the move for an Australian Republic. How will affect the wages and conditions of Australian workers if Australia’s head of state is an Australian citizen chosen by Australians or a foreign, hereditary and sectarian monarch. This sort of question is not unique to unionists of course. Many Australians, from all walks of life, ask us that question.


But let me answer that question with another one. Does anyone seriously believe that we will not perform better as a nation, in every respect, if we feel better about ourselves, if we are prouder of being Australian? Lets face it, Australia is on its own nowadays. If we cannot count on ourselves, we cannot count on anyone.


What is Australia anyway? Is it just a place, a big island in the South Pacific populated by eighteen million people most of whom regard themselves as being culturally from somewhere else. Is this really our home of which we are proud? Or is Australia just a big caravan park into which we have all pulled our vans to stay for a while, maybe forever, but never really feeling we were at home.


Many of the most important campaigns in which the Labor movement is involved are asking Australians to put their collective, common interest as Australians ahead of their own personal vested interests. Are those campaigns, are those causes, advanced by a stronger sense of national identity and pride?


Australians cannot define themselves by reference to a common ethnicity or race, or to a common religion, or to a common cultural background. We cannot define ourselves by reference to a language of our own because our language, English, is spoken by many other nations and belongs, in truth, to the world. Like a number of other settler nations we Australians must define ourselves by reference to those political beliefs which we share, because apart from geography that is all we have in common.


What are those political beliefs? I believe they can be summed by in that great Australian saying “a fair go”. To me that means we are a democratic country. It also means we are a tolerant and (with a small I) liberal country. Most important of all, it means we are an egalitarian country.


What does the monarchy represent? For a start it is not even Australian, the British monarchy sits at the top of our Constitutional tree by virtue of an Act of the British Parliament. It is there because, in 1901, we were a colony of Great Britain and the British monarchy represented the real political subordination of this country to Britain.


The monarchy is the very antithesis of a democratic institution. The Queen was not chosen by the people. She is the last vestige of the sort of anti-democratic, hereditary, institutions that the progress of democracy over many centuries overcame. As Thomas Paine observed more than two hundred years ago, “An hereditary ruler is as illogical as a hereditary author.” He is still right today, even though the functions of the hereditary ruler we are concerned with are largely ceremonial and symbolic.


The monarchy is not a tolerant institution. It is the very embodiment of intolerance. Not only do you have to be a member of a particular English family to be the monarch, you have to be eldest son (or if there are no sons) the eldest girl. How do we reconcile that with our laws on sexual discrimination laws? The monarchy does not only offend our laws against sexual discrimination, it offends the Constitution itself. Section 116 of our Constitution states in part “no religious test shall be required as qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.” Yet the British laws of succession to the throne require that only a member of the Church of England can succeed. And just in case the Anglican purity of the monarch could be infected between the sheets, in accordance with English law neither the monarch nor the heir to the throne can be married to a Roman Catholic.


In short, friends, the monarchy is not simply an archaic institution whose time has past. It is a foreign institution which offends the most central elements of that common core of political philosophy which defines Australia.


Some of our opponents have suggested that the move toward an Australian republic does have a hidden agenda. They are quite right. It is much more radical and revolutionary than abolishing the States or even turning the Senate into a child minding centre. It threatens the political establishment much more than either of those rather pedestrian proposals. The Australian republic’s other agenda, hidden no longer and, to be candid, always in evidence, is to place political sovereignty right where it belongs: with the people.


If our Constitution were amended so as accurately to describe our method of government, so that it, for example, included a statement that the head of the Government of the Commonwealth shall be a Prime Minister who shall have the confidence of the House of Representatives and that the Head of State shall, subject to certain stated exceptions, act on the Prime Minister’s advice, such an amendment would be a more radical change in our Constitution than even the abolition of the States.


The radical nature of the change does not arise from the substance of the amendment; it would only state what is the accepted constitutional convention at the moment. But by making the Constitution a meaningful document which accurately describes the way we are governed, we would start to create an environment in which ordinary Australians will be able to read that Constitution and learn something about the way we are governed. If those changes are preceded, as they will be, by a constitutional debate and if that stimulates the provision of proper instruction in schools about our Constitution and its history, then we may just end up with a nation whose citizens are sufficiently aware of their nation’s system of government to be able to make an intelligent contribution to it


Democracy is often simplistically described as giving every adult citizen a vote. But having a say, in any context, is a worthless right unless you also have sufficient knowledge to make that say meaningful. We, today, all have a perfect right to discuss the latest theories in astrophysics. Without wishing to presume too much about the education of this audience, I suspect that most of you, like myself, would find that right quite valueless because we do not know enough about astrophysics to discuss it.


