A democratic republic

This essay was originally published in 2008 in the Australian e-journal ON LINE opinion.

My fellow Australians,

You know that the question of whether Australia should become a republic has been as yet unresolved. The motivations for becoming a republic are many, but the most important has always seemed to be that Australian culture and politics are, at their best, democratic and egalitarian, while monarchy is not. Why is our head of state chosen by accident of birth? And, why can’t the head of state be someone born poor, or Catholic, or black or even Tasmanian?

Australia has a history of leading the way in being the most democratic, free, and equal society in the world.

We, along with New Zealand were the first to achieve women’s voting rights. We insisted, when it was unheard of anywhere in the world, that a man should be able to vote no matter how much he earned or owned. We have always been inclined to greater democracy and fairness. So, we are embarrassed by the institution of monarchy, and most of us wish to abolish it.

The problem is – what do we replace it with? We’ve sidelined the actual monarch very effectively by making the Prime Minister and the Parliament responsible for the decisions that affect our lives, and we’ve made sure the PM and Parliament reflect us, by ensuring all of us (over 18) have a vote.

So how would we choose a new head of state?

The debate has mostly been between a head of state selected by Parliament, or one directly elected by the people. If the Parliament selects our head of state, we keep what we like about our current system – the PM doesn’t have too much power, and neither would the new head of state. This way we would avoid the problems that other countries have had when politicians get power hungry: dictatorship, persecution and tyranny.

The problem is a majority of us rejected this idea at the 1999 referendum. Many people voted against this model because it would take the decision out of our hands: the monarchists said it was a “politicians republic” and elitist. Note that they didn’t say “vote for monarchy” because most Australians don’t support the idea of unelected privileged monarchy. So the idea of a President elected by the Parliament was rejected.

Many people campaigning against that model weren’t monarchists at all, they wanted a President elected directly by the people. The irony is, that if we elect the President directly we will very likely end up with a politician, because to run for an office as important as President you would need the support of a political party. So, we’re stuck in a classic Catch-22 situation.

If you leave the selection of a head of state to Parliament, it seems as though you’re leaving it to a political elite to make the decision. However, if you elect the President directly, you’re almost certainly going to get a politician as your new head of state and this would mean massive problems for our political system because the head of state, currently the Queen, delegating to the Governor-General, has very large and undefined Reserve Powers. These powers allow the G-G to dismiss a government and call new elections, as happened in 1975, or in New South Wales in 1932. That’s a lot of power. It also allows the G-G to be the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Technically the G-G, via the Queen’s powers as monarch, could order Australian troops to fire on Australian civilians.

So what’s the solution?

Many people have examined the experience of other countries in trying to find something that would work for Australia. Other Commonwealth countries that have become republics have adopted innovative methods of selecting their head of state without losing the idea that parliament, and the PM, is the real boss. India, Ireland, and Israel all have Presidents that don’t interfere with the PM and allow the Parliament to be the people’s main voice. Yet all of them ended up with politicians being their Presidents, even if they were generally very good ones.

Perhaps we should consider some other ways of selecting a head of state and perhaps we should look further afield; maybe even into the origins of democracy itself to find a model we could use. After all, we have been at the forefront of the creation of modern democracy for the past 150 years. We could look to Athens, the birthplace of democracy.

I would like to suggest that Australia chooses its head of state from the population of Australia directly, just as we choose a jury from the populace directly. Instead of selecting a politician, or even an “eminent” Australian, a choice which always implies that someone is better than somebody else, for whatever reason, let’s select someone to oversee our politicians who is simply one of us.

The job of being head of state is currently largely symbolic, but with the important reserve powers attached. The person who is Governor-General is not usually an expert on these powers before they become the G-G. We’ve recently had a bishop, a general, and a former policeman. By selecting someone directly from the Australian population we would give them the same training as any of the previous G-Gs have had.

We would keep our politicians to make the tough decisions but the head of state would only need to be fair minded and representative of Australia. How could anyone be more representative of Australia, than an Australian who is selected directly from the population?

The problem of course would be how to select that person: here’s where the Athenians come in. When devising their system of democracy, they decided that technical and difficult positions, such as that of military commander (the strategos) would be elected by a majority of voters, just as we elect our politicians. For jobs that required someone simply to be an Athenian however, such as head of state (the archon) they chose them by chance, or lot.

