August 10

After the Referendum: Where to Now?


I would like to emphasise the extent of the loss of the Yes case on 6 November. The absolute majority for No was 1,137,763 but the effective No vote also includes the informal vote of 101,189 because under S128 of the Constitution a referendum must be carried by majorities of those voting nationally and in the States. Those voting include those who did not bother to vote at all. At this point it seems that 602,272 Australians were so little interested in this issue that not even the threat of a fine could induce them to vote. Needless to say these people are not troubled about our existing constitutional arrangements.

I don’t think that ARM supporters can take any comfort from the fact that grass roots Australia voted No and blue ribbon Liberal electorates voted Yes. The Australian people were subjected to an unprecedented barrage of pro-Republican propaganda by the print and electronic media. One of the rare flashes of humour in the campaign was an article in the Adelaide Review with the headline "Annoy the Media – Vote No."

Supporters of existing constitutional arrangements who sought to engage in serious debate were often ignored, ridiculed, or marginalised. The occasional extreme statement was given enormous publicity, but attempts at serious debate were denigrated as a scare campaign. Supporters of our existing constitutional arrangements were described as the "blue rinse" set, yesterday’s men or women, backward-looking, unpatriotic, small-minded and so on. Australians were encouraged to discard a so-called cultural cringe to Britain but at the same time to adopt a cultural cringe to Asia because its leaders can’t understand our Constitution.

The Herald did not publish a letter of mine which sought to make a serious contribution. I was lucky to get an article published in The Financial Review but only after many delays finally making it in the last week when the polls had confirmed that the Referendum would be lost. This unprecedented and unbalanced media support for the Yes case reaped rewards in the blue ribbon Liberal electorates. More balanced coverage would have seen an even greater loss for the Yes case. I believe that many conservatives voted Yes because they feared that the alternative would be a directly elected President down the track.

The ignorance of the model on offer was staggering. I found that members of the judiciary and the Bar did not know a few weeks before polling day that the Prime Minister could summarily dismiss the President with instant effect. Others did not know that the Prime Minister could dismiss all six Acting Presidents, or that the amendments arguably made the reserve powers justiciable in the High Court. If barristers and judges did not know about these matters what chance did other voters have? We were constantly assured by the great, the good and editorial writers that this was a safe model that really changed nothing. People did not know about the defects in the model because the media did not want them to know.

If and when we move to a republic it should be the result of an overwhelming national consensus that unites the country in favour of that change. There was no such consensus for this model. The Keating push for a republic was divisive from the start and remained divisive to the end, only a small minority can be genuinely distressed that Australia voted to retain the Constitution we either grew up with or voted for by coming to this country from some republic.

The move to a republic driven by the divisive rhetoric of Paul Keating was bitterly resented by many Australians who valued the links with the Crown and Britain. A Yes victory would have left Australia with a flawed Constitution and infinitely more divided and resentful than is the case now.

Those who think that Australia will be a republic in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II will, I believe, be disappointed. There are at least for groups of republicans:

  • Conservative republicans
  • Direct election republicans
  • Official ALP republicans who want revenge for 1975
  • Any sort of republic, republicans.

Opinion polls which show that a majority of Australians favour a republic are meaningless. A few years ago opinion polls showed that a majority of Australians favoured changing the flag. The majority was illusory because the existing flag won overwhelmingly against every one of the alternatives. In the foreseeable future, say for the next ten years, this will also be true with the republic.

Any move to propose a republic with a directly-elected President will marshal conservative republicans with Constitutional Monarchists in the No camp along with the party hierarchies who don’t want a directly-elected President with its threat to the Westminster system. You will have seen the reaction of Bob Carr to Kim Beazley’s flirtation with direct election. Bob Carr prefers the current Constitution to a direct election and my money is on Bob Carr.

Why did so many grass roots voters vote NO?

For two reasons:

  • Australia is already a republic in all but name, and
  • The republic on offer was phoney.

The Commonwealth is the name for a republic. Britain under Oliver Cromwell was called The Commonwealth. The United States includes the Commonwealths of Massachusetts, Virginia, Pensylvania and Kentucky. Our founding fathers decided that we should not be the United States of Australia or the Dominion of Australia but the Commonwealth of Australia that is a crowned republic. We have a government of the people, for the people and by the people.

What was on offer was a phoney republic. A republic of the politicians, for the politicians, by the politicians. Many people who voted No knew enough about the model to know that this was a republic that was not worth having. The phoniest part was the provision for the public to be involved in the process for the nomination of the President. A majority of the people may be interested in a real republic but they weren’t interested in this one. The battlers preferred the present system which somehow worked well and had been around for a long time.

There is no committed republican in power or in the wings who is likely to drive the process during the next ten years. Someone with inside knowledge told me that there were no monarchists in the Keating cabinet but only one republican. The process he started in 1993 is now dead.

What of a plebiscite? By itself it solves nothing and changes nothing. Paul Keating could have had a plebiscite during his term as Prime Minister but didn’t bother. A republic with a President elected by the Parliament has already been rejected. The vote at a plebiscite about a republic with a directly-elected President will involve either a U.S, a French, or an Irish style of presidency. Changing to the U.S or Irish style presidency would involve a great deal of work, and in the case of an Irish style presidency the question of the reserve powers would have to be dealt with.

A plebiscite would use up the first term in office of a republican Prime Minister to get the enabling legislation through, frame the question or questions, and have the campaign. I believe in practice one could not get a referendum until that Prime Minister’s second term in office. The changes that would be necessary to move to either a U.S or an Irish style of presidency would be massive, and I believe that in practice it would be necessary to hold another Constitutional Convention. I think the Convention would have to sit for more than two weeks probably in two or more sessions. The detailed work that would be necessary before such a convention and the time involved in conducting the election and holding the convention would probably take up the best part of another term of office.

It is doubtful whether this process will be undertaken until the necessary politician and national consensus for a republic have been achieved because the public have made it very clear that they regard this as a third order issue. Any government which embarked on this process before the necessary consensus was achieved would risk a backlash from an electorate which thinks other issues are far more important.

After 1 January 2001 there is no obvious date until the death of the Queen to provide a focus for republican sentiment. If you’re hoping for a republic don’t hold your breath because the Queen Mother is still alive at 99.


Constitutional Monarchy, Ken Handley, plebiscite, referendum, Republic

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