Bill Shorten has promised a plebiscite on the republic should he become prime minister after the next federal election. Unlike the failed 1999 referendum, it is likely to succeed for one simple reason: the plebiscite will not propose a republican model, merely ask whether we should become one.
Support for this principle recently dipped to 40 per cent, according to Newspoll, possibly because Prince Harry and Megan, Duchess of Sussex were in the country at the time of the survey. But for all of the past 20 years, it has hovered around 50 per cent. Those opposed to the idea should not be complacent. As long as our education system continues to teach generations of kids about the evil legacy of colonialism, the republican movement will be imbued with an aura of inevitability.
Unburdened by bothersome details of constitutional law, Shorten’s proposal could easily earn a tick of approval from both a majority of people and states. Only then will the people be asked how they plan to go about altering one of the oldest and most stable national constitutions in the world.
Wherever you stand on the issue, you should be concerned about this. Australia is already a dangerously divided nation. Shorten’s plan will make it far more so. The benefits of a republic, whatever they may be, are unlikely to outweigh the discord Shorten’s plan will cause.
For a template of how it will play out, consider the Brexit debate. In 2016, the British public was given a clear choice: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
The plain, impartial style of the question should have inspired a civilised acceptance of the outcome. This has clearly not been the case. Without a hint of irony, celebrities and pundits in the UK are now calling for a “people’s vote” to correct the previous result. But worse, the crucial part of the debate – how to leave the EU – has become entangled in a debate about leaving the EU at all. The attempt to separate the two concepts – whether to leave, then how – has been an utter failure.
A letter writer to The Spectator recently summed up where the Brexit debate now stands: “Brexit, for all its claims of gaining back control, has torn this country apart, dividing family and friends in a never-ending and deeply unsavoury ideological civil war which shows no sign of ever being resolved.”
The British Chancellor, Philip Hammond, admitted on BBC4 this week that, should the Government’s current strategy to leave the EU not be passed by Parliament on December 11, he and his colleagues will be in “uncharted waters”. They have no plan B. Nobody in Britain saw this coming; even fewer think the debate is healthy.
How likely is it that Australia will find itself in a similar situation in two or three years’ time, once Shorten has set the republican ball rolling?
The similarities are impossible to ignore. Triumphant republicans will split acrimoniously over the style of republic: a president either voted by a two-thirds majority of parliament (the model that was rejected at the referendum in 1999) or directly by the people. There are benefits and disadvantages to both models. However, it is arguable that neither of these models will be an improvement on our current constitution. The debate would be torn in three directions. Current indications are that no concessions will be given. If the SSM debate is any guide, any victories along the way will not be met with graciousness.
Then there are those who will vote against becoming a republic. To get up, a referendum requires a majority of the people and a majority of the states. If Tasmania and Queensland, the two most monarchist states in the 1999 referendum, vote no to Shorten’s question, will they accept the result? Plausibly not. Many people in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, are now calling for secession from the UK.
To many mainlanders, losing Tasmania might not be a bad thing, given that state’s heavy dependance on federal finance. Queensland, however, would be more difficult to lose.
There is already a debate within Queensland for the north to create its own state. It wouldn’t take a large leap of faith for all Queenslanders to instead contemplate going it alone under their own monarchist constitution. On the bright side, this would return State of Origin to the fierce intensity it once enjoyed. But by almost every other measure it would be disastrous. Those who support a thriving export-driven economy would lament losing Queensland’s resources, while environmentalists would only reluctantly abandon the opportunity to tell Queenslanders about the evils of Adani.
Of course, a fear of discord is no reason to avoid a debate. Indeed, discord is what debate is all about. But we must enter this process with a clear objective: do we want to emerge from it more united, or less? Or to put it another way, will Shorten benefit from sowing divisions in the electorate?
Social media has dramatically diminished our ability to debate these big issues. Where once people were only able to engage in debate under the rules of etiquette demanded by the editors of newspaper letters pages or talkback radio producers, now they are free to vent without restraint. Not even the laws of defamation can adequately restrain fervour these days.
As more people have been able to engage online, Schadenfreude, triumphalism and emotion have become more and more prominent. Passions are stoked in online enclaves, then unleashed on opponents in ways that were considered gauche and counterproductive only a couple of decades ago.
Again, if you believe Australia should become a republic, fantastic. Let’s hear your reasons. Better still, let’s hear how you think it will work and improve the lives of your fellow Australians.
But unless you would like to see Australia even more divided than it already is, you should oppose Shorten’s cynical strategy to achieve it.
Fred Pawle is the Communications Director of the Menzies Research Centre.
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