They used a mechanical computer to do it. Just as we use a computer to select our juries at random to decide on the guilt or innocence of murderers, thieves, and merchant bankers, the Athenians chose their head of state randomly. It was an affirmation of their democratic outlook. If any of us could be President, then all of us should be involved in decisions that affect us. It shouldn’t be left to an elite to represent us to the world; any of us is good enough to represent the rest of us. We’ll choose the politicians based on ability, but the head of state could be any of us at all, because all citizens share equally in the future of our state.

How would this work for a country so large as Australia, with a complex political system? Well, it wouldn’t work that differently from our current system. A person (or persons – the Athenians selected 10 and gave them a month each at the top job) would be selected by lot from the electoral roll and they would serve as head of state after getting some advice and training on how to hold the tea cups correctly, and what to do if the PM comes to ask for an early election. In the event that a constitutional crisis did eventuate – very rare, but possible, they could sack the PM, and call for an early election. Once the election was over, you could select a new Head of state too.

Now at first blush this may seem unlikely or even dangerous. What if the person was a nutjob! “What if the person was a mad redneck!”, say the inner city types. “What if the person is a crazy commie pinko from Newtown”, say the country boys. Well, nothing. The G-G has no real power at the moment. They act on the advice of the PM, and are told as they enter the job what’s expected of them and how they should behave.

If the G-G sacks the PM, elections are held and a new PM comes in with absolute legitimacy and a mandate from the people. I would propose that if the new head of state sacks the PM then they should be replaced as soon as the election is declared too. All the technical questions of how this system would work in operation can be figured out. It all comes down to a question of how much faith you have in your fellow Australians. I would trust most of the people I meet in my every day life to be the person safeguarding our constitution if it was their solemn responsibility.

I believe that the average Australian has the ability to understand and carry out the duties of the current Governor-General. It is nothing but rank elitism to suggest that someone needs to have served as a judge or a politician to be able to act as our head of state.

Imagine the effect it would have on Australian civics if everyone knew that one day they could actually be the head of state, regardless of their gender, their religion, their age, what work they did, or where they lived. It would energise and involve Australians in their democracy to know that they might have to do the job one day. The system would give a 51 per cent chance of a woman being head of state. It would give a 2-3 per cent chance that an Aborigine would be head of state. It would mean that everyone had responsibility for the country, its environment and its people. Rather than just an elite interested and involved “political” class, it would be a truly democratic republic.

25 Responses

  1. The “president of Athens” was the epistates, chosen by lot for a day from among the revolving executive committe of 50. He held the seal and the temple keys. If a meeting of the full council of 500 (also chosen by lot) or the entire assembly, the epistates presided.


  2. Being able to sack the PM is serious political power, so allowing a single person to do that seems wrong, no matter how that person is selected. But if this power is removed, then what is the function of the G-G? Does the G-G have some kind of a bully pulpit? If not, filling the office by lot seems like an empty symbolic gesture.


  3. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate removing the power of the GG (or as Gough would call him, the Protector of the Commonwealth, a title I find irresistable!) to sack the PM, but I would prefer it codified in some way. In terms of being an empty symbolic gesture- it’s a symbolic office. It should be someone that symbolises our polity. At the moment that’s one of the elite, one of the ‘great and good’, usually a lawyer or soldier. I find that anti-egalitarian, and I think it should change.


  4. So a barista, teacher, bank teller, street-cleaner (or any other occupation) would be an appropriate symbol, whereas a soldier (who has an explicit duty of public service) would not?


  5. > It should be someone that symbolises our polity.

    Sure, but symbols should not be substitutes for substance. Do you advocate selection of MPs by sortition as well?


  6. A soldier would be a fine representative, but not to the exclusion of anyone else. If you look at the list of Governors General Australia has had, there are no street cleaners, bank tellers or baristas, but an overwhelming number of aristocrats, lawyers, clerics and soldiers, chosen because they are members of the governing elite. I don’t think the job requires someone to be a lawyer or a soldier. It’s a symbolic role. And anyone can represent us. Re. MPs selection by sortition. I am interested in this as an idea. I would perhaps be more comfortable with MPs chosen by lot making up a proportion of MPs in the upper house, say a third, rather than all of them, at least to begin with. I am very much in favour of replacing local government councillors with people chosen by lot. They’re a bunch of crooks!


