Greg Barns’ Opinion Piece

The idea that an Australian should be Head of State is not a radical one yet almost 17 years after the failed 1999 republic referendum we are still yet to make that idea a reality. It is time to do so.

To put it simply, no person outside of the British royal family can be this nation’s head of state. The best that can be achieved is for an Australian to be the representative of the British monarch. Is that really the best we can do?

Do we think that a nation which in theory at least is committed to egalitarianism should be satisfied with this incongruous situation?

A former student of the De La Salle brothers, Paul Keating, rightly pointed out that if we want to be a nation taken seriously in Asia then hanging onto the apron strings of the UK through a constitutional tie is not the way to achieve it. Mr Keating as Prime Minister articulately presented the case for an Australian head of state and it was only the divisive and cynical scare campaign of his successor John Howard and a cobbled together motley crew of monarchists, conservatives and radical republicans who brought the idea of an Australian head of state to a halt.

Some in this country say it doesn’t matter. Often these are the same people who think the Australian flag, a piece of cloth that patently discriminates against Indigenous Australians, is sacred. Well if the flag matters so does the Constitution of Australia and the person who is at the head of the structure set out in it.

The British monarchy represents a set of values, if one can call them this, that are antithetical in the modern world. The idea that birth right and privilege ought to be a qualification for an important governance office is nonsensical and offensive.

But monarchies work so well’ say those who hang on grimly to “Buck Palace”. Actually that is a fiction. Yes nations like Denmark and Norway function nicely as democratic nations but that is because of the political culture and values such as tolerance, not because of the commitment to a monarch.

Until Australia becomes a republic we cannot truly proclaim ourselves a democracy. It is not a difficult change. We simply decide if we want to directly elect a head of state – a very successful system in Ireland – or we opt for a parliamentary process.

There are some fine non-executive presidents in the world – Ireland, Germany and India have produced many over the past few decades. They are individuals who unite their nation and who sometimes rightly act as the conscience of the society.

Until Australia becomes a republic the colonial outpost tag bandied around our region will rightly stick.

Greg Barns (Class of 1979)

Back to Old Collegians' Issue 2016 01 - 04 May 2016