Features Australia

Bandana republic

Two plebiscites, a convention, a referendum, massive funding and a bloke in a red bandana. But will it work?

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

When the Australian nation comes together, it’s a rare emotional moment. This happened on 6 November 1999, when, dramatically, John Howard ‘broke the heart of the nation’. At least that’s what Malcolm Turnbull said, although you wouldn’t have thought so looking across the crowds on Bondi Beach the morning after.

Another more recent example was when Labor’s National Conference tried to inject new life into their comatose republican project. No doubt to distract the enemy, TV viewers were to see only a few delegates sitting in the hall. Nevertheless, this day may well be immortalised by streets being renamed, style republicaine, ‘Avenue of 25 July’.

While conceding they haven’t the foggiest idea what sort of republic or indeed what new flag is on the menu, Labor’s secret weapon was revealed to terrified monarchists: a Minister for ‘the’(Unknown) Republic.

To consummate this great occasion, the man in the red bandana and father of the ‘Mate for a Head of State’ campaign, the prolific Peter FitzSimons, was anointed new republican supremo.

Although there’ve been a dozen major votes and inquiries into this, we’re now to have a rerun of the ‘90s with Australians going to the polls not once but an extraordinary four more times, costing over half a billion dollars, much more if it succeeds. As they say in Brussels ‘the people must keep on voting− until they get it right’.

To make it more complicated, there’ll be not one but two plebiscites, a favourite of French revolutionaries and both Emperors Napoleon. Unlike the referendum, where all the details are on the table before you vote, a plebiscite is a blank cheque – the politicians fill in the details after the vote.

The initial plebiscite will be ‘Do you want an Australian as head of state?’. When Paul Keating once threatened this, monarchist QC Lloyd Waddy said he’d advise supporters to vote yes.

Keating never mentioned it again.

The term ‘Head of State’ − once so esoteric it wasn’t even in the Macquarie − is used in diplomatic circles and is governed by international law. There’s no doubt the Governor-General is head of state – he is received as such around the world. Parliament has confirmed this, and a bench of High Court founding fathers ruled he is the ‘constitutional head of the Commonwealth’.

And adding the word ‘republic’ to the question won’t help, as leading monarchists have long described our polity as a ‘crowned republic’.

Before the referendum, there’ll be a constitutional convention and a blatantly rigged second plebiscite to ensure some republic ‘wins’. They’ll achieve this by disallowing votes for the existing system.

And don’t be surprised, if the referendum is lost, that there won’t be an attempt to effect change through the back door using the plebiscites. The High Court has already refused to be guided by referendum results even where the people make it clear they won’t have a bar of some proposed constitutional change.

There are two unsurmountable problems for the republicans. First, even with the hyperactive support of the mainline media and about two thirds of all politicians, their ‘inevitable’ republic was defeated nationally, in every state and 72 per cent of electorates. This probably came as a surprise to republicans – except Turnbull, who wrote months before that: ‘Nobody’s interested.’

Since then such interest as there was has been in free fall, with support now hovering around 40 per cent and strong support around 22 per cent. Among the young, support has fallen so far they’re now challenging the old as the strongest monarchists. While the vote in a referendum is invariably lower than in the polls, the situation is worse in a republican referendum. Once the referendum model is known − any model − a significant number of republicans will switch their votes because they by far prefer the existing system. Bob Carr has said this about direct election.

So how do the republicans expect to turn this around? Some say the end of the reign will be the silver bullet. Not so – this will herald an unprecedented international media retrospective about the Elizabethan age, worldwide interest not only in the new King, but also the new Prince of Wales and his family, and fascination about the Coronation, an ancient and unique ceremony which can be traced back to the ancient kings of Israel. That Australians will suddenly want to change their constitution is unlikely.

Another strategy has been discrediting John Howard’s role in the 1999 referendum. This is curious because republicans applauded him when he decided to put their preferred model to the referendum. But when they didn’t win, they whinged first that Howard rigged the convention through stacking the appointed delegates. An honourable man, he appointed delegates on their eminence or to fill gaps in representation, such as youth and the indigenous. Most turned out to be republicans. Second, they whinged that Howard had rigged the question. Not so – the question was Parliament’s in which two thirds of both houses were republicans with even Liberal ministers free to vote as they wished. Malcolm Turnbull proposed two words be deleted from the question − ‘president’ and, believe it or not, ‘republic’. I proposed the question summarise the sinister provision that the president could be dismissed by the PM without notice, without grounds and without a right of appeal.

The third and latest myth comes from Professor George Williams. He claims that if there had been no appointed or official delegates the model in which the people elect the president would have gone to the referendum. A close analysis of Hansard shows that this is not so . The referendum model clearly enjoyed the support of more elected delegates than any other.

Sensible politicians know that not only is the republican cause hopeless, the voters will punish anyone who seriously pushes such a pointless and extravagant folly which drags them to the polls four times. This is illustrated by what happened after the 2010 election, when Julia Gillard even acceded to ultra-republican Bob Brown’s demand to introduce the very CO2 tax she had promised not to impose. So why didn’t he ask for at least a plebiscite ? The reason for his reticence can only be he knew the voters would punish him.So why do politicians want to remove our oldest constitutional institution, one which works. and works well?

The very last thing they want to do is to improve the way Australia is governed.

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