  7. >And anyone can represent us.

    I suggest you read the chapter in Hanna Pitkin’s book on symbolic representation — these functions are better performed by a flag, monarch, or other symbolic icon. Either the head of state has powers or she doesn’t — if the former then the selection of an aristoi is only natural, although the standards of what counts as the best vary from age to age. The normal criterion is that the monarch stands outside of the regular political process, and QE2 hasn’t a bad record in this respect (despite the establishment rhetoric, she has often been closer to UK Labour PMs than their Conservative counterparts). The Australian republican movement strikes me as just another example of pom-bashing (your favourite national pastime).

    >They’re a bunch of crooks!

    I don’t know anything about Australian politics, but if it’s anything like the UK, then this sweeping condemnation of local councillors is entirely unwarranted.


  8. You clearly really know nothing about Australia or Australian politics.


  9. I disagree that ‘a flag a monarch or other symbolic icon’ is best to perform that function, except in that the person of an everyday, ordinary citizen is the perfect symbol of our polity. I don’t think the ‘selection of an aristoi is only natural’. I find it offensive. Finally, only Poms think the Australian republican movement is about ‘Pom bashing’. Australian republican sentiment springs form the same place that English, French, American, Roman republicanism, and indeed all republicanism stems- a rejection of hereditary monarchy as an unequal, inefficient and ultimately insulting construction.


  10. Aristoi simply means “the best”, and the standards vary from age to age. Why would you not want the nation to be represented by one of the best? I imagine most Australians would — let’s hope the success of the republican movement doesn’t lead to Queen Kylie. Or would you prefer Rolf Harris? Anyway, can’t see the relevance of sortition as nobody could argue that the Athenian rationale (rotation of office) would be applicable.

    PS the modern republican movement (Pettit, Pocock, Skinner etc) has more to do with civic humanism, balanced government and non-domination. The first modern republican tract is deemed (by Pocock) to have been composed in 1642 in the name of Charles I. The presence or absence of a hereditary monarch is a trivial issue in comparison to the primary goals of republicanism.


  11. >it would be a truly democratic republic.

    What exactly is the connection between drawing a (single) name out of a hat and democracy (the rule of the people)?


  12. What I invisage as a Republic, that the President not be a Polli, nor someone from the Forces. People should nominate for this position and then elected or rejected from all. It should be a fairer more inclusive Republic, we must not forget The rightful owners of this country and in every way they should also have a say in its construction.


  13. > Why would you not want the nation to be represented by one of the best?

    Because those who decide who’s “best” rule.

    The blind break is fairer.


  14. Thank you Anonymous. Who decides who is best? True egalitarians recognise that the social constructs of who is good, better or best, have failed to make our society a safe, sustainable, liveable place for the majority of the world’s population. Money is no marker of intelligence or morality. Neither position, nor profession, nor ‘success’ at music (how many times was Rolf Harris given awards by Her Majesty?) or sport or anything else. We are all equal in our humanity. None of us is really any better than the other. So it is apposite that when a position calls for nothing other than that a person be a person, then that position be selected by lot from a list of all the citizens. The Athenians didn’t just use the lot because they wanted to rotate positions, they also recognised that democracy, rule of the people, required the people to rule, not elected oligarchs, as we currently have in our ‘guided’, ‘representative’ democracies.


  15. To the Athenians, democracy meant ruling and being ruled in turn; to modern eyes it means descriptive representation. I can’t see the relevance of either or these principles to a single symbolic position with only nominal power (certainly not “ruling”) — or are Australian republicans claiming that they are ruled by the Queen?

    The only power the president would have would be the dismissal of the government and institution of fresh elections (and the only sanction against the abuse of this power is that the president would lose her entirely symbolic role). What if the person selected by lot were a psychopath, anarchist, racist, misogynist, bigot, junkie, couch potato, agent of a foreign power, mischief-maker, or just plain stupid? What if she turned out to be an eloquent and influential political partisan? What is to prevent her from selling herself to the highest bidder? Presumably, as president, she would have some kind of media profile, which would be extremely valuable to corporate or political interests. A hereditary president (i.e. monarch) would be less open to this form of corruption, as it would hand a gift to the republican movement, as the monarchy would be abolished and her descendants would be less likely to inherit the position. Not so with a person selected by lot, who would be extremely easy to corrupt.

    >Who decides who is best?

    In a democracy, the decision is taken by the voters. I can understand the wish for an elected president (although I think the argument is flawed), but the case for an allotted president is unconvincing.

    >democracy, rule of the people, require[s] the people to rule.

    “The people” is a plural substantive, so what is the relevance of “democracy” to the symbolic rule of a single person? Inheritance and sortition are both mechanisms for selecting single persons, but neither mechanism has any connection to democracy (unless you argue, with Aristotle, that democracy is rule by the poor and that sortition will necessary select a poor person). But that would presuppose a stratified sample that excluded everyone over a certain level of wealth (along with psychopaths, anarchists, mischief-makers, agents of foreign powers . . .). You would end up with a strange symbol of the nation, especially in the light of your wish to avoid the best, which you dismiss as a “social construct” (I would have thought that republicans would seek to privilege the social constructs of a demotic age.) Classical Greece was a highly competitive society and were very keen to seek out the best amongst them, otherwise we would not have the legacy of the Olympic Games, and they were also keen to heap gold crowns and other rewards on their leading politicians. Modern republicans just cherry-pick aspects of Greek democracy and ignore everything else.


  16. >> Who decides who is best?
    > In a democracy, the decision is taken by the voters.

    As the Greeks took for granted, voting and democracy are antithetical. In an electoral system, “best” must mean someone who has enough power to command the public’s attention.


  17. Yoram,

    When appointing magistracies where expertise was essential, the Athenians selected the best by voting. These magistracies (military leaders and, in the fourth century, key financial positions) were key to the survival of the demokratia, so the Athenians certainly did not view voting as “antithetical” to democracy. For the routine legislative programme (in the fourth century) Athenians were content with jurors selected by lot, but most of the legislative proposals originated with (self-selected) “politicians”, who were held to account by political trials. (In both examples, ancient and modern, the politicians are those who “have enough power to command the public’s attention”.) Headlam is adamant that modern elections best correspond to this aspect of Athenian practice, not the election of magistrates that you are referring to. This is particularly true where the parallel is modern “audience” democracy, because the political trial was to do with the “whole life” (the public persona) of the politician, not just the specific offence — that’s why it was the direct replacement of ostracism. (In modern elections the over-ambitious (and subsequently disgraced) party is also “ostracised” for ten years or so. If there is a perennial truth it is that all political lives end in failure.)

    When dealing with ancient societies we need to be constantly alert to the danger of anachronism and not be seduced into thinking that a single word necessarily refers to the same thing in antiquity and modernity. This can lead to dogmatic statements regarding
    the “essential” nature of political institutions like election (particularly when endorsed by authorities like Aristotle and Montesquieu), which are entirely misleading and antithetical to current scholarship in the history of political thought which views linguistic terms as embedded in a particular context. The same is true, of course, regarding sortition, as the evidence would suggest that Athenian usage and modern proposals have entirely different functions (to the ancients it was a convenient mechanism of rotation in office, to moderns it is a way of implementing descriptive (statistical) representation). The principal anachronism contained in this post is the implied correspondence between the presidency of a large state and the Athenian epistates.


  18. The Athenian method of selecting their epistates is not suggested as a model for a modern Australian President, but referenced simply as an introduction to the idea that societies have used sortition before, as we do now for jury duty. Most people have no idea that democracy could be ordered any way other than via ‘representative democracy with occasional elections’, ie. the current model, which has failed spectacularly to produce egalitarian outcomes. Just because something in particular about the Athenian model does not fit with a modern society doesn’t mean that we should discard all their insights. Principle among them, that election to powerful positions leads to oligarchic tendencies and domination by elites. The failure of representative democracy in many parts of the world, especially in post-colonial societies requires us to cat the net wider for our ideas than 18th century America and 19th century Britain. Supervisory democracy, monitory democracy, and kleroterian democracy have a lot to offer in that regard.


  19. Luke,

    Thanks for the clarification. I just think that referring to symbolic presidencies and Athenian juries in the same post runs the risk of conflating very different political institutions. Whilst it’s possible that the Athenians used sortition for single magistracies and large juries for the same reasons (rotation and defence against oligarchy) we just don’t know (there is no surviving written record to inform us), but presidencies and political juries in large modern states clearly serve very different functions. I also wonder why republicans expend so much effort seeking to fix the least problematic aspect of modern governance — it’s as if they believe “dignified” facade is the real thing and it really is “Her” government. Bagehot claimed that most Victorians believed it was true, but surely no-one (apart from republicans!) goes along with this nowadays? If so there would not have been an outcry when the heir to the throne overstepped his constitutional role by seeking to browbeat UK ministers over policy issues.


