Friday, December 28, 2007

We, the people

The colonial Queensland Premier and Chief Justice Samuel Griffith wrote in 1896 "in a republic the necessary and direct source of all authority is the people ... whereas in a constitutional monarchy authority is derived from the Sovereign".

Queensland's founding federal father correctly saw the definition of the term 'republic' concerned the location of popular sovereignty. Just over a century into the future the latest Queenslander to stride across the national stage has tapped into the essential debate on where ultimate political authority lies.

On 3 December 2007, one week after the election of the new Rudd Federal Labor government, a 'very republican moment' occurred when Kevin Rudd and his ministry swore an oath to 'the Commonwealth of Australia, its land and its people'. The significance of this moment is the new federal ministers swore an Oath under Section 62 of the Constitution to the people of Australia rather to Queen Elizabeth II, a foreign monarch.

When Kevin Rudd was sworn in as the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, wearing R.M. Williams boots and a grin as wide as the veranda of his suburban Queenslander in Brisbane, he declared:

"I, Kevin Michael Rudd, do swear that I will well and truly serve the Commonwealth of Australia, her land and her people, in the office of the Prime Minister, so help me God."

Taking the office of Prime Minister (Executive Councillor) involves swearing an Oath of Allegiance or Affirmation. However, under Section 62 of the Consitution the form of the oath of office is not prescribed for a minister but by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Of course the new Oath was given to the Governor-General on Rudd's advice yet he could not have technically given that advice until he became an Executive Councillor. No doubt this advice was relayed earlier, perhaps through or with the approval of the caretaker, John Howard! In taking this Oath, Rudd acknowledged the republican ideal that ultimate political authority lays with 'the land and the people' of Australia rather than with the British monarch.

The Rudd Oath should not be confused with the Oath of Allegiance or Affirmation under Section 42 of the Constitution required to be made by a Member of Parliament or Senator before taking his or her seat. This involves swearing or affirming to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors according to law". This Oath was also used for ministers until the Keating Labor government removed reference to the Sovereign. However, with the election of the Howard Liberal government in 1996 the Oath to the Queen was restored but without any reference to "Her heirs and successors".

It is interesting that the federal minister's Oath has been a republican intellectual battleground over the past 15 years. It is here, with the very first act of the new Rudd federal government that, finally, the beginning of republican political authority is being laid down.

The real issue behind the question of the Oath of Allegiance or Affirmation concerns where political authority ultimately resides. Does it originate from the divine, from God or from 'the land and the people'? Should Australian political authority continue to be derived from the British monarch and ultimately God, or should it be ackowledged that popular sovereignty resides in 'the land and the people' of Australia? This is a fundamental question for the republican debate.

The historical position of the Divine Right of Kings was that the power of the monarch was derived from God. Indeed, Romans XIII states, "There is no authority except God which God has established". Queen Elizabeth II had to first attend a three hour Coronation ceremony to almighty God which in turn gave every citizen in her realm, immediate sovereign protection. But how does a divinely ordered constitutional monarchy fit into a modern multicultural society? In recent years there has even been discussion in Britain about changng the Coronation Oaths. This begs the question on what relevance do Coronation Oaths have to Australia when they can themselves be changed? But even though the current British monarch swears a Coronation Oath and is annointed in the same way as were the Kings of the Old Testament, the Coronation Oath is essentially a human construct. It has a historical basis rather than a biblical basis. The Bible is not really interested in the system of government under which God's people live, it is more interested in the compassionate nature and morality of government. The Old and New Testament show God's people living under a variety of different systems of governments from the theocracy of Moses to the Roman rule of the New Testament. But even if ultimate authority does come from God, it doesn't necessarily flow through the forms and symbols of the State. The evangelical Christian tradition says authority flows through God's direct relationships to individuals. Now we have Kevin Rudd, christian and republican, asking for God's help, not authority, to serve as Prime Minister of Australia.

Republicanism does not acknowledge God as the ultimate source of authority in our society rather it is 'the land and the people'. In 1887, Henry Lawson wrote in his 'Song of the Republic':

Sons of the South, make choice between
the land of the morn and the land of the e'en,
the old dead tree and the young tree green,
the land that belongs to the lord and the Queen,
and the land that belongs to you.

It was during the 1963 Royal Tour that Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who was 'British to his bootstraps', said of the young Queen Elizabeth II, "I did but see her passing by, and yet I'll love her till I die". The tide appears to be turning towards a republican future, a future grounded more in a love of country, perhaps even in Dorothea Mackellar's My Country where she wrote "I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains".

One of the essential definitions of a republic is a state based upon popular sovereignty, in which all public offices are held by persons deriving their authority from the people, either through election by the people or appointment by officers themselves elected by the people. The exclusion of the reference to the Queen in the federal ministerial Oath is a tangible step towards repositioning political authority for a republican Australia. Symbols are important and the words in this Oath reflect more meaningfully the reality that our Ministers serve the people of Australia and not a foreign monarch.

The 'currency lads' of the mid-nineteenth century would often use the toast 'To the land, boys'. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appears to have taken Henry Lawson's advice and chosen "the land that belongs to you" over "the land that belongs to the lord and Queen".

Three cheers for the coming republic!

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