Of course there is a big distinction between our democracy’s discussion about government and the Constitution and a group of ordinary citizens trying to talk about science. We have no duty to discuss astrophysics. On the other hand, our democracy imposes a duty on citizens to play their part by voting. It follows that our democracy has a corresponding duty to ensure that citizens know enough about the operation of this democracy to be able to make that vote meaningful. The democratic right to participate in the democracy carries with it an obligation on the part of society to ensure that citizens are provided with sufficient information to make that participation effective.


In 1993 the ACTU Congress supported a republic and among other things supported


“the codification of the reserve powers currently exercisable by the Governor -General”.


The Congress also stated its support for:


“the Constitution setting out the reality of our system of government, which means the role and powers of the Prime Minister and Cabinet “


I entirely agree with the position of the ACTU Congress. It is consistent with common sense. Why should the most important rules of our democracy be left to the shadowy world of constitutional convention, accessible only to constitutional lawyers and political science.


Martin Ferguson in his May Day Address talked of the importance this cause has for young people. All of us are aware that many Australians, and especially young people, feel alienated from the system of Government and the other important institutions of our nation. Some of that hostility, and almost all of that alienation, stems, in my view, from the incredible ignorance Australians have of their Constitution and their system of Government. Only a minority of those Australians who have sufficient interest to attend our public meetings are familiar with the basic features of our Constitution. This ignorance is a direct consequence of our failure to education Australians about the fundamentals of the way we are governed. For example we no longer require new Australian citizens to swear allegiance to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth , her heirs and successors according to law”, but we do not require them to learn anything about our constitutional and political history. In the United States, by contrast, new citizens are required to go through a basic civics course which endeavours to summarise the civics subject which is taught in American schools.


An important difference between the Australian and American Constitutions is that the Americans have a Constitution which accurately describes their system of government. It is an inspirational document, as well as being informative.


Our Constitution, by contrast, gives a quite misleading picture of the way we are governed. The fundamental principle of our representative democracy is that the country is governed by a Prime Minister and Cabinet of ministers who must be able to command a majority in the House of Representatives. The Constitution makes no reference to the principle of democracy. There is no reference to the office of Prime Minister at all, no reference to Cabinet.


So while the Constitution appears to confer almost absolute power on the Queen and the Governor-General, unwritten constitutional conventions require him to act on the advice of the Government supported by the House of Representatives.


There are good legal and constitutional reasons for and against codification. But lawyers often overlook the educational dimension. How can a Constitution be regarded as a people’s document if all the essential elements are not written down in it. If we want our citizens to understand the way they are governed and participate in constitutional debate in an informed fashion, should we not have a Constitution that accurately describes our system of Government? If we want Australians to read the Constitution, and be proud of it, should we not make it a document that makes sense to ordinary people that is, to use a fashionable but apt term, meaningful?


Friends, I am very concerned by signs that the Federal Government may be losing its nerve over the republican issue. The Republic Advisory Committee provided its report to the Government in November 1993. We wrote our report for over eighteen months but nothing has been seen. In many respects the republican debate has been stalled because the much awaited report of the Government setting out its preferred position has not been published.


I think we all know the Government prefers the new Head of State should be chosen by a non-partisan method, such as a two thirds majority of a joint sitting of Parliament rather than by Prime Ministerial appointment as at the moment with the Governor-General or by popular election.


But I am starting to be concerned that the Government may wimp out on the subject of the reserve powers of the Head of State. At a recent conference in Canberra, Senator Evans, a most distinguished constitutional lawyer, said he thought we would never get agreement on codifying the powers of the Head of State. He said it was all too hard. Perhaps these tricky issues are better dealt with by lesser minds. Almost every country in the world defines, its constitution, the scope of the powers of the head of government and the head of state. Why are Australians so peculiarly intellectually deficient as not to be able to do it.


