Before we come to the recalcitrant republican politicians, we should return to the report in our last column . The Australian did in fact publish a pointer to its Australia Day republican poll on page 1, with the details on page 8. Unfortunately, it was easy to miss the pointer – it was in the middle of an unrelated stor and without a border. But at least it was on the front page.
The Age reported the poll under the title, "PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR A REPUBLIC SLUMPS".
ABC television news reported the poll with a brief comment from ACM, and also from the ARM leader, with scenes of his handing out republican pamphlets in Canberra to surprised revellers on Australia Day. The ABC said that the ARM claimed that the support indicated in the poll, 46 per cent, meant that the republican vote in the referendum was holding.
This is just not so. We calculate the Yes vote in the referendum at less than 45per cent .
It all depends on the way you treat the informal votes. Mr Justice Handley has argued, on this site, on the basis of a persuasive precedent, these informal votes should be taken into account in determining whether there is a majority in favour of a referendum. In one such Australian referendum, this could have made the difference between approval and rejection.
But more importantly, it is wrong to compare a general question about a vague republic, as in the Newspoll, with a specific question based on a model, with the full details on the table of the proposed changes and after a public debate. The last Newspoll before the referendum indicated 49 per cent were in favour of "a republic", more than in the referendum. We should also remember the margin of error, which in the latest poll is stated to be 3 per cent. That is support for a vague republic was between 43 and 49 per cent.
I suspect that support for " a republic" is now closer to 43. That includes those who are not strongly and only partly in favour. I
Even with those who say they are strongly in strong support, their strngth seems to wax and wane- between 29 and 35 per cent. About 6% are not strong over time! And bear in mind that a significant number of these will be lost as soon as they see a specific model.
Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Craven are probably correct. If a model involving direct election of the President is proposed in a referendum, a large number of those strongly committed republicans, who do not like that model, will still prefer the existing constitution.
A report in The Australian on 27 January, 2005, by Steve Lewis, their Chief political reporter, says that as a result of the collapse in support for republic, a parliamentary forum is being established to push for an Australian republic.
The headline calls this a" plan to ditch The Queen".
Steve Lewis says this will pit republican MPs against staunch monarchists such as John Howard and Health Minister Tony Abbott. He writes that the forum has already attracted interest from a number of Liberal, Labor and Democrats parliamentarians determined to push ahead with a republic despite little public interest. These include a Victorian Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield, who was formerly on the staff of Mr Costello.
Readers will recall that one of Mr Costello’s current senior advisers, Mr David Alexander wrote a piece in The Australian late last year arguing that The Queen is the Head of State. Another member is former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja.
Thanks to Sky Television, Australians were able to see a number of these republican politicians swearing or affirming their allegiance to The Queen. Viewers were greatly assisted by an excellent commentary by John Paul. And what a delight it was to see our leading republicans swearing allegiance. Not one crossed his fingers behind his back, as a republican politician disgracefully and ineffectually did at Westminster recently.
Backers of the forum are hoping to attract the interest of high-profile Liberal MPs such as Treasurer Peter Costello and Malcolm Turnbull, who led the Australian Republican Movement in the ill fated 1999 referendum.
Republican politicians blamed the slump in support for a republic on a lack of political leadership. They claimed Mr Howard, a staunch monarchist, has effectively killed off the issue, although former Labor leader Mark Latham did promote an ambitious three-year timetable to introduce a republic.
On the following day The Australian reported that Mr Andrew Robb, a conservative republican Liberal, had distanced himself from the forum, and dismissed suggestions that public interest could be revived in the short term. The Queensland National Labor Party indicated it would fight moves to revive the issue. The Minister for Veterans Affairs, De-Anne Kelly said that the party was certainly not going to allow the republic to be resurrected.
The Daily Telegraph then decided , on 28 January, 2005, to invite its readers to vote by telephone on whether the politicians trying to revive interest in the republic were wasting their time. The answer was published on the next day, with the headline:
"ARE THE REPUBLICAN POLITICIANS WASTING THEIR TIME? TELEGRAPH READERS HAVE THEIR SAY"
The answere was in the affirmative, 96 per cent to 4 percent. That's right. Ninety six per cent of callers thought the republican politicians were wasting their time. We could add, they are also wasting our money. The number calling The Telegraph, 338, is substantially higher than normal in these polls . And let it be noted, this was in the Sydney’s highest circulating newspaper, which sells well in Labor electorates.
The headline in The Australian on 27 January, 2006 read :
"FOR AUSTRALIANS TO LOVE THE REPUBLIC THEY NEED LEADERS WHO LOVE IT TOO – PLEADS KIM BEAZLEY"
The returned Labor leader Kim Beazley was described in this as a "staunch republican".
The report did not mention that he was once also a staunch flag changer, but has distanced himself from this. However he indicated he was keen to pursue the republican issue in the lead-up to the 2007 election. He said:
" If the Australian people are going to love the idea of a republic, they have got to have leaders who love it too…And if there is no leadership nurturing the idea that that is an important part of Australia's sense of independence and the character of the Australian nation, its no surprise that people think it's off the agenda and lose interest in it."
