Paul Keating’s espousal of an n republic is perhaps one of the enduring big issue policies of his prime ministership.
In May 1993 the Republic Advisory Committee was established chaired by Malcolm Turnbull and cabinet was regularly updated on progress to remodel the system of government.
A year later, ministers recommended that while the committee’s deliberations might be informed by the findings of a “civic experts group” – which would advise on a public education program to boost understanding of n parliamentary democracy – these roles should not be conflated.
Nicholas Brown, professor in the school of history, College of Arts and Social Sciences, at the n National University, said it was evident that the government’s preferences on the central question of the appointment (and removal) of a republic’s head of state did not match majority public sentiment, nor always the thinking of the committee itself.
“The public wanted a direct election model, reflecting a perception that the role of ‘constitutional umpire’, exercising reserve powers ‘as a brake on the executive’, required a method of selection capable of ‘minimising or excluding partisan political input’,” he said.
Submissions from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, however, made it clear that popular election could not be trusted to deliver appointees of appropriate “calibre”. It might also run the risk – in a rather complex metaphor – “of severing the ‘governmental leg’ of [the head of state’s] authority, with the result that [he or she] might be tempted to assume, or presume to take moral authority from, a popular national mandate so as to exercise the powers of that office in a manner which could bring the office into conflict with the government of the day”.
Mr Keating’s preference was for parliamentary appointment and removal: the “President of the Commonwealth of ” should “be appointed by a two-thirds majority vote in a joint sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament, following the nomination of a single individual by the Prime Minister”.
Speaking at the National Archives of briefing on the cabinet papers last month, Kim Beazley said the direct election of the president of an n republic was essential.
“I don’t think its got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting up without that,” he said.
“If you think the n public didn’t trust n politicians in `94-95, try it now.
“The next time we put up a vote on that we’re going to have to get that right.”
Given concerns that the public had an appetite only for “minimal” change, ministers were cautioned that removing existing powers might erode support for the whole venture.
Mr Keating bought directly into this debate in a ruminative submission. He disputed the assumptions that Turnbull’s committee had regarding the settled conventions on reserve powers, especially “following the events of 1975” and the possibility that the nation might at some point again “suffer a wilful or misguided head of state”.
While personally favouring a codification of core principles, the prime minister conceded that any such attempt would generate “protracted and possibly divisive debate”. To be safe, the government should seek to alter the constitution only “to incorporate the conventions by reference (i.e. without stating what they are)”.
Ministers endorsed a program leading to a referendum in 1998 or 1999. Mr Keating was well gone by then.