October 23

Ground being cleared for plebiscite option

The campaigners for a politician’s republic are always looking for some silver bullet which will magically change the constitution for them. Most of them are disappointed about the reluctance of Australians to approve proposals for constitutional change. They fear that the people will even reject a blank cheque plebiscite. 

Now eight out of forty four proposed laws to change the constitution have been approved. It is worth noting that some would no longer be needed by those who would expand central power; changes in constitutional interpretation by the High Court have made them unnecessary.


There is of course no objective rate at which referendums should be approved.  Mrs Sophie Mirabella MP put this well in a question addressed to Professor Williams in a Roundtable on constitutional change for the House Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee held earlier this year at Parliament House Canberra.

 “You referred to statistics leading to a drought of constitutional referenda,” she said. “What objective analysis says there is an ideal number of constitutional referenda? Farmers know what a drought is in an agricultural sense, but in a political-legal sense how do we know what the ideal number is?  What is the formula? Is there an ideal number?”

 Some will disparage the Australian Constitution as being a “horse and buggy “document. But few Americans would so disparage theirs, although theirs is twice as old. And the rate of constitutional change in the US is not vastly divergent from ours. That our Constitution has lasted so long is not criticism.

Indeed it is one of the few constitutions which has been so successful and lasted so long, surely an indication of quality rare in the world. 

The ground is being cleared for a plebiscite. And there is no doubt that the Yes/No booklet is feared as being too effective .

….Professor Williams' class didn't read it…

Anecdotal evidence is sometimes advanced that the Yes/No booklet is little read.

At the Roundtable referred to above, Professor Williams said: “I remember that when the republic referendum was put I asked my class of about 150 constitutional law students which of them had read the 71-page booklet. Not one of those students indicated that they had read the booklet from back to front. If you cannot get students who are studying the topic interested in reading the information, what hope is there that other electors will actually read it? It is a failed education process; it clearly needs reform.”  

The fact that students in a university law school had not read the 1999 Yes/No booklet may well reflect the students’ other priorities and pressures – the referendum was held in or close to an examination period.

In addition, according to some polling, there is a disinterest among the young in republican change. In any event, a class of constitutional law students could not be considered a sample representative of the Australian population.

…but the rank and file did…

This anecdote, however interesting, does not constitute a sound basis for serious policy change, or a justification for the removal of a time honoured and democratic practice. Indeed anecdotal evidence from talk back radio and to an extent the internet suggests there was an interest in the Yes/No booklet, and that it is read by interested electors.  

The Australian Electoral Commission’s submission to the current inquiry into the machinery for the holding of referendums reveals that a survey on the eve of the 1999 referendum found that 80% of respondents had received the Yes/ No booklet.

Moreover, 51% had read some or all of it.   Clearly Professor William’s constitutional law class cannot be presented as a sample of the national population.  

In addressing the Committee’s Roundtable on 14 October 2009, Mr. Julian Leeser referred to polling undertaken by the 1999 Vote No Committee.

He said:” We did some polling research in relation to this in May of 1999, and 45 per cent of people at that time indicated that they wanted more information. Interestingly, 78 per cent of people wanted information delivered in booklet form directly addressed to them at their home, and another 78 per cent of people also wanted to see information on television.”

…the people are entitled to hear from their representatives…

The point surely is that in a democracy, the principal arguments about proposed constitutional change should be posted to every elector. So why abolish the right of electors to see and retain a summary of the principal arguments actually held by each side in Parliament?

Why give them instead the interpretation of the two cases by people who are not accountable to the people?



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