Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Monarchist Misanthropes

Last week was 10 years since the failure of the Republican Referendum, an issue I’ve already blogged about. Of course supporters of a Republic arn’t the only ones using this anniversary to discuss the issue, so are the monarchists and misanthropes who are taking a chance to pile on. Here is Gregory Melleuish in The Australian:

If there is a key to what democracy is really about then it is the belief that the ordinary people possess a great deal of common sense and that generally they get things right. Howard expressed this idea with regard to the 1999 republican referendum.
Of course there are other views of democracy.
One is that the people are really not too bright, that they are amenable to manipulation and therefore cannot be trusted to make good decisions.
That is one republican interpretation of why that cause failed so badly in 1999.

This is one reason many republicans fear the idea that the people elect the president in an Australian republic; they are so stupid that they will make a bad choice.

Yet every time a matter that was once considered to be an issue for democracy or politics is handed over to a group of experts it would be true to say that an elite has triumphed over the people. There may be many among those elites who prefer something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic to the messiness of democracy.It is up to the rest of us to ensure that matters of public importance are not appropriated by expert elites and their politics.

This would be one thing if the argument was coming from a Direct Electionist republican. It would indeed be an increase in democracy if we moved to a directly elected presidency. But it is a fundamentally dishonest and ugly slur to come from a supporter of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. (As an aide if anybody “fear’s” the idea of a direct election it is the supporters of hereditary monarchy. But I don’t quite think that is who he means to attack.)

The current system of choosing our Head of State is the definition of elite control. The GG is chosen entirely at the discretion of one man, the Prime Minister, and has been effectively since federation. The Republican model in 1999 was for a two-thirds majority of the parliament to choose the GG/president. That is, even the limited model applied would have substantially increased public control over the process. Note as well how Melleuish uses verbs like ‘handed over’ as if the current system was not already the most undemocratic of the three possible options, (1-Status Quo with PM choice, 2-Republic with 2/3 Parliament choice, 3-Direct election choice).

But this aside, the far worse slur is Melleuish’s charge that Republicans who favour a minimalist change think that “the people are really not too bright…so stupid …cannot be trusted to make good decisions….[and want] something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic“. That is, despite posing a more democratic model Melleuish manages to charge Republicans (and he never mentions or differentiates minimalist with direct electionists) with a desire for an authoritarian society. Melleuish also clearly expects most people havn’t read their Plato and so don’t recognise the true totalitarian slur in invoking him, rather just a vague ‘philosopher kings’ idea. Still you have to admire the balls of someone who plays on public ignorance of a 2300 year dead philosopher as a way of calling his opponents elitist.

Melleuish’s representation of why the Australian Republican Movement and most well known republicans favour a minimalist model is a flat out lie and he knows it (as do the editors of The Australian who approved this ugly piece). Rather than thinking the people stupid or preferring elite control, minimalist republicans rather are making the most conservative argument possible: to retain a political system that works, whilst making formal what occurs in practice and sentiment.

A directly elected President will inevitably come to challenge the Prime Minister for control, and though having no constitutional decided power (and limits) will seek to change the fundamental way Australia’s democracy works. Even if the first few presidents are Steve Waugh and Cathy Freeman, they will eventually come to choose issues to disagree with the PM on, such as Immigration or Climate Change. Soon however, our political parties will begin choosing preferred celebrities, or community and business figures for the position who will follow the party line. Quickly it will become simply another two-party election, only for a constitutionally undefined role, in a way completely rejected by our Federating fathers, and inserted in spite of the historic success and stability of Australia as a democracy in the modern world.

How do I know we shouldn’t tinker with the system too much? Well because Melleuish tells us so:

“We should seek to preserve as many of those checks and balances as possible in our system of government. Democracy and efficiency are fine words but too often in practice they mean riding roughshod over the concerns of those who do not share the majority view.it strikes me that ‘muddling through’ are good words for a Constitutional Monarchist to use. We have inherited a system of government that has evolved out of the British Constitution and that like the British Constitution seeks to combine liberty and power. We need strong government and we need to be free. We need responsible government combined with federalism and a system of checks and balances. That means avoiding extremes, it means keeping to the ‘golden mean’. It may mean at times muddling through rather than adopting radical means that appear to be superficially attractive but in the end have as their major consequence the destruction of the balance of our Constitution.”
– Taken from NoRepublic.com.au the home of Australian’s for a Constitutional Monarchy posted in 2003

In 2003 Melleuish rightly argued that the direct electionists were wrong to advocate such a big change. In 2009 however he is mis-using their arguments to push a vague ‘democracy vs the elites’ thesis as a way of smearing the minimalist model republicans. He clearly doesn’t believe what he is saying, (and nor likely do his readers), but they are all willing to put that aside to convince themselves of the fiction that they are standing with the people against the elites. Even whilst backing a hereditary, one person controlled system that is the least democratic of all three options available.

I own and have read Melleuish’s collected writings. In it, he is a good academic, very well read, and sensible with some good insights. The man who appears in these kind of opinion articles for The Australian is however unrecognizable to that author.