More importantly, and with all due respect to the wise men in Canberra, does anyone here tonight seriously imagine we could win a contested referendum on this change without defining the powers of the Head of State. As I have said, at the moment the Governor General is, if you read the constitution literally, a virtual dictator. He appoints Ministers to serve at his pleasure, he can dissolve parliament, he can call elections, he commands the army, he can with hold his assent to legislation. There is no explicit recognition in the constitution to the way our democracy works.


What do you think our opponents will say if we leave everything the way it is. They will say the new Head of State could become a dictator. They will raise every scare know to man. The promoters and exploiters of ignorance will be in their element. And when the constitutional lawyers nod their wigs and wave their books and say “Oh, no, but those wonderful constitutional conventions will continue.” They will be drowned out by laughter. Which is just as well, because when the constitutional lawyers are asked what these conventions are, you will find that none of them can agree.


And most importantly of all, we should never forget that Sir John Kerr himself observed in 1975 that when there was conflict with the express words of the Constitution and one of these “constitutional conventions”, the “Constitution must prevail.”


Friends, it is up to us to ensure the Government does not let us down. With all due respect to those eminent luminaries who would like to leave things as they are; the ACTU Congress of 1993 is right and Senator Evans is wrong. Every organisation in this country from the ACTU down to the Bexley North Bowling Club has a set or rules which defines the way it works. Why is Australia different. And if you think, comparing the Constitution of Australia with rules of an ordinary club is a little disrespectful, let me tell you a story which is nearly twenty years old.


In 1975 many Australians were surprised to see a Prime Minister who had a majority in the House of Representatives dismissed by the Governor General. We all knew that the Senate could block Supply and we knew that the Government could not spend money which had not been authorised by Parliament. But Whitlam had not spent any money which was unauthorised. He had not broken any law.


The Australian Labor Party ran some advertisements one of which featured one of your delegates, John Cahill. John was then the Board and Ski Captain of North Bondi Surf Club (and as you can see the rest of his career has been downhill from the exalted position). He made the simple observation that he had been elected to that position in the Surf Club and the only way he could be booted out was by another election and he expressed the view that what was right for North Bondi Surf Club was right for Australia.


Just as it is unsatisfactory for a surf club, or a union, or a company to have its most important rules undefined, open to contention and comprehensible only to a few so is it even more unsatisfactory for those important rules in our country to be left to the vague world of “constitutional convention.”


So in the words of another, more impatient, republican, “What is to be done?” The approach to the republican campaign outlined by Martin Ferguson in his May Day Address is based around education, mass involvement and participation. It is a people’s approach, and that is the right approach.


A lot of people say we should just wait on the Liberals to come around. And a lot of the more progressive members of the Liberal Party do support a republic. Some Liberals estimate over a third of Liberal Party members are republicans. But waiting for the Liberal politics. The Liberals have a veto on the republic referendum only for as long as the people do not understand what the change involves. It assumes that if both of the competing elites endorse a change the people, sheep like, will endorse it. And that assumption is probably right as the recent referendum in New South Wales would attest. But constitutional reformers would do well to remember 1988. An elitist approach to those referendums was taken by the Government which thought it had a deal with the Opposition, but then the Opposition changes its mind. And because the people did not understand what they were voting for they said No. If the people understand the Constitution, its history and the issues relating to the republic, then the opponents of the republic will have to make a coherent case, one that deals with the facts and does not simply exploit the fears of the untutored.


So that, friends, is our mission. We have in the republic a simple issue which does interest Australians. This is not an obscure issue of constitutional law or practice. We need to make this issue so well understood that it will ignite the people’s awareness of their Constitution, their Government their National. The republic friends could be a steel wheel that we can send rattling down the cobbled street of our national consciousness. And as it rolls it will strike sparks, sparks of insight sparks of knowledge. And from that new knowledge and awareness will come he empowerment of knowledge and the ability to advance more and greater reforms in the future.


Our nation has been built by the determination and vision of the working men and women of Australia. Organised labour has been at the centre of every stage of our national development. We are approaching a great watershed in our history and a great opportunity. Together we can realise from this opportunity a better and a prouder nation. The Australian Republican Movement and the Australian union movement have a common cause, a cause that will unite and empower all Australians.


Speech by Malcolm Turnbull, ACTU Executive Council Lome 16 May 1995.