One of the myths manufactured about the landslide defeat of the proposal to turn Australia into a republic was that John Howard manipulated the question. Republicans will smile and say, as one did recently to me in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs,"Well, it was the question. Howard fixed it." The implication is the rank and file were tricked.
This should be challenged whenever it is repeated. It is just not true. The republican establishment knows this.
Some people say the question should have been: “Are you in favour of a republic?” or “ Are you in favour of a republic with an Australian Head of State?”
Used alone, “republic” is a “Humpty Dumpty” word. In “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty said there in a rather scornful tone, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“Republic” is the Humpty Dumpty word par excellence.
Montesquieu and classical political philosophers would have seen the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic.
So did Cardinal Moran at the time of Federation. Bagehot saw the Westminster system as a “disguised republic.”
Recently Mr. Justice Michael Kirby rejoiced in the Commonwealth of Australia as a “crowned republic,” a term used in the ACM Charter.
So a question which uses “republic” without qualifying it is ambiguous.If used in a referendum or plebiscite, the government would be open to the charge that they were being duplicitous.
As for the other term, it has been established – conclusively – that diplomatically, the Governor-General is the Australian Head of State.
And in the very words of the Founding Fathers, in their High Court ruling, the Governor- General is the Constitutional Head of the Commonwealth, the Governors the Heads of State and The Queen or The King is the Sovereign.This stands in contrast to politicians’ republics.
So a question which suggests that we do not already have an Australian as Head of State would be untrue.
…the 1999 question…
The 1999 question was “Do you approve of the proposed law to alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two thirds majority of the members of the Parliament?”
The ARM had sought, unbelievably, to remove the words “President” and “republic”. ACM’s submission was that words be added which accurately describe the extraordinary provision concerning dismissal, never before seen in the history of the world.
ACM's proposal was that these words be added : “and who may be dismissed at any time by the Prime Minister without notice, without the giving of reasons and without any right of appeal.”
While the republican movement is no doubt now highly embarrassed by theirs, ACM still believes we made a fair and proper proposal.
As we said of the model, this would have been the only republic where it would have been easier for the prime minister to sack the president than his cook. He could have done it without giving reasons, without notice, and without any appeal which could have led to reinstatement.
There is an interesting aspect of the way the question emerged. According to the BBC on 9 August, 1999, an early draft did not mention The Queen.
But Republicans have been pressing the government to support a compromise which would include a mention of the Queen.
The BBC said that the words "with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a president" were then added. According to the report, the “Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch monarchist, agreed to back the move because he said he did not want the wording of the question to be blamed if the republic proposal was rejected.”
"If the referendum is defeated – which I hope it will be – I don't want anybody to say it was defeated because of some trickery with the question," said Mr Howard.
So there you are. The question could not have been fairer to the republican case, not even drawing attention to the appalling way they were trying to increase the power of the politicans.