As we reported recently, the leading republican historian Dr John Hirst has warned the republican movement that their current policy of refusing to indicate what sort of republic they want is fraught with danger.
Dr Hirst says that if the government agreed to their demand to run with a republican plebiscite, and if it were lost, republicanism in Australia would be destroyed.
…it was all the ARM’s fault……
He says that after the failure of the 1999 referendum many people reported that they felt the issue had been rushed; that they had not been adequately informed and consulted about the proposal on which they were required to vote.
“ I don’t doubt these feelings— I don’t doubt them even though the consultation had in fact been comprehensive,” he added .
Although he misunderstands three important aspects concerning the Convention, previously referred to in this column , he does not adopt the embarrassing whinge that is so typical of some republicans. This is to complain about how unfair John Howard was. Not Dr. Hirst.
“The proceedings of the Convention were widely reported in the media,” he says. “No proposal to amend the constitution has been preceded by such
an open, popular, inclusive and deliberative process.”
He says those who say “the consultation was inadequate may not have engaged with this process and then blame(d) the process rather than
themselves when they found themselves voting NO though inclined to vote YES.”
“ ‘If you are uncertain, vote NO’ has been the killer weapon in all constitutional referendums,” he says.
Actually, it was better pharsed than that. “ If you don't know, vote NO,” was the powerful advice Alan Jones gave to undecided callers on Sydney radio station 2GB.
“ The chief reason for the complaint about lack of consultation is that overwhelmingly Australians wanted to elect the president themselves,” concludes Dr. Hirst.
“If that proposal had been put at the referendum there would have been much less complaint about lack of consultation“
Mercifully, he doesn’t do what some deceitful republicans do. He doesn’t blame John Howard. It was the ARM,
“We know why that proposal was not put. The ARM believed that a president appointed by a two thirds vote in parliament would be a bi-partisan figure and not be a politician—which is also what the people said they wanted—and more importantly that most politicians, expert opinion, and the ARM itself were opposed to direct election as a threat to the existing system of government.”
In his view consultation by plebiscite is the wrong remedy for the defeat of 1999. He wants the ARM to propose a direct election model for an early referendum.
That would divide the republicans straight up the middle, with most of the politicians strongly opposed. Another leading republican, constitutional lawyer and Vice-Chancellor of ACU Professor Greg Craven, saya that such a referendum would go down to a greater defeat than in 1999.
Dr. Hirst says that faced with a plebiscite question of whether the voter supports a republic in principle “any thinking elector is naturally going to say it depends on what sort of republic”.
“The devil is in the detail.”
He concedes an important point overlooked by the passionate. (A favourite self-description of activist republicans is that they are "passionate.")
“It is not as if there is an overwhelming need or desire to get rid of the monarchy immediately in which case any republic might seem preferable.” This is true – a significant number of republicans are not passionate activists.
The complete failure of republican demonstrations compared with ACM’s, and the need to outsource the 1999 campaign to the ALP and ACTU – again compared with ACM – show that.
Dr Hirst says put it says there are millions of Australians who will not vote YES to a republic until they can be sure how a republic will operate.
“The proponents of a plebiscite think an in-principle question would force the monarchists to defend the monarchy, which so far they have managed to avoid,” he says. (Obviously they don’t read this column or the publications of ACM.)
“The ARM’s reasoning is that a defeat of the monarchist principle would then bring greater authority to the republican cause. “
He expects the in-principle question to be along these lines:
“Do you want Australia to become a republic by replacing the British monarch with an Australian citizen as Head of State?”
...the head of state defence…
“How would monarchists campaign against such a question? “ he asks.
“ Would they defend the principle of monarchy? Of course not. They would say should vote NO because change is dangerous and there is already an
Australian head of state— the Governor-General .”
That, of course, is the position of ACM, and was ours in the referendum. Supported by expert legal opinion, ACM has almost been alone in insisting on this over all these years. We have never deviated from this. Dr. Hirst fears this, as well as ACM's careful documentation of the advantages of constitutional monarchy .
“So that red herring of who is the head of state— Queen or Governor General— would be dragged right through the campaign. The monarchists would detail all the shortcomings of republics ancient and modern.
“So willy-nilly republicans would have to defend republican proposals for Australia as perfectly safe without the details of the schemes being before the electors and without republicans being agreed on which scheme was preferable.
“The monarchists would warn the people that if they vote YES the politicians will concoct a republican scheme without any further reference to them.
“ ‘Don’t give them a blank cheque’ would be the cry.
“This danger has at least been realised by some of the proponents of an in-principle plebiscite. They suggest that the question itself should say that a YES vote is given on condition that the people will again be consulted on the detail. So what could the monarchists say about that? It’s too easy, isn’t it? They would say: you have a politicians’ promise that you will be consulted again—and how reliable are promises from them?”
Dr Hirst predicts that the likely outcome of an in-principle plebiscite is this:
“If there was a narrow majority for the republic before the plebiscite there would not be one when it was taken.”
He may not realise that polling trends for some time have very clearly indicated that public opinion would be negative before the plebiscite. Asa percentage it is now down in the low thirties. But on the principle he enunciates, and with which most pollsters agree, the actual vote would be even lower.
He warns that the republican movement can survive the rejection of a particular proposal for a republic, as in 1999.
“It will not survive if the people vote in principle against it.”
That of course is why the republican politicians have canned it. They fear precisely this result. And they are right.
And without the politicians acting to advance the matter there will be neither plebiscite nor referendum.