That their head of state should be elected by the people is, I imagine, the innate view of almost all American citizens. But at this unquiet hour, they might well wonder whether — for all the wisdom of the founding fathers — their republican system of government is actually leading them toward that promised “more perfect union.”

After all, our American cousins have only to direct their gaze toward their northern neighbor to find, in contented Canada, a nation that has for its head of state a hereditary monarch. That example alone demonstrates that democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy.

Indeed, the modern history of Europe has shown that those countries fortunate enough to enjoy a king or queen as head of state tend to be more stable and better governed than most of the Continent’s republican states. By the same token, demagogic dictators have proved unremittingly hostile to monarchy because the institution represents a dangerously venerated alternative to their ambitions.

Nikolai Tolstoy suggests monarchy.

See also the UN influence on Germany after WWI (dismantled monarchy, lead to Hitler) versus on Japan after WWII (instituted constitutional monarchy, lead to one of the most prosperous nations in Asia).

It’s weird making these arguments as an Australian. Like Canada, we have the Queen of England as our formal head of state, a.k.a. the alleged wielder of executive power. In practice, the Queen has 0% to do with the running of Australia, and instead her powers are delegated to the local position of Governor-general, or “GG” because Australians don’t like long pretentious titles. The GG isn’t an elected position: instead, they’re nominated by the Prime Minister, also not an elected position per se,1 and given a rubber stamp by the Queen.

In theory, the GG has some powers. They give final sign-off on legislation, again on “behalf” of the Queen, and can, in theory, not do this. I’m not sure that it ever, in practice, happens. The other thing is GG can do is dissolve the parliament. It’s not arbitrary; there are specific triggers for it, and they’re basically that if one party acts so belligerently, i.e. by constantly blocking legislation, that the government ceases to function. This has happened exactly once on the federal level, in 1975 during the Whitlam dismissal. The result of a dismissal is a double-dissolution election, i.e. everyone has to go back to the polls and re-elect all representatives in both houses of Parliament.

Like I said, we’ve only ever had one of these federally (there’ve been a few more at the state level but, again, they’re super-rare and very controversial). Every now and again on party or another will start rumbling about trying to trigger another one, but generally whenever the talk of “double-dissolutions” and “blocking supply” comes out, people settle down and work things out. I think, in part, it’s because everyone has to go back for reelection in the event of a dismissal; including the MPs who conspired to trigger it in the first place. And Australian voters are notorious for punishing any party who makes them go to the polls early–remember, voting in Australia is compulsory, so you can’t just not show up–so there’s never a guarantee that the anti-government conspirators will get their seats back.2

Basically, this is how we avoid parliamentary deadlock here in Australia. Even when things are at their most dysfunctional, the literal worst thing that can happen is the GG forces everyone to start over from scratch. Other Westminster systems–i.e. most other ex-British colonies, plus a few others like Japan and Israel–work more-or-less the same.

When I was younger, I used to be an avid Republican, i.e. I thought we should kick out the Queen and have some kind of elected Australia head of state instead. It’s weird to say but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve sort of… revised that position a little. I’m not a Monarchist, as such, but I think it’s more that I’m not a Monarchist when the monarchy in question is a monarchy of foreigners. If we had an Australian Queen, I think I’d probably be all down with it.3 What I am a big believer in, though, is the Westminster system itself, and in particular the form of Westminster we have here wherein Executive power (i.e. the GG) is appointed, not directly elected. Specifically, I like the idea of the GG as being politically “neutral”, i.e. they’re outside of party politics.4 The GG is the adult in the room when the elected reps can’t behave. When you elect the head of the the Executive, when you link them to populism and party politics, you lose that.

Westminster is a system that evolved out of centuries of civil war in the UK. It’s also one of the most widely replicated democratic systems on the planet, and is implemented in both monarchist (e.g. Australia, Canada, Japan) and republican (e.g. Ireland, Israel, India) variants. The other thing you need to realise is that, to understand the American government, you have to understand Westminster. Because the US government was specifically designed as a reaction to and a rejection of it.

If Westminster is the Microsoft Windows of government systems–well-established, widely supported, had-some-problems-in-the-past-but-we-patched-them-mostly–then the US system is the self-compiled modded *NIX kernel run by the pasty dude in the IT department. No one uses the US system but the US. It’s weird. It’s weird because it’s essentially some dudes’ idea about how you’d institute an elected king. It has a broad scope of Executive power; much broader than implemented in most modern constitutional monarchies, whose democracies have spent the last few hundred years paring back their monarchs’ powers, particularly military powers, and handed them to the parliament. It’s a process that hasn’t really occurred in the US; very few amendments to the US Constitution serve to limit the president’s power, with a few notable exceptions like the twenty-second amendment.

There’s a reason, when the US goes about “promoting democracy”, it doesn’t promote US-style democracy. If you don’t think that’s a damning indictment, then… I’m not sure what to tell you.

There are tough days ahead for American democracy, I think. And, in the meantime… maybe I’ll be okay with keeping the idea of an Australian republic on the back-burner.

  1. The PM is essentially the House Majority Leader. That is, the political party or coalition of political parties with the majority of seats in the lower house of parliament appoints, through whatever party mojo makes sense to them, someone to be their party leader. That person is Prime Minster.
  2. Ironically, during the Whitlam dismissal itself, the Whitlam government was thrown out, and the Fraser government that conspired for its ousting was elected instead. So, yanno. It can go either way.
  3. I once described constitutional monarchs to a bemused American as, “Imagine if the Statue of Liberty was alive and opened sporting events. That’s basically what a constitutional monarch does.” In other words, constitutional monarchs are living symbols of national pride. They show up an smile and make people feel good about being a citizen of [Country]; an image they maintain by being as bland and apolitical as possible.
  4. Or, at least, have to give the appearance of being outside party politics; it’s not perfect, obviously, but no system ever is.