May 29

It was the question

A New Zealand republican blog, Holden  has taken issue with this column on  the questioning the 1999 referendum.

   Frankly, Australian republicans who argue that the question favoured the ‘No’ case are just poor losers.  After all they had the press on their side, two thirds of the politicians, and vast wealth. They had a political party and unions who could provide the foot soldiers to campaign. And the  fact is it was  the republicans who tried to manipulate the question.

 Now, New Zealand’s republicans, who are allies of the ARM, have decided to join the debate. They have taken issue with our column of 11 June, 2006, “The 1999 referendum question – was it misleading?” 

They claim that for us to “say that Turnbull and the ARM were out to prevent the use of the words "President" and "republic" cannot be true, and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.”

The facts are that on 5 July, 1999, Kerry Jones and I went to Parliament House, Sydney for a hearing by a Federal Joint Committee on the ACM submission on the referendum bill. As we went in, we ran into a near stampede of journalists, pursuing a very grim Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Barns.   

David Elliott, the ACM National Director told us what had happened.  This was confirmed when even the republican media heaped ridicule on the Australian Republican Movement about their proposal to remove the words “President” and “republic” from  the long title of the referendum bill and thus on  the  referendum question.

We had our own views on the question. ACM argued that the long title of the bill, and thus the question, should also refer to the extraordinary and absolute power a prime minister would have to sack the president without notice, without any stated reasons and without any real recourse, certainly not the right of reinstatement. 

This was unprecedented and did not apply in any other republic. In our view it turned the President into the Prime Minister’s poodle. Had the Joint Committee accepted our submission, the question in the referendum would have been something along these lines:

‘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 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?’



I wonder what the impact of that would have been on the vote.  Even with the question which revealed only how the President was to be appointed and not how he could be dismissed, the result was a landslide for the ‘No’ case.

But to return to the New Zealand republicans, their blog says:

“The David Flint of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy has made the claim that the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) Chairman Malcolm Turnbull wanted the words "republic" and "president" excluded from the question on the 1999 republic referendum ballot paper. This claim seems incredible to me – not simply because on the face of it, it seems as if Turnbull and the ARM wanted the words excluded, but that they actually set out to prevent the words being included in the question:  [Flint wrote] ‘Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Barns, for the republican movement, to the amazement of the nation, and the ridicule even of the republican media, asked for two words to be removed: "republic" and "president".’

" However, on looking into Flint's claim, it appears not to stand up to scrutiny. What seems to really have riled the ACM is the fact that the ARM proposed the question cite the Queen as Australia’s Head of state…

[The blog then argues about who is Head of State] …"The referendum question itself was actually included in the long-title of the statute passed by the Australian Parliament to amend the Australian Constitution, pending approval by the people of Australia in the 1999 referendum. The ARM submitted to the select committee considering the legislation on the 5 July 1999 that the long title of the Bill should be:
‘A Bill to alter the Constitution to provide for an Australian citizen to replace the Queen as Australia's Head of State, following consideration of nominations submitted by the people and approved by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament.’ ”

The blog then  points out that the long title eventually adopted  was: ‘A 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 blog then says: “Note that any mention of the Queen as Head of state was removed, and the reference to the public nomination process isn't mentioned. The next question is whether the ARM actually sought to prevent the words "republic" and "president" from being in the referendum question. This is the part I find hardest to accept.

"Turnbull notes in his book Fighting for the Republic that after making its submission on the 5 July, being panned for not using the two key words by the Australian on the 6 July, the ARM "backed down" on the use of "republic" and "president" in the question pretty quickly – on the 7 July, making a follow-up submission question that included a reference to the Queen being replaced as Head of state by a President and a republic.

"It seems strange that if Turnbull and the ARM wanted the words excluded so badly if they would change their submission so quickly. So really, to say that Turnbull and the ARM were out to prevent the use of the words "President" and "republic" cannot be true, and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.” 

 It is a pity Mr. Holden is not aware of the facts. 

First, if Mr. Holden had read the Hansard transcript, he would have realized that Mr. Turnbull had good reason not to want the words “republic” and “president” included in the referendum question. ARM polling had informed  him that there was a problem with the two words. 
Second, Mr. Holden does not understand that the reason the public nominations process, which was cosmetic anyway, was not mentioned in the long title of the referendum bill was that the republicans did nto want to put it into the Constitution. So it had nothing to do with the referendum. 

Third, Mr. Holden does not seem to understand that the reason the term Head of State was not included in the referendum is that it is not used in any Australian constitutional documents. It comes from diplomacy, not Australian constitutional law.  

Fourth, the reason the ARM changed their submission so quickly was the ridicule even the republican media poured on their attempt to prevent the use of the words “republic’ and “president.”

We assume Mr. Holden did not see or hear this. Whatever misapprehensions the New Zealand republicans may be under, Australian republicans should stop blaming the question for the peoples’ decision. 


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