From the archives: the republic referendum

After the initial burst of publicity (see Monday’s report here), debate on the proposed new model for an Australian republic has, as expected, pretty much died out. Shireen Morris gave it a serve yesterday in the Channel Nine papers for ignoring the question of Indigenous constitutional recognition (“It is difficult to avoid a conclusion of political ineptitude”), but that’s about it.

The issue might get a mild revival next week with Australia/Invasion Day, although there’ll be plenty of other things competing for attention. But I thought that before the moment passes, I’d fish out a piece that I wrote at the time but never published, explaining what went wrong with the Republic referendum of November 1999 and offering some thoughts about the way forward.

So here it is. It’s a nice indication of how little has changed in 22 years. Some debates move on, but others just ossify.

A Republican Post-Mortem

While last Saturday’s “No” vote may not have been inevitable, nor was it a difficult outcome to predict. The whole process seems to have been designed to produce a model that many republicans would find unsatisfactory, and an atmosphere in which the deceitful tactics of the monarchists would be effective.

So what lessons can republicans learn from this debacle? What should have been done instead?

The best course was that which Paul Keating proposed at the 1996 election. A plebiscite should have been held first, seeking approval in principle for the move to a republic – something along the lines of “Should Australia become a republic by replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state?” Of itself this would not have effected any constitutional change – it would be purely indicative. But if it had been carried, as it almost certainly would, then a convention could have been elected to choose a republican model, which could then have been put to referendum.

Doing things in this order would have had two important advantages. Firstly, passage of the indicative plebiscite (particularly if it received a large majority) would have de-legitimised the monarchist option. Monarchists would have had less credibility at the subsequent convention and therefore would have been less able to play a spoiling role there and at the subsequent referendum. (Even if the indicative plebiscite were defeated, it would at least have had the advantage of clarity that is so conspicuously lacking from last weekend’s result. It would mean that Australians preferred, all things considered, to retain the constitutional monarchy – a regrettable decision, in my view, but one which would have settled the issue.)

Secondly, postponing the decision on the specifics of a republic model would have forced participants in the debate to focus more clearly on the detail at the time when it mattered. Instead, the Howard plan gave us a convention elected mainly on the issue of monarchy vs. republic, which was therefore dominated by the hostile blocs of the ACM [Australians for Constitutional Monarchy] and the ARM [Australian Republican Movement]. Consideration of the actual mechanics of a republic was almost non-existent during the election, and relatively superficial even at the convention. Yet that was when the important decisions were made.

If Australians had already voted in principle to move to a republic, the ARM could never have elected a swag of delegates on the vague promise of “an Australian head of state.” Both the election and the debate at the convention would have involved consideration of a range of issues and options: direct vs. indirect election, codification of reserve powers, security of tenure, separation of executive from legislature, and so on. The result would have been a model tailored to the wishes of the Australian people, and therefore best able to succeed in the subsequent referendum.

The preferred model might have involved direct election of a president; certainly that is likely if support for direct election is as solid as the polls tell us. But it is only in this sort of process, where the monarchist option has effectively been ruled out, that a direct election model would have a chance. Otherwise the combination of monarchists and conservative republicans will always be strong enough to defeat it.

A better process would also have required leaders who were committed to at least a benevolent neutrality on the whole issue. The fact that Australia voted on the republic under a Prime Minister who was deeply and openly opposed to it meant that there was no impetus from the top to get the process right or to correct defects as they became apparent. The claim is not that the imperfections in the republican model were deliberately planted as “poison pills”; rather the point is that there was no incentive for anyone in government to produce a proposal with popular appeal.

What should be done now? Can we now start again and do it the right way? The short answer is “No”, and not just because of John Howard’s opposition. Even a Beazley government would find it an impossible task to raise public enthusiasm for a fresh start on the issue now.

Instead, republicans are going to have to do the work on their own if they want to see results in the foreseeable future. Driven by anger at the referendum result, perhaps they will be able to bury their differences and put some effort into crafting a model that can fire the popular enthusiasm that has so far been lacking. There is a window of opportunity here: by focusing so obsessively on the defects of the recent model instead of offering any defence of the monarchy, the “No” campaigners have effectively invited support for an improved version. But devising one will be no easy task.

The least likely outcome is that the direct-election republicans who supported the “No” case will now win the support of monarchists to hold another convention or another referendum on their preferred model. The monarchist objective was to bury the issue completely, and they now have cause to hope they have succeeded. The only way a republic will find its way back onto the agenda is if republicans work together to put it there.


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