Was he serious? As The Australian pro republican editorial conceded, republicanism is one of the four Rs which the electorate identifies as out of touch elite issues. (We discuss that editorial below)
Democrat leader Lyn Allison blamed the drop in support on the lack of political backing. What lack of political backing? Most politicians seem to be republicans She said:
" People know its not viable – that is why they are not thinking about it much."
Senator Allison continued by saying the republic would be, as she put it, " easy enough to crank up again " as a popular issue when there was a more supportive political leadership. According to the polls, and the last election, her party seems doomed to electoral oblivion. It is doubtful that the republican issue will crank up your support, Senator.
The Daily Telegraph, 27 January 2005, reported this comment of mine on the republic. " AUSTRALIANS ARE NOT LYING AWAKE AT NIGHT WONDERING WHO THEIR HEAD OF STATE IS "
The ARM was reported as saying the News poll was a blip on the radar. They vowed to keep pushing for an independent Head of State. Independent? Are they saying our Governors-General were not independent? Anyway, have they not argued that the Head of State issue is an arid debate?
This was the title for the editorial in The Australian of 27 January, 2005:"PUSH FOR A REPUBLIC IN REVERSE "
It said that the monarchists may have made merry on Australia Day with the News poll, showing republicans are now a minority. Warning that loyal supporters of the House of Windsor should not be too pleased, the editor said support for the monarchist cause has not increased, staying stable at 35 per cent. Of course the fact is that the media and the politicians have made it unfashionable , indeed old fashioned to admit to being a constitutional monarchist. So there is pressure to disguise contentment with the existing constitution, even by saying that you are partly in favour of a republic.
And then there is some ambivalence in the word"republic". To classical philosphers, a constitutional monarchy is a republic.So the Prime Minister refers to the country as a "Crowned Republic". A friend showed me recently a treasured official brochure for the 1936 coronation refers to the dominions as…. "semi-republics"!
The editor of The Australian claims that beyond the sentimental attachment some, generally older, Australians hold for Queen Elizabeth, and the idea that our existing constitutional arrangements are working well and do not need to be changed it is hard to make any case for Australia remaining a monarchy.
Arguing a republic is inevitable, the editorial says that for the republic to happen sooner, active republicans must lift their game. With reconciliation, refugees and the rights of sexual minorities, the republic was one of the four Rs that dominated the activist agenda for the last decade. Admitting it is a second order issue, the editorial calls on republicans not to use it as a weapon against John Howard, and to start from scratch because the push for a republic is in reverse.
That editorial clearly called for a reply. This was the one we sent:
" Sir, You declare ( Editorial 27/1) that, apart from sentiment for The Queen, and the fact that the existing constitutional arrangements are working well, it is difficult to make any case for Australia remaining a monarchy.
This is tantamount to saying that, apart from the fact that the sky is blue, the temperature warm, the breeze delightful, and the seas calm, it is difficult to say it is a fine day.
Almost anybody can design a constitutional system, but most do not work, and even fewer work for generations.
Just ask the French, who before the last presidential election were talking of a sixth republic, to say nothing of their three monarchies, two empires , one fascist state and a gaggle of revolutionary regimes, all in the same period as we moved seamlessly from a penal colony to a proud, independent indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown and under our own Constitution.
The attempt to graft a republic on to an essentially monarchical constitution requires, obviously, that an adequate substitute for the Crown be found. As the Fabian Society has conceded, the Crown under the Westminster system remains part of the legislature, the essence of the executive, the spine of the judiciary, the command of the armed forces, and the employer of the public service. It provides leadership above politics.
The Crown is, as Churchill said, important more for the powers it denies others, than for the powers it wields itself.
In brief it is an essential check and balance on the exercise of power in the Westminster system. That function would be destroyed if the substitute were yet another politician, whether elected by the people, by a college or by parliament. This is because this would import into Australia all of the instability of the Fifth Republic, where two politicians are engaged in an endless struggle for power, particularly, but not only, where they come from different parties.
The key role of the Crown would also be destroyed if the substitute were to be a mere functionary responsible to the prime minister, which was the weakness of the rejected politicians' republic. ( This, it will be recalled, would be the only republic in the world where it would have been easier for the prime minister to sack the president than his cook)
Searching for this elusive substitute has so far cost the taxpayer about $150 million, diverted from health, transport and education. Mr. Beazley's convoluted cascading series of plebiscites and a referendum, designed by the same people who gave us the 1999 model, the ARM, would cost more. It was designed to lead to lead to an elected presidency, costing about $100 million every three or four years.
That is to say nothing of the cost of the disaster to stable government it would prove to be. Surely there are more important issues than having zealots dismantle and reassemble what is already one of the world's oldest and most successful constitutional systems.
