December 3

A plebiscite with the next election? Sen.Brown’s irresponsible, wasteful bill

Senator Brown is proceeding with his irresponsible proposal to hold a plebiscite at the next election. He plays down the cost, and gives no details of what he really wants.  He will of course need government support for the bill to become law.

It should have been allowed to lapse.


Is it being allowed to linger to be used as a wedge against the opposition, or has some deal been done? A committee report on the bill is planned for 15 June 2009.

The question in the plebiscite is meaningless and a complete waste of time and money: “Do you support Australia becoming a republic?” 

Our principal objection to any constitutional plebiscite is that it will ask the people to cast a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutions, to be followed by years of constitutional instability. 

The Founding Fathers of this country, seeing how constitutional plebiscites had been misused, especially in revolutionary and Napoleonic France, chose the Swiss referendum as the only way to consult the people who would then decide on questions concerning the constitution. 

The difference between a plebiscite and a referendum is this. The plebiscite is a glorified and very expensive opinion poll; in a referendum the details are on the table before, and not after you vote.

The only reason Senator Brown and the republicans are not proposing a referendum is that they fear they would lose a referendum. Their fears are, we believe, soundly based.

…Senator Brown should  do his duty and not waste the taxpayers' money…

Senator Brown has a duty to indicate what is wrong with the existing constitution and how he proposes to correct this.

What does he want to do? What does he want to replace our oldest institution and one which acts as a check and balance on the political institutions?

In other words, what is his model? 

Given the financial situation we are in, the fact that millions and millions of dollars have already been wasted on this folly through six major republican exercises, why is more money to be diverted from such crucial matters as schools, hospitals, water and transport to this folly?

 And why is the government allowing this private member’s bill to survive?  As I mentioned on Crikey on 13 November, Senator Brown had effectively vetoed the Family First proposal to inquire into the publication of a fraudulent version of the conversation between the Prime Minister and the President about the G20, what some call “blabbergate”?

The government know that a plebiscite on a republic at an election will divert precious media time from the election issues.  If they act rationally, they will only hold a plebiscite on such a topic  if they think there is a danger of losing the election and a distraction from their performance is needed. 

 …reference to committee…

The bill had been earlier referred to the Finance and Public Administration Committee for inquiry and report by 10 March 2009, but on 25 November 2008 the Senate extended the reporting date to 15 June 2009. 

The reasons given for the referral and the principal issues for consideration are stated to be:

 “The issue of Australia becoming a republic is an extremely important one for the Australian Parliament and public. It is important that the process by which this issue is progressed now has appropriate public input and is properly scrutinised and debated.” 

There is no reference to the obvious fact that this issue has not only been well and truly debated, it was rejected in a landslide in 1999. 

… how to ensure not many submissions are received….


Written submissions must be received by  6 February 2009, that is they must be made at a time whenn many Australians are on holidays. This is obviously designed to limit the opportunity of many Australians to put in a submission.  

The Committee prefers to receive submissions electronically as a document attached to an email to be sent to [email protected] Otherwise, submissions may be sent by fax to (02)  6277 5809. We do not know whether mailed submissions will be acceptable. 

 …arcane warning, what happened to the right to know?….

The Committee secretariat warns about the rather dated rule that submissions become Committee documents and are made public only after a decision by the Committee.

They say the publication of submissions includes loading them onto the internet and their being available to other interested parties including the media.  

We are told that persons making submissions must not release them without the approval of the Committee. It is true that submissions are covered by parliamentary privilege but the unauthorised release of them is not protected.

But given that personal confidences are not involved why should people not make up their own decision about this? Is this designed to stop constitutional monarchists from comparing submissions ?

What happened to the right to know?

Information relating to Senate Committee inquiries, including notes to assist in the preparation of submissions for a Committee, can be located on the internet at  

The telephone number of the Committee Secretariat is (02) 6277 3530. The Bill, the Explanatory Memorandum, and the tabled Second Reading Speech follow.  