  20. Keith,

    The Athenian election of generals certainly had a lot to do with finding out who the rank and file soldiers would willingly follow into battle…an “aristocratic” selection process (finding the “best” in some sense)..and the election of financial officers according to some scholars had more to do with making sure those officers were wealthy enough (aristocratic) that if they were caught embezzling money, they would be rich enough that they could be stripped of their properties to pay back the polis. In both cases, the use of elections fulfilled a clear and intentional aristocratic selection rather than a democratic selection. So in some sense, Keith, you can argue the Athenians had a bit of a mixed constitution as well, lottery for all of their democratic decisions, and election for the few decisions where they didn’t want to use democracy.


  21. Again, the simple fact that elections are anti-democratic was apparently conventional wisdom in Greece. (Greek view on the position of the Assembly on the democratic-oligarchical spectrum seems less clear.)

    The Athenians, it appears, knowingly mixed anti-democratic elements into their government system. They did other things that we should not emulate.


  22. TB:> the Athenians had a bit of a mixed constitution as well, lottery for all of their democratic decisions, and election for the few decisions where they didn’t want to use democracy.

    But we still don’t know why the Athenians used sortition — the claim that it was “democratic” relies on one much-repeated sentence from Aristotle (no friend of democracy). The assembly was the central institution of Athenian democracy and this led Headlam, Elster, Dowlen, Stone and a host of other scholars to argue that sortition wasn’t democratic per se, merely a mechanism to protect the primacy of the assembly (by ensuring the weakness of the council and all the other institutions).

    YG:> The Athenians, it appears, knowingly mixed anti-democratic elements into their government system. They did other things that we should not emulate.

    Rousseau concluded that pure democracy was a system of government best suited to a race of gods; those of us who inhabit terra firma generally agree with Aristotle that mixed polities are better adapted to the world of fallen man than (theoretically) pure systems. Just as the Athenians opted for mixed governance, sortition in large modern states could only ever be part of a mixed constitution, on account of its inability to fulfil the active function of political representatives (for reasons that we have debated at length, and that you continue to wilfully ignore).


  23. YG:> Again, the simple fact that elections are anti-democratic was apparently conventional wisdom in Greece. (Greek view on the position of the Assembly on the democratic-oligarchical spectrum seems less clear.)

    However it’s very clear where this statement lies on the scholarship-wishful thinking spectrum.


  24. TB:> The Athenians had a . . . lottery for all of their democratic decisions.

    The principal forum for democratic decisions was the general assembly. We can only speculate as to the motives for the fourth-century reforms that led to the decision to appoint randomly-selected nomothetic committees for the ratification of new laws. One of the key elements of Athenian democracy was the equal right to speak so, prima facie, the decision to restrict speech rights to the proposers of new laws and assembly-appointed spokesmen would appear to be antidemocratic. Perhaps the Athenians didn’t like the babbling of voices that might well have characterised the democratic assembly and decided to limit isegoria to Demosthenes and his friends. To modern sensibilities this might appear to be a democratic move as large Athenian juries must have been a reasonable statistical representation of the entire citizen body, but this ignores the fact that Athenians had no concept of proportionality (or, for that matter, representation). So, with the exception of a couple of sentences in Aristotle’s Politics, there is no good reason to believe that Athenians viewed sortition as a democratic instrument, more likely just a convenient way to implement rotation in office (and a way to keep the power of the randomly-selected council weak, thereby protecting the primacy of the assembly).


  25. To the Athenians it must have seemed obvious that decision-making by allotted bodies required the limiting of speech rights to representative advocates. Isegoria was a property of the general assembly and this is the chosen model for modern-day deliberative democrats. The attempt to combine sortition and isegoria in decision-making bodies is both undemocratic and chaotic — for reasons that were obvious to the Athenians but not, apparently, to modern-day kleristocrats. I acknowledge that isegoria also applied to the assembly secretariat (the council), but this was not a decision-making legislative body.


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