Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Testing the Precepts of Republican Political Theory against Citizen Attitudes, Beliefs and Practices

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Testing the Precepts of Republican Political Theory against Citizen Attitudes, Beliefs and Practices

Article excerpt


Over the last decade, Australians have been engaged in a major debate over whether to change their system of government from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. This debate led to a referendum in November 1999 which saw the defeat of the proposal put forward. For some social theorists, however, the more important and fundamental issue is less whether the formal institutions of government are republican or monarchical and more whether the character of Australian democracy conforms to the ideals of republican political theory. Perspectives on the matter vary widely. Some experts argue that in practice the Australian system of government already is republican in its functioning (Galligan, 1995). Others believe that `abolition of the monarchy is necessary for Australia to become completely "republican"' (Winterton, 1993: 40). Others still find value in using republican theory as a framework for discussing the reform of political institutions, such as parliament (Uhr, 1998).

A different line of enquiry is concerned with citizen orientations towards republicanism. As with the public debate, scholarly attention has largely focused on public attitudes towards the formal institutions representing the monarchy versus the republic (Bean, 1993; Goot, 1994; Leithner, 1994; Tranter, 1999). Some research has linked such attitudes towards broader underlying questions of citizenship and identity (Phillips, 1996), but to date no one has investigated the extent to which Australian political attitudes and behaviour can be identified as fundamentally republican.

This article attempts to match theoretical notions from republican political thought with empirical evidence on the beliefs, attitudes and practices of Australian citizens in order to address the question of how far Australian political culture can be said to be `republican' in the broader sense, irrespective of whether the nation's constitution identifies a monarch or a president as the head of state. The goal is to bring abstract theory and empirical analysis together by specifying the theory and generating predictions of a kind that can be tested at the level of public attitudes and behaviours through analysis of sample survey data.

The precepts of republican political theory have a long and venerable tradition in political thought. Republican political theory has its origins in classical Roman times through thinkers such as Cicero and has been revived on various occasions through the centuries since then, being associated with names like Machiavelli, Harrington and Montesquieu, plus of course Madison and his colleagues in The Federalist Papers. The latter part of the 20th century has seen something of a revival in republican theory (Haakonssen, 1993), through the work of Pocock (1975), Skinner (1978) and others. In the Australian context this revival has been most prominent in recent writings of Philip Pettit (1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1996, 1997).

The current research flows out of the Australian National University's Reshaping Australian Institutions Project, in which one of the core theoretical strands is centred around Pettit's work and it is thus very much Pettit's version of republican political theory that is examined in this study. Republicanism is, of course, essentially a normative political theory and for this reason it is not necessarily an easy task to extract testable propositions from it. A cooperative approach between the theorist, Pettit, and the empirical analyst, however, led to a range of suitable propositions being generated. The empirical indicators derived from this process were then subjected to extensive pretesting and refinement. (1) Nonetheless, the material could easily stand further refinement still and thus in many ways the results should be regarded as suggestive rather than definitive.

The survey data used for the analysis come from a special module of questions included in the 1995-6 National Social Science Survey (NSSS). …

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