The Speech contains one significant error – the Convention did not recommend the so called "bi partisan" model be put to a referendum.  Senator Brown makes the extraordinary claim that the question whether Australia should become republic has been close to the hearts of many Australians since Federation. This is just not true.

The question then is to what extent the untested assertions by Senator Brown were persuasive in the decision to refer this bill to a committee.


The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 


                     Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 2008   No.      , 2008 

  (Senator Bob Brown)       

A Bill for an Act to require a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic         

Contents 1………… Short title………………………………………………………………………………..

 1 2………… Commencement……………………………………………………………………….

1 3………… Interpretation…………………………………………………………………………..

1 4………… National plebiscite to be held…………………………………………………….

2 5………… Question to be submitted to electors…………………………………………..

2 6………… Application of Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984………

2     A Bill for an Act to require a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic 

The Parliament of Australia enacts: 

1  Short title 
This Act may be cited as the Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Act 2008. 

2  Commencement                    This Act commences on the day on which it receives the Royal Assent. 

3  Interpretation                    In this Act:

 electors means all persons qualified for enrolment and for voting under Part VII of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and validly enrolled to vote under Part VIII of that Act at the time of the next general election for the House of Representatives. 

Minister means the minister responsible for the administration of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. 

4  National plebiscite to be held                   

The Minister must cause the question specified in section 5 to be submitted to electors at a national plebiscite to be held at the time of the next general election for the House of Representatives. 

5  Question to be submitted to electors                    

The question to be submitted to electors in accordance with section 4 is “Do you support Australia becoming a republic?”. 

6  Application of Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984

                    The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 applies to the submission of the question specified in section 5 and the scrutiny of the result of the plebiscite with such modifications as are necessary to allow the submission of the question and scrutiny of the result on the same basis as a referendum under that Act.2008 


Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 2008

General Outline

The purpose of the Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 2008 is to require a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic in order to ensure that the Australian people have the opportunity to vote on Australia becoming a republic.

The Bill provides for a simple yes or no question. An issue put before the electorate which does not effect the Constitution is called an advisory referendum or a plebiscite. Governments can hold advisory referendums to test whether people either support or oppose a proposed action on an issue.


The main provisions in the Bill are as follows:

Clauses 1 – 3These provisions deal with the commencement of the Act and with the interpretations of key definitions in the Act. 

Clause 4This provision sets out the date on which the plebiscite will be held. It specifies that the plebiscite will be held in conjunction with the next House of Representatives election.

Clause 5This provision sets out the words of the question which the electors will vote on.

Clause 6Clause 6 provides that the process for holding the plebiscite would follow, as nearly as practicable, the normal process for a referendum under the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

Financial ImpactIt is difficult to estimate the precise cost of holding a plebiscite. It is clear that there is a substantial financial benefit in running a referendum in conjunction with a federal election. The last time a referendum was run in conjunction with a federal election was in 1984. The cost then was $4 million for the referendum out of a total election cost of $31.7million. Based on figures from the 2004 federal election, which are the latest available, the financial impact of holding a plebiscite in conjunction with the next federal election will be approximately $10.5 million.    


The Parliament of theCommonwealth of Australia 


Presented and read a first time

The speech read as follows:—


This Bill provides for a plebiscite to be held to give the Australian people the opportunity to vote on whether Australia should be a republic. The Bill sets out one simple question: Do you support Australia becoming a republic? It requires a simple yes or no response.The Bill sets out provisions for a plebiscite or advisory referendum.

The purpose of the plebiscite is to determine the will of the Australian people on this question with a simple majority.  Its purpose is not to change the Constitution, but rather to ascertain the will of the Australian community on the republic question as the first step in the process. If there is not majority support for a republic, the question is decided clearly and without confusion. If the majority supports Australia becoming a republic, the specific details of the most suitable model to adopt can then be worked out in a context of that certainty.

The question set out in this Bill determines if Australians want an Australian as head of state? It does not attempt to determine what model should be adopted, what powers the head of state should hold or other operational or governance issues.

