A couple of weeks ago, The Project co-host, Waleed Aly put forward a proposal for an alternative form of government in Australia that would do away with a colonial profiteer as our head of state and replace them with an Indigenous Elder.
The move, he argues, would placate both republicans and royalists, offering a symbolic head of state that is “above politics” who can provide a little of the ceremonial magic and unchanging continuity that “we” appear to like about the Monarchy. It would also offer us new-found independence and a government structure that is thoroughly Aussie.
It’s not the first time that the idea has been suggested, but it did create something of a storm online. Aly acknowledges that his idea is “rough” and that it’s really just a “conversation starter,” but could it actually fly?
The Australian republic movement has suffered a bit of a setback in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Polls indicated that support for a republic has declined significantly in the week following her passing, dropping below majority support.
That being said, this is often something that usually happens in the wake of major Royal events, and the overall trajectory of republican support is toward independence from the Crown. It seems inevitable that Australia will, one day, eventually break away from the Monarchy.
The key question though is what do we replace it with?
What Aly Proposed
Australia is one of the 15 remaining countries that are still part of the British Commonwealth. Our government, like most in the commonwealth, is a constitutional monarchy meaning we have an unelected head of state — King Charles III — and a parliamentary democracy who are democratically elected.
All countries have someone who has executive power over everything, even if their role is purely ceremonial. In Australia, that’s the Royal representative, the Governor General. Germany and Ireland, for example, have a non-executive president while the United States has an executive president who acts as both head of government and head of state. The US balances this power with the Supreme Court (which seemed like a good idea at the time).
Because of the way our government is set up, we need a head of state to resolve issues of constitution. Republicans in Australia want to replace the Governor General with an elected Australian who is, somehow, “above politics.”
Greg Barns, former chairman of the Australian Republic Movement, told the Australian Financial Review that “our constitutional structure is such that bills have to go to the executive council and signed into law by the governor general.”
Constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey also told the AFR that “Within the Australian system of responsible government, it would be a terrible idea to remove the head of state, as this would give massive and unaccountable power to the prime minister”.
What Aly is proposing is that we install an Indigenous Elder in that head-of-state role.
“We could even call our elder ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’, and when our Aunty dies, deep rituals of mourning would already exist, ready for us to embrace as a nation,” he said.
This position would be “racially closed,” just like the current head of state and would have to be selected through some as-yet-undetermined process.
“I admit it’s rough and has a lot of issues to work through but it captures something of the richness and magic of monarchy while being indisputably ours.”
How It Went Down
Some people seemed open to the idea, others hated it.
Gomeroi academic Dr Amy Thunig sounded off on Twitter in response to the idea saying that it lacks understanding of what Eldership actually is and how leadership works within Indigenous cultures.
“It also reinforces a homogenisation of Indigeneity. If you don’t know this, mayyybe don’t publish on it?,” she wrote.
She added that “non-indigenous people using their platform to push their own ideas about us isn’t actually helpful.”
Others online commented that the idea effectively replaces one problematic system with another and that it would give an Indigenous person a position of apparent power when they really would have none.
Legendary academic and founding chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University, Professor Marcia Langton, told SBS that she would be open to the idea but that it would depend on the delivery.
“The role of Elder properly speaking in Indigenous society is a customary role that is earned,” she said.
“It’s not a hereditary role, it’s partly hereditary, but the attributes of leadership have to be met, so all of those attributes have to be spelled out clearly if this proposal were to be pursued.”
She added that she would prefer promoting Indigenous people to state governor or governor-general roles first.
Why It’s Never Going to Happen
The problem with what to do with the ceremonial position that an Australian republic would require has long been the issue that has weighed down the republican movement.
It’s largely this debate that sunk the 1999 referendum on a republic. The question put to voters was whether the governor-general and the monarch should be replaced with a president or whether they wanted to insert a “preamble” into the constitution which said a lot of bold things about Australia but had no legal power. Both ideas were voted down.
The Australian Republic Movement updated its offerings for a new model this year, with the current proposal being an election of eleven candidates from all states and territories and Federal Parliament. Voters will then get to choose in an election which person they would like to serve as head of state for a five-year term.
This is fairly similar to the model that was shot down in 1999 and there’s no guarantee that it would get through this time.
The ARM has been somewhat biding their time in wait for the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who had strong popular support, even if people didn’t really care for the monarchy. Now that she’s gone, they say the time is right to have a vote on the issue.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a life-long republican, has said that while the issue is an important one, it’s not something he’s prepared to put to the Australian people before the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has been decided. That’s a referendum that he wants to hold in his first term, with a republic referendum possibly following in his second, if he gets one.
Even if we do get to that stage, what we do about the head of state is still a key issue. Anyone chosen by state and territory leaders to be head of state is likely to have a long history of political opinions and come with some baggage. You can’t imagine the country rallying around either someone like Grace Tame or Pauline Hanson – who was a serious contender for the role back in the early 90s.
Never is a strong word and probably silly to use but unless we can decide on what exactly will happen if we give the Crown the boot, we’re never going to get a republic. In the era of division, conspiracy, and distrust, that doesn’t seem like something we’re going to be able to solve easily any time soon.