An Australian should be Australia's head of state

By David Swanton

Posted Wednesday, 3 May 2017 in in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


Perhaps every parent’s most fervent wish for their children is that they are healthy and well educated so that they can have every opportunity to realise their dreams. If a child aspires to be an executive of a new national high-tech company, captain a national sporting team, be an academic or pursue an interesting career, they should have the opportunity to do so.

In many countries, including Australia, a child’s aspirations are unfortunately limited. If an Australian child aspires to reach what many would consider to be the pinnacle, in a national sense, of being the country’s head of state, she or he is unable to do so. Sadly, and embarrassingly, it is not possible for an Australian to be Australia’s head of state.

According to the Australian Government, Australia is a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy with Australia's head of state being the Queen of Australia. Her official title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. She is also the Queen of the United Kingdom and other realms.

As the Queen is not Australian, there is a perceived, and probably a real, conflict of interest in performing her duties, even if they are mostly ceremonial. It cannot be said with any conviction that the Queen is unequivocally and fully committed to Australia. Such a commitment is surely a desirable if not necessary quality for a country’s head of state.

Australia can do better than continuing with the British monarchy. The monarchy is, in reality, a class-based system of institutionalised nepotism that discriminates on the basis of religion, gender, age and family (descent). Invidious discrimination of this nature must be rejected. The logical alternative would be that an Australian should become the Australian head of state, appointed or selected on merit.

Religious bias was highlighted in the Queen’s most recent Christmas Broadcast, itself an anachronistic reference to a time when the majority of her subjects may have fallen under her Church of England, of which she is supreme governor. She concluded her speech with a reference to the Christian Christmas story. She was of course speaking, although not proselytising, as a head of a religion that has fewer numbers in Australia than Catholics and those who do not have a religion.

Religion, or lack of it, is a personal decision for each individual. So why would Australians want their head of state to discuss her beliefs? To those who think that this should occur, they should ask themselves whether they would want that if the head of state was not of their religion, or if atheism, Catholicism, Buddhism or Islam instead dominated in Australia.

This religious link to our head of state has historical origins that are reflected in the Australian Constitution. The Constitution’s current preamble, notes that the people, ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’, agreed to unite ‘under the Crown of the United Kingdom…’. It is embarrassing and humiliating that any country should humbly rely on anything. It is galling that this thing is an imaginary ‘Almighty God’ (from a scientific perspective, there is no evidence), the existence of which is only believed by those who have been indoctrinated or acculturated in that belief system. Indeed, it is divisive and ridiculous to include a reference to any religious figures in what is essentially a legal document.

Notably, the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast made no mention of Australia or Australians. If she was making that speech in her other capacities, and we can suspect she was, then perhaps Australia needs a head of state who better promotes and supports Australia. Of what relevance was her speech, coming from a non-Australian who does not live in Australia, to Australians? A head of state should be to an independent sovereign nation what a spouse is to a partner: fully committed, supportive and favoured over all others.

The religious bias is further highlighted by the fact that while the British head of state can now marry a Catholic, a Catholic cannot be head of state. The Queen’s role, and that of her heirs, disenfranchises those who are not members of her church. It is unlikely that a future monarch would not be a member of the Church of England, given the high levels of early childhood religious indoctrination that would be expected to occur in the royal household, and that generally occurs throughout the world. Interestingly, one can only imagine the constitutional anxieties that would arise if the British monarch chose to convert to Islam, and then to atheism, change their gender or even to marry a gay black person. While there would be consequences for changing religion, the latter is currently permitted.

The Queen acceded to the throne because she had no brothers and was the eldest child of the previous monarch. It is now rightfully the case that male-preference primogeniture does not apply after the date of effect of the Perth Agreement. However, the sexist nature of the British monarchy still remains, as the Perth Agreement has not properly rectified the line of succession, and the husband of a Queen regnant is generally titled differently to the wife of a King. This sexism is unacceptable in a modern, egalitarian world, and does nought to promote equality of the sexes.

Absolute primogeniture, the determination of an heir as the eldest sibling in the one familial line, is also unacceptable. There is no merit in one family’s descendants having a monopoly on a significant national position, just as there is no merit in age, gender or sexual identity determining the most appropriate head of state. And what if the eldest sibling were to have a criminal record or intellectual impairment?

The arguments above do not cast aspersions on the character of the current Queen, or former or future monarchs. The Queen has, by all accounts, been an excellent diplomat. She has fulfilled her official and ceremonial duties admirably over many years, particularly given the scrutiny and pressure placed on those involved in royal activities. However, she is British. She is not a Canadian, Jamaican, New Zealander or an Australian. These and other countries could do well to reconsider how a head of state could best perform the duties, official and ceremonial, that are required of their head of state. A commitment to one country above all others must take primacy.

An independent Australia does not need a head of state who promotes Britain overseas, or a non-Australian’s picture on its currency, or future heads of state cheering for British rather than Australian teams in sporting contests. The British monarchy, as an institution, does not show an absolute commitment to Australia. Australians should not be surprised by this fact.

The Queen’s Australian functions are exercisable by the Australian Governor General, but the Queen is required to appoint the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, and she can also disallow an Act of Parliament, which is possible, but extremely unlikely to occur. This latter point is, nonetheless, disturbing. We would no more accept a statement in the Constitution to the effect of ‘The Queen may disallow a Catholic, atheist or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander from becoming a member of Parliament’ on the basis that it would be unlikely to be used, so why should Australians accept a provision that ‘The Queen may disallow a law…’ in the Constitution on that same basis.

Although Australia has a poor record of constitutional reform, efforts should be made to remedy obsolete provisions, remove religious references, recognise Australia’s indigenous heritage and modernise the Constitution. A truly independent and progressive country should not accept second best.

As the Queen’s duties are relatively straightforward and can be otherwise handled, there is no constitutional danger in eliminating the Queen’s role in Australia. To those who say that such functions are insignificant, and that we should leave well enough alone, I say Australia, and many other countries, can and should do better. It would be a massive symbolic fillip if an Australian could become Australia’s head of state. It would be even better if that first Australian head of state were to be a ‘first Australian’, that is, an Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander.

The Queen could, if she wanted to actively extend her healthy relationship with Australians, write to the Prime Minister indicating that she is aware of the groundswell of support for an Australian to be the Australian head of state. She could offer her best wishes if Australia were to progress down the path of becoming a republic. Such a gesture would be noble and statesmanlike, and would engender respect from monarchists and republicans alike. It would unite, rather than divide. The alternative could be divisive, if the monarchy were to be disparaged or otherwise drawn into protracted Australian constitutional debates and referenda.

A head of state selected from a flawed class-based system in a foreign country that discriminates on the basis of religion, gender, age and family, and is not merit-based, is unacceptable. A national head of state should be a citizen of and solely committed to one country (so should not be a dual citizen), not be discriminated against on the basis of their religion, sex, sexual identity, age or other irrelevant characteristics, and should either be appointed or selected on merit, depending on the country’s political system.

In Australia’s case, a minimalist change would surely suggest a republic of some form. With such an egalitarian system, it would then be possible for any Australian child to aspire to be the Australian head of state. Which is how it must be.


David Swanton is an ethicist, scientist and director of Ethical Rights . He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.