The question of whether Australia should be become a republic has been close to the hearts of many Australians since Federation. In recent times it culminated in the referendum of 1999.This followed the Constitutional Convention in 1998, a public forum in which the participants, a mix of elected members of the public and appointed representatives, debated a range of issues. These included different models for choosing a head of state such as direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, or election by Parliament. The delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of a new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The Convention supported in-principle the resolution that Australia should become a republic. It recommended that a referendum be held to decide on a ‘bi-partisan appointment of the President model’ and other related constitutional changes and the enabling legislative package was passed into law in August 1999.

In the referendum held on 6 November 1999, Australians voted on the republic in a question which conflated support for an Australian head of state with the model by which the head of state should be elected:“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

In addition, there was a vote on a separate question about changing the preamble to the Constitution.Opinion polls consistently showed that the majority of Australians supported an Australian republic, but polls also showed most people wanted popular, not parliamentary election of the president.

In the referendum of 1999, 54.87 per cent to 45.13 per cent of Australians voted ‘no’. All six states votes ‘no’ and only the Australian Capital Territory voted ‘yes’. The Constitutional requirement that constitutional change be supported by a ‘double majority’ vote, that is, the majority of votes nationally, and the majority of votes in the majority of states, was not achieved.

Academics and other commentators have provided useful analysis of the outcome of the 1999 referendum, generally agreeing that the republic question was too complex and technical.  Combining it with a question about changing the preamble confused and split the vote.It has been suggested that the way the question was worded highlighted to the controversial election process, emphasising the division between republicans who supported direct election of a President and those supporting appointment by the Parliament.

Professor Ian McAllister from the Australian National University observed in research published in 2001 that “the Australian electorate was asked to make a complex, technical choice about the system of government, in the absence of clear partisan cues. How did voters resolve this dilemma? Although those in favour of replacing the Queen as head of state made up three-quarters of the electorate, they were divided on the method of election for the head of state, effectively resulting in three separate groups of voters.” He found that “

Overall, the interaction between compulsory voting and lack of political knowledge among large sections of the electorate served to divide republicans, and caused the proposition to fail. Pairing the republic with an unpopular change to the preamble of the Constitution also depressed the ‘yes’ vote.”

It is important that in revisiting this issue, Australians are given the opportunity to express their will without the overlay of technical complexity and procedural confusion.In providing a legislative framework for a plebiscite, this Bill adopts one of the key recommendations of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee 2004 report ‘The road to a republic’. The report recommends a ‘first plebiscite’ to get the process of an Australian republic back on track.

The majority report found that it is essential that the first step in the process should be to seek from Australians their view on the fundamental question of whether Australia should become a republic; notes that opinion polls show majority support for an Australian republic, and supports the argument that before expending substantial resources it is important to first test this proposition in a full national non-binding plebiscite.

The report states that the importance of this question for the future of Australia calls for a requirement that all Australians should have their say and therefore supports compulsory voting in a threshold plebiscite and that the result of the plebiscite should be determined by a simple absolute majority of voters nationally.The cost of conducting a referendum or plebiscite is significant and it is imperative that money spent on this produces a result that accurately reflects the desire of the majority of the electorate.

There is a compelling financial argument for holding the plebiscite in conjunction with the next federal election. According to information from the Australian Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Library, the 1999 referendum cost $66.8 million.

The statistics section of the library calculates this at approximately $87.5 million in current (2008) dollar terms. The general federal election held in 1998 cost $61.7 million, suggesting that the cost of holding a discrete referendum or plebiscite is approximately the same as the cost of an election. When a referendum or plebiscite is held in conjunction with a general election, the cost is approximately one-eighth of the total cost.

For example in 1984, the total cost of the election was $31.7 million, with the referendum component of $4 million. The Statistics section of library calculates that amount at $8.9million in current terms.Almost a decade since Australians were last asked to consider the question of an Australian republic, the time is right for a new opportunity to vote on this fundamental issue.

The government has a longstanding policy commitment for an Australian republic as well as an election promise to hold a new referendum in 2010.

This Bill is to  enable that process to test the will of the people on this important matter again.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.    



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