Australian republic: look to Ireland, says top academic

By David Donaldson

Wednesday September 26, 2018

Australia’s two flags – british and aboriginal – flying together in downtown melbourne

Ireland shows the importance of citizen input and how it’s possible to have a directly elected president who won’t interfere with politics, Professor Cheryl Saunders tells soon-to-depart Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis.

Participatory democracy is being increasingly used around the world to inform government decision-making, whether in the form of citizens’ juries, last year’s gay marriage postal survey, or the Brexit vote in the UK.

While these experiences have shown there are clear risks, done well, participatory democracy can strengthen decisions and give them a legitimacy often lacking when everything is left up to politicians.

Ireland provides one such example, Saunders argues.

“The Irish have played in several ways with some form of citizens’ deliberative process over recent years to bring forward amendments to their constitution that everybody thought would be deeply controversial, but in fact passed in a way that made everybody feel really comfortable,” she explains on the final episode of Melbourne University’s The Policy Shop podcast before Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis finishes up on Sunday.

The level of public interest in Australia’s own republican constitutional convention in the 1990s showed the value of such engagement, though it was perhaps a bit too “stage managed”, Saunders thinks.

Instead, Ireland chose a random assortment of citizens, along with a minority of political representatives, who came together to thrash out a new model.

“It was a structured process whereby people were made comfortable to talk about these things, rules of engagement that involved trust and mutual respect, and that first of all empowered them with knowledge so that they could come to grips with the issues,” Saunders explains.

“They came up with recommendations for change which were reflected almost exactly in the referendum results, which is also a very interesting sign of that being an approach that we might well investigate.”

Some sort of citizens assembly based on the Irish model — a more open process than the 1998 constitutional convention — “would be a great idea”, Saunders thinks.

An apolitical, directly-elected president

The way the Irish presidency is set up also offers a model for Australia, says Dr Benjamin Jones, author of This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future.

“Ireland seems to have achieved something that Australian minimalist republicans have thought impossible, and that’s have a direct election for the head of state without making it a political actor who might interfere in what’s otherwise a Westminster system,” he tells Davis in the podcast.

“They’ve now had several elected presidents who do respect the role that the people expect of the president, which is to be a figurehead.”

Saunders agrees.

“The Irish example shows us that you can have a directly elected president in an essentially parliamentary system, without the president challenging the authority of the government to govern,” she explains.

“On the other hand, that is achieved by a careful drafting of the constitution which makes it quite clear that the president does act on advice, identifies the areas where here or she doesn’t act on advice, and creates another body, the Council of State, which may advise the president in certain difficult situations.

“So the Irish model is a really interesting model for us but requires us to open our minds a little bit beyond bare minimalism of the kind that we flirted with in the 1990s.”

Glyn Davis moves on

After 13 years in the job, Glyn Davis is moving on from being vice chancellor.

Before moving to Melbourne, he spent three years as VC at Griffith University, and in the 1990s and 2000s held several senior Queensland government roles, including the post of director-general of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet under Premier Peter Beattie from 1998 to 2002.

He is perhaps most well known from his time in charge of the university for the introduction of the ‘Melbourne Model’ degree structure, and for significant investment in major new buildings.

Davis was originally an academic in political science and public administration, and he intends now to return to part-time teaching and research. He has been appointed distinguished professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute at Kings College London, and at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. He has also been elected a visiting fellow at Exeter College, Oxford.

He will remain connected to the University of Melbourne, continuing in an honorary capacity as a professor of political science.

Professor Duncan Maskell, most recently senior pro-vice chancellor at Cambridge, takes over from 1 October.

It is unclear whether The Policy Shop podcast, which Davis hosts, will continue, though it is at least on hiatus for the immediate future.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals