The great British economist, Lord Keynes, was once told that something was inevitable. He replied, "The inevitable doesn’t happen. What happens is the unexpected."
We are told Australians now want a republic. As someone said recently, you wouldn’t buy a pair of socks based on an opinion poll. One taken in Britain recently shows about 10% more people claim to have voted Labor than actually did! One scientist drafted a question so that an overwhelming majority wanted the government to ban water! And opinion polls are just not a good guide to the way Australians vote in constitutional referendums. When four apparently innocuous questions were announced for the 1988 referendums, opinion polls registered very high approval. But none of the fournone-were passed in any state. Most attracted less than 35% support! And of the forty-two referendums proposed since Federation, only eight have passed.
Notwithstanding the opinion polls, and the small fortune poured into persuading them to become republicans, Australians are just not interested in constitutional change. Give them a chance and they’d love to vote on punishment for criminals, or on the building at Circular Quay, or on politicians’ pay and conditions. And they admit they don’t know much about our constitutions. Perhaps it’s because of the education system. In my day we certainly learned-in primary school-how the political system worked. Perhaps Australians also don’t know much because they feel they don’t need to. just as you don’t pull apart a car that works superbly, we shouldn’t tamper with our constitutions which work so well. Better than most. If you go to that old cabinet room in Macquarie Street or to State Parliament, you realise that within a few decades of being a penal colony, we were an advanced, self-governing, and democratic state and have remained so since. In our two hundred years, France has known sixteen major constitutional changes -three monarchies, two empires, five republics, a fascist dictatorship and a brief benevolent one!
The minimalist proposal will effectively turn Australia into seven republics, each like France. The Presidents’ powers will be eerily similar. To reduce their powers, you’d have to turn our seven constitutions inside out. And how can we control them? How long did it take to remove Richard Nixon? And the political system was paralysed for well over a year.
If we are going to give these enormous powers to our politician Presidents, we, the people, should elect them. There shouldn’t be a shady deal among the politicians so that only one candidate goes to Parliament. Australians are sure to say that this is not on. They don’t want a Kirribilli House agreement known only to the Head of the ACTU and by business. Let’s at least keep Australia a democracy.
But do we really want more politicians? Don’t we already have enough? And shouldn’t we leave alone the one part of the constitutions that works well?
(Note: These papers were prepared in the context of the first version of the Keating-Turnbull republic 1993-1998. This model was superseded by the second version which was unveiled in the last days of the 1998 Constitutional Convention.)