Australian republicans who argue that somehow Prime Minister Howard manipulated the question in the 1999 republic referendum are not only trying to change the facts, they are poor losers. After all they had most of the media 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 as we pointed out in this column on 29 May 2007, it was the republicans who tried to manipulate the question.But republicans persist in trying to advance the myth, or indeed the lie, that the question was somehow manipulated or distorted by the Prime Minister. On 9 August 2007, Neil C Fearis, Chairman of the Western Australia Branch of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy had to send this letter to the West Australian on this issue:“In castigating John Howard for "distorting" the question put to voters at the 1999 republic referendum, Renato Vancherkel displays an unfamiliarity with the process of constitutional reform in Australia, as well as an ignorance of the events leading up to that referendum (Letters, 6/8).“Under the Australian Constitution, a republic can only come about through a referendum in which the people vote on a specific republic model and approve specific amendments to the Constitution necessary to give effect to that model. To suggest, as Mr Vancherkel suggests, that Mr Howard "denied" the Australian people the opportunity to vote for a republic is to miss this fundamental point.
“Republicans like Mr Vancherkel would prefer that voters be asked in a plebiscite (which has no legal standing under the Constitution) to vote in favour of "a" republic without telling them what form of republic is on offer. This is tantamount to asking the Australian people to cast a vote of no confidence in the present Constitution without giving them any idea of what would replace it – beyond a vague notion that our present Head of State, the Governor-General, would be re-badged as "President".“Mr Vancherkel seems also to be unaware that the republic model that was put to voters at the 1999 referendum was chosen by delegates to the Constitutional Convention held the previous year, an overwhelming majority of whom were republicans.“That model was vigorously promoted by the Australian Republican Movement and supported during the referendum campaign by big business, the trade unions, all of the mainstream political parties (with the exception of the Nationals and sections of the Liberal Party), prominent academics and churchmen, sporting and show business personalities, and the media – with the notable and honourable exception of your newspaper. “Despite this support, the model was emphatically rejected by the Australian people in the referendum, with every State and Territory (with the exception of the ACT) voting "No". Ironically, Mr Howard's own electorate of Bennelong voted "Yes", whilst Brand, the seat of then Opposition Leader and staunch republican Kim Beazley, voted "No" by a massive 72%.“Mr Vancherkel may be disappointed at the failure of the push for a republic, but John Howard can hardly be blamed for the quality of the model put forward. After all, like millions of other Australians, he was quite happy with the Constitution we've got.”