On a recent visit to Toowoomba to speak at a prize giving, I was told that Frank Brennan, in a book on Mabo, had accurately predicted the holding of the referendum in November 1999 years before. Father Brennan is the son of the former Chief Justice, Sir Gerard Brennan. He is a Jesuit priest, but is better known for his legal and political commentaries. So on my return I looked up his book, “One Land, One Nation, Mabo Towards 2001.” It was published by the University of Queensland in 1995.
In it, at page 206, the author proposes that ATSIC and other Aboriginal organisations should publish a blueprint for constitutional reform on 27 May 1997. He chose this date because it was the 30th anniversary of
the 1967 referendum on aboriginal matters. Aboriginal matters apart, he suggested that the blue print contain a package of constitutional reforms including provision for a "resident Australian to be Head of State.” There is of course a very good argument that we already have one – this is code among republicans as an indirect way of asking for a republic.
Republicans are often reluctant to use the word republic. During the referendum campaign, Malcolm Turnbull astounded even the republican press when he proposed the words "republic" and "president" be deleted from the question for the referendum. And Bob Carr wanted the republic to be headed by a Governor- General, not a President.
Frank Brennan’s prediction was accurate. "The referendum,” he wrote, “should then be held in November 1999". And it was- on 6 November 1999. Then he says this resident Head of States could then be "chosen" (note he does not say elected) and "installed for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics." This would be opened by a resident Head of State.
Remember the deadlines by which republicans insisted we Australians must change our constitution – the new century, the new millennium , the centenary of Federation , and, yes, the Olympics.
Frank Brennan is credited by some commentators with influencing his father about aboriginal matters generally. Sir Gerard Brennan was part of the High Court bench which handed down the controversial decision in Mabo which even today is lauded by some and criticised by others.
Perhaps we should have paid more attention to this book. Sir Gerard, incidentally, was one of the three knights (the others were Sir Anthony Mason and Sir Zelman Cowan) who famously testified to the safety of the 1999 republican model. The Australian newspaper, then campaigning for the republic, put this on its front page. This was the model the Vote No campaign described as the "politician’s republic", the one in which we said "it would be easier for the Prime Minister to sack the President than his driver."
As we know, the referendum was defeated, overwhelmingly. But the author was correct in one respect. A resident Head of State did open the Olympics! (We know Sir William Deane was the Head of State. His prime, Paul Keating, said he was).