[ The ABC invited the following comment on the current state of the republican debate. A large number of comments, supporting and opposing are being made on the ABC site. ]
With rumours circulating that the Prime Minister will soon make an announcement about a republic, we should recall just what he promised before the election. In September a spokesman told the London Daily Telegraph that a referendum would probably be held in 2010. And millions would be spent advertising the merits of becoming a republic.
But just before we voted, he had a change of mind, telling The Australian’s Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan that a referendum would not occur in the first term of a Rudd Labor government, “if at all”.
Polling probably told him not to touch the issue.
Although he claims to be a “lifelong republican”, he was, as Malcolm Turnbull says, conspicuously absent from the barricades in 1999. It’s true some sort of republic is on the ALP Platform, but it got there with lacklustre support, and anyway socialism, Citizen Initiated Referendums and the White Australia Policy once figured prominently there. And Labor had by far the worst result of any party in the 1999 referendum, almost two thirds of its electorates disobeying its direction.
And with all the talk of inevitability, the republican movement has gone backwards, described by Lenore Taylor as “on life support” and by republican David Marr as “near comatose.”
Still irrevocably divided about whether the people should elect the president, they are unable to say what sort of republic they want. In effect they are saying “We want a fundamental constitutional change… but we haven’t the foggiest idea what we want.”
So they spend a lot of time on stunts, e.g., demanding The Queen “give back” Tom Roberts Federation painting which hangs permanently in Parliament House, or taking down The Queen’s portraits in public buildings. Then there was the embarrassing “Mate for a Head of State” campaign which most prefer to forget.
I must admit they’ve been very successful in one thing: channelling vast amounts of taxpayer funds into their partisan campaign. As if the Republic Advisory committee, the Convention election, the Convention, the house committee on the bill and the referendum weren’t enough, we have since had an expensive and futile Senate inquiry, the 2020 Summit where some vague republic obtained a ludicrous 98:1 vote, and now yet another Senate inquiry on Bob Brown’s bill for a plebiscite at the next election. Government MP’s are divided about this, some wanting a plebiscite before the next election, some after.
But even without the plebiscite, we will have had nine major federal exercises into this folly, representing the diversion of millions and millions from schools, hospitals, water and the like. They are like the EU politician who said “Keep on voting until you get it right.”
The Summit demonstrated just the sort of problems the government is likely to run into if they push a republic. It was such a debacle, republican Professor Robert Manne said it was like a Mad Hatters Party. The published resolutions were so legally flawed they had to be changed – surreptitiously -ten days later.
Brown claims becoming a republic has been close to the hearts of many since Federation, but no delegate at the federation conventions proposed this. The fact is that becoming a republic is mainly of interest to the inner-city elites. In the meantime ACM has mounted a strong argument that Australia already has an Australian Head of State, an argument strengthened by the discovery of a strong High Court opinion by our Founding Fathers. In addition people like Michael Kirby maintain that Australia is already a republic – a crowned republic. And compared with most, Australia has a very successful constitutional system which has long ensured democracy, stability and prosperity.
Republicans fear they would lose another referendum. So to soften the people up they want a plebiscite, a taxpayer funded opinion poll. But they can’t agree on whether there should be one or two. The conservative republicans fear the people would want to the president and vice president, governors, lieutenant governors etc. So we seems to be talking about up to 27 federal and state votes, with one more on the flag, the issue republicans have gone quiet on since revealing their flag changing plans in the nineties.
If the people actually approve all of these, we’ll be voting forever for about 16 more politicians every few years.
The point is the first plebiscite calls for a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutions without any indication of what is to follow and with every likelihood that a subsequent referendum will not pass.
In other words this is actually designed to achieve a period of constitutional instability.
This is not only a divisive and expensive manoeuvre. It is difficult to think of a more irresponsible proposal.
[ *Emeritus Professor David Flint is ACM’s National Convener.]