Last updated on December 13, 2023
The Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, has set out his reasons for supporting next month’s republic referendum.
Statement by Peter Costello in support of the YES case for the Republic referendum.
I don’t think I thought much about our head of state, or about the monarchy, or indeed about republics before I became a delegate to last year’s Constitutional Convention. Like most Liberals, I had seen the republic debate as a political distraction. It was something which, if it had been raised by Paul Keating, must have been a bad idea and worthy of opposition. And I think there are many Liberals who still think that way.
But I came to the conclusion that a monarchy was not the symbol for an egalitarian nation like Australia – and not a concept for me, even though I didn’t have difficulties with our present Queen.
I don’t believe positions should be settled on bloodlines; that people should hold public office because of heredity. I believe in rewarding effort, talent and creativity.
The Prime Minister makes the important point that our system of government separates the ceremonial position of the head of state from the political position. He says, rightly, the ceremonial position of head of state must be above politics, and able to unite society.
But in our society monarchy does not unite. We have difficulty allowing the monarch to perform ceremonial functions because something gnaws at its credibility. If the monarchy were a unifying symbol, above politics, able to perform a ceremonial role, the monarch would be opening the Sydney Olympics. But we know, don’t we, that something is wrong. Something jars. It didn’t jar in 1956 when Prince Philip opened the Melbourne Olympics. Then it was a unifying concept, but not today.
Then there is the argument, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. While our parliamentary system works well, I would argue that the ceremonial function is broken. And if there wasn’t a general and genuine public belief to that effect, we wouldn’t be going through these arguments.
In London recently I spoke to a Conservative member of the House of Lords who said: “I am a great monarchist. But if I were an Australian, I don’t think I would care to have my head of state living in London SW1.” It’s a problem, isn’t it? And because we know it’s a problem, we know it needs fixing.
The argument that if something is working well don’t interfere with it could have been used against Federation. It could have been used for continuing English governors-general. It could have been used against abolishing appeals to the Privy Council. It could have been used in relation to the national anthem.
But we know that by modernising and renewing these institutions and these symbols, we gave ourselves opportunities for the future which otherwise would have been denied to us. And I think that’s what a “yes” vote can do.
I want to make one point about “no” voters who argue for radical change. A directly elected presidency will open the way to money politics in a way that we haven’t yet seen in our country. We have seen it in the US – which is sometimes held up as a model for direct elections – where Elizabeth Dole has just retired from the presidential nomination race because she’s been able to raise only $US1 million ($1.54 million) against another challenger who has $56 million.
And then people say, “We could always ban money or ban political parties from direct elections.” The last time the Commonwealth Parliament decided to ban political advertising for elections it was struck down by the High Court as unconstitutional.
The direct electionists ought to tell us very clearly how they are going to get bans on parties and money through the current Constitution. They ought to produce their model – a model with codified powers, re-balancing the Senate and the House of Representatives, announcing the electoral system, indicating how the ban on political parties or money would work, how that would square with the Constitution. They should give us a real look at what’s being held out as a promise down the track.
The moment they start working on such a model, the differences between them will be so great that if it ever got to the electorate, half of the direct electionists would still be saying, “Vote ‘no’ to the proposal and wait for another one further down the track.” It’s the classic position where people can agree on what they are against, but are not able to agree on what they are for.
One other point. Conservatives believe that important institutions should from time to time be reformed and renewed. Times change. To conserve the best you must make sure that it is apposite to the times. And look at the parliamentary history of the Westminster system. The true conservatives were those prepared to reshape and remake their institutions to preserve them.
We ought to preserve the parliamentary system with a modernised arrangement for a head of state, rather than try to hold onto an out-of-date head of state who could undermine confidence in the parliamentary system.
The important institution is not the monarchy, but the parliamentary system. As this debate has worn on, in order to preserve something with which we have difficulty, a monarchy, I have seen an increasing tendency to undermine the parliamentary system.
To oppose the “yes” vote, some campaigners are prepared to bring into disrepute the whole parliamentary system. The ads saying “You can’t trust politicians” don’t just apply in relation to the head of state. They undermine the whole parliamentary system.
The Constitution that the “no” case is pledged to support is the parliamentary system. And there is no point, in the name of defending the Constitution, in undermining the parliamentary system that it enshrines.
True conservatives would be defending that parliamentary system and modernising the symbol in a way that will give the system security and enable it to preserve the best for the future.
And I have no trouble at all in saying that a conservative can – with an absolutely clear conscience – vote to preserve the best of our Constitution and to modernise it in the way in which we have seen the sweep of history modernise other institutions over the past 100 years.
When conservatives come to look back on this referendum, they will see this was an opportunity to preserve the best of the past and modernise for the “future”. It is an opportunity that may not come again. It is an opportunity to keep the institutions that really are important while modernising those that are not of the same significance.
And I would say to conservatives that they can vote “yes” with a clear conscience. There are people who will say, “Hold out until you get every dot and every line.” The same argument could have been run at Federation. The Federation document is full of political compromises as the Federation fathers worked towards the big issues by getting agreement in relation to the machinery.
There is no skin off anybody’s nose in saying that a constitution involves compromises. It does. Our existing one involves compromises. You would not have got Federation without them. It is not a matter of once you put a constitution in place that it becomes holy writ and is perfect in every respect.
Constitutions are always framed in this particular manner. And a constitution that will give us a parliamentary system with an Australian as our head of state – a ceremonial presence to perform ceremonial duties – which will give us modern symbolism for the future, is something well worth saying “yes” to on Saturday week.
This article is edited from an address in Melbourne by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, to Conservatives for an Australian Head of State.