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A republic is a form of government that vests power in the people through their direct choice of representatives. The fundamental difference between a republic and a democracy is the degree of freedom given to individuals. The majority only have advisory powers, while the minority have the choice to reject what the majority says.
It also denotes a system in which the executive leader is elected by the people, and he or she is not a monarch. Conversely, democracies are systems of government in which minorities forfeit their rights to majorities even though they elect representatives. If Australia were to become a republic, it should adopt the French system.
History of Australia’s constitutional model
In 1770, British citizen, James Cook, claimed a portion of the Australian coast following instructions from King George the Third; the latter region was called New South Wales. Eight years later, British colonizers arrived in what came to be known as Sydney. They claimed several other territories, such as Tasmania, Victoria, and Queensland. These former colonies were joined together to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
In 1926, Britain declared that Australia would remain an autonomous dominion with allegiance to the monarch. The Governor – General was the British monarch’s representative in Australia. In 1931, a British Statute was created to specify that Australia was a dominion.
The term implied that the country belonged to the British Empire, although it ran its affairs autonomously. However, the term was abandoned in the 1940s (Warden 1993). In 1986, Australia eliminated the British government’s ability to intervene in its matters and held a referendum on whether it should become a republic in 1999.
If the referendum were to pass, then Australia would elect its own president and break ties from the British monarch, but it did not. Currently, Australia remains a constitutional monarch in which the Queen holds executive powers and the Governor-General represents her in the country. The federal parliament, which consists of a house of representatives and a senate, has legislative powers.
The French constitution as a model for Australia
France is a republic with an executive President, independent from Parliament but subject to its confidence. When selecting a country that Australia would emulate if it becomes a republic, it is essential to choose one that avoid some of the problems in the 1999 Australian referendum.
Most people objected to the abuses and excesses that would emanate from the creation of a republic. At first, they did not want a nominations process in which the public would form a committee that would represent the interests of many in the nominations process. The committee was supposed to ascertain that communities, religions, cultures and federal states were represented.
The work of the nominated committee would be to aid in legislative efforts. However, because the process of electing them was not enshrined in the constitution, then a lot of things could go wrong (Queensland No Republic Campaign 1999). In the future, the ideal parliamentary model ought not to have such a nominations process.
In addition to a nominations committee, the people of Australia also objected to the appointment process of selecting a President. In the proposed system, a president was to be appointed by a two-third majority after the opposition leader and the Prime Minister nominated the single candidate.
Such a method was both objectionable and unrepresentative because it did not involve the people directly. A president could very easily manipulate such a nominations process to serve his own interests. Furthermore, the two-thirds majority rule may lead to a vacuum when Parliament fails to reach these numbers. Sometimes worthwhile candidates might be eliminated if this two-thirds majority is not reached.
In fact, such a rule goes against the fundamental principles of a republic. A republic ought to focus on the views of individuals rather than a small minority in parliament. The process of giving these individuals power would undermine the will of the people let alone the minority in the country.
Opponents of the republican system in the 1999 referendum also stated that they objected to the rules of dismissal for the president. The proposed constitution in that year was supposed to allow for dismissal of the President at will and for any reasons.
The Prime Minister only had to sign a notice that he would then present to the House of Representatives for approval. Furthermore, if Parliament failed to ratify the notice, the President would not go back to office. He only had the right to go for re-election. The President could then lead a no-confidence motion once re-instated into office, after elections.
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This process implies that the President and the Prime Minister could easily get rid of each other when in power (Queensland No Republic Campaign 1999). Once again, this problem goes against the principles of a republican government because the people would have very little say on whether their chief leaders stay in power or not. It would be tantamount to gambling away the country’s top positions.
A number of other objections were mentioned in the referendum, such as the cost of presidential elections. However, these problems must be incurred in monarchs as well as republic systems. Australia still spends a substantial portion of its budget on maintenance of the monarch.
The most significant ones were the structural ones; many felt that the proposed republic system was going to concentrate power in the hands of a few politicians, who would hold the country at ransom. Given all the challenges in the previous model, it is imperative to select a country that adheres to constitutional freedoms without undermining the rights of the minority.
The French Constitutional model would be ideal for Australia because its members derive power from the people in order to serve the public’s interests. Furthermore, the constitution is designed to guarantee rights through the separation of powers, specification of the rights to be protected and parliamentary checks. The French system has two heads: the President and the Prime Minister.
However, the President is the head of the state and is also responsible for the appointment of the Prime Minister. As mentioned earlier, the Australian public objected to the 1999 referendum because the Prime Minister and President could oust each other at will.
This will be eliminated if the President, who the public voted for, was responsible for the appointment of the Prime Minister. Such a system would endorse the will of the people as it would give the two heads security of tenure. The president in France is also responsible for ratifying treaties, calling for referendums or proposing Constitutional revisions.
The most significant trait about the French president is that he is elected directly by the people through universal suffrage. During elections, presidential candidates become presidents when they have an absolute majority of over half the votes.
If no absolute majority exists, then the two contestants must go for a second round, where the two leading candidates square it off. This run-off always results in an absolute majority because only two candidates are involved. The process ensures that over half of the population supports the president and the parliamentary majority also rally behind him.
This selection process is superior to the suggestions made in the 1999 Australian Referendum. Unlike the French system, which places election of the president in the hands of the public, the proposed 1999 referendum system only relied on a nomination process, which was subject to political manipulation.
Some critics may object to the French system of government by claiming that the President has too much power. However, separation of powers is maintained through parliament. The Prime Minister is responsible for the daily operations in parliament, which means that he must answer to members.
Therefore, although the Prime Minister is appointed by the president, he must answer to parliament. Failure to do so can lead to the impeachment of the Prime Minister by the National Assembly. As such, this constitutional model ensures that the executive does not have absolute power. The two heads must ensure that they incorporate Parliamentary will in the execution of their mandate (Carcassonne 2002).
Other critics may also state that the President of the French government would always secure power even when he lost political support in parliament. However, the French constitution deals with this concern by stating that the primacy of the President is only valid when he has support from the Parliamentary majority.
If the opposite should occur, then the President and the Prime Minister will cohabit as executive heads (Brouard 2009). Although the president can execute his political when initiating certain policies, the Prime Minister is not obligated to follow through on the policies, as he is considered an equal at that point.
Therefore, the French constitution is such that the President always has primacy when his position reflects the will of the people. This system is a true republican one because the wishes of the public are always incorporated in the running of government.
Countries where the public must contend with a President’s supremacy regardless of his lack of support can sometimes be undemocratic. If Australia selects this constitutional model, then it will always ascertain that the will of the people is respected and followed.
Parliamentary elections are also done through universal suffrage. Members of parliament must also follow the same process of election as the president. This ascertains that all members of the national assembly represent majority interests. The system of election also ascertains that members of parliament come together to make two coalitions such that the people in charge of legislative powers are the ones the public wants.
The National Assembly also consists of an opposition, which lacks official status, but possesses many rights. The majority can only enjoy their term in office in between elections; if they fall short, then the public can punish them by electing another leader.
Many Australians complained about the lack of a transparent system for the election of the nominating committee during the 1999 referendum (Knightley 2001). If they adopt the French system of government, then they would not need to have an unaccountable nominations committee in the constitution. All leaders would be elected through universal suffrage.
The French constitution also has a system of parliament known as the Senate. Members of this house are elected representatives from local authorities and metropolitan areas.
Both the Senate and the National Assembly have legislative rulings, but if a matter causes a disagreement between the two houses, then the National Assembly, which was directly elected, will have the last say.
Australia could require such a Senate owing to the federal nature of the country. Representatives from all federal states would ensure that their sentiments and inclinations are uncalculated into legislative decisions (Brouard 2009).
An Economic and Social Council also exists in France; it is part of Parliament and only plays a consultative role. The group consists of the most influential sectors of the country’s social and economic systems. Members come from trade unions, civil society, employment groups and the business arena.
The group has no powers to make laws, but they do enrich policies through their suggestions. Having such an entity in Australia would ascertain that people other than politicians dominate the political space.
The most admirable quality of the French parliament is that it places most of the power in the people through a publically elected government. It is, therefore, a system in which the governed elect their governors. The elections are designed to ensure that winners become leaders.
Additionally, the leaders still remain answerable to the people who chose them. If the public is dissatisfied with their performance, it can always replace them in the next election. If Australia becomes a republic, it should consider adopting such a system because most of the objections brought forward in the 1999 referendum have been dealt with in the French constitutional system.
Brouard, S, 2009, The Fifth French Republic, Dalloz, Paris.
Carcassonne, G 2002, The Principles of the French Constitution, https://www.unc.edu/
Knightley, P 2001, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Vintage, London.
Queensland No Republic Campaign 1999, Why Australia Should Not Become a Republic, http://www.johnston-independent.com/Downloads/no3.pdf
Warden, J 1993, ‘The Fettered Republic: The Anglo American Commonwealth and the Traditions of Australian Political Thought’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 28, pp.84-85.