May 19

Govt.referendum doomed; expert warns

Some columnists have to be read, and not only those whose views coincide with the reader’s. It is a mixture of style, subjects and incisiveness which attracts.  Christopher Pearson is one such columnist.

Last Saturday in The Weekend Australian (16-17/5) he recalled reporting the Constitutional Convention in 1998. He was almost alone in his clear sympathy for the constitutional monarchist case. Almost all of the commentariat were republican, many passionately so. So were the politicians. How out-of–touch they were.

ACM differed from the ARM not only in eschewing the five star Hyattt and staying in a distant motel, our tactics were guided by certain principles from which we would not depart. The central one was that we were not there to support any republican model, even the so-called ‘least worst’ McGarvie model where a council of worthies replaced The Queen. Although the ARM feared otherwise, we would not vote for any model for tactical reasons.

…constitutional monarchist caucus,,,

We met every morning and on some occasions with the three smaller constitutional monarchist groups.  One morning all constitutional monarchist delegates in the Chamber put Australian flags on their desks. The republicans followed suit, although Mrs. Holmes à Court had scheduled an exhibition of new flags to coincide with the Convention.

Christopher Pearson describes these meetings as ones where “(Dame) Leonie Kramer and David Flint, a law professor, would exchange notes with "Digger" James, Jim Killen and the leading historian of Whitlam's dismissal, John Paul. Lloyd Waddy QC… led ACM's contribution to the debate in the chamber and provided a spirited commentary on the problems with each compromise model as it was unveiled…”

“(Bishop now Archbishop) John Hepworth, now the global primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, was a delegate whose wit commanded attention in even the most rancorous debates.”

He also mentions Professor Greg Craven, another constitutional expert and now vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University. He is an amusing writer and was once a monarchist, penning a major contribution on the debate for Jeff Kennett, the former Victorian Liberal Premier.

But believing constitutional monarchy as doomed as the media said, Professor Craven was to make a “painful transition” to becoming  a conservative republican.

…the same proposal: a cascading series of plebiscites…. 

In his column in the Financial Review (11/5) Professor Craven argues that the ALP’s draft proposal to go to the July national conference for a series of cascading plebiscites will fail. This is the same proposal that has been around since Kim Beazley floated it after the referendum.

Christopher Pearson extracts the following from Professor Craven’s column :

"The Australian people are as prone to constitutional experimentation as they are to monasticism…Legions of bitter monarchists and dissident republicans stand ready to choke any infant republic with misrepresentation and slanders. Why then is Labor determined to make this herculean task even harder?"

"The platform's process for a republican referendum seems to have been designed by monarchist David Flint with tactical advice from General Custer."  

"It is calculated to provoke the worst possible split in the fractious republican camp at the earliest possible moment … this orgy of plebiscites originated with one of Kim Beazley's rare lapses into policy psychosis when he was Opposition leader … the critical difficulty is the plebiscites on particular republican models. Plebiscites are nothing more than constitutional beauty contests."

"Unlike referendums, they have no consequences. People can vote for a model without ever having to focus on its long-term consequences. So plebiscites on republican models will favour a particular sort of republic: a republic whose strong surface charms are readily presented but whose deep flaws remain hidden during a shallow, non-binding public consultation."

Professor Craven fears the process will result in the direct election model going to a referendum. In fact when the Senate tried to revive the issue in 2004, he persuaded the republican Liberal Senator Marise Payne to change her mind and dissent on the recommendation for a second plebiscite to chose a model.

"The ultimate adoption of direct election will not bring referendum success. It simply will anoint a pathologically flawed model, which will then be torn apart by both monarchists and conservative republicans during a bitter campaign. Go to the bookies now to bet on a yes vote of less than 30 per cent." 

I agree, but when I said that to a close colleague recently, he was dismissive.  My reasons are similar to Professor Craven's. But unlike Professor Craven I  think a re-run of 1999 is also doomed. That was the most propitious time for change. But even then, the referendum was defeated by the over 50,000 rank and file supporters who countered the massive media and political axis behind the republican campaign.

….another convention?…

Instead of two plebiscites, Professor Craven prefers just one plebiscite on the desirability of a republic, followed by another convention where "the hard work of constitutional design would be undertaken by careful debate and deliberation, not shows of hands".

Christopher Pearson says this is a strange mixture.”First try artificially to inflate popular support for a republic, any republic, as an airy abstraction. Then minimise the public's contribution to the design of a mandarin's republic.”

He also agrees with the ACM position, although not as strongly as we have long put it. We say it is grossly irresponsible. Christopher Pearson, gentleman that he is says there is “also more than a touch of vandalism about deliberately setting out to de-legitimise a monarchical constitution before you have anything concrete to replace it.”

He says this is a none-too-subtle attempt to herd the direct election republicans into a confected majority before trying to foist a model on them that they regularly say they don't want.

He argues the fairest thing to do is scrap the initial plebiscite, which Professor  Craven concedes is "nothing more than a constitutional beauty contest” and proceed to a convention. 

If that results in a re-run of  1999, or even the MGarvie model, the result is likely to be the same.

Australians are not going to look kindly on politicans who tell them they must keep on voting until they get it right. The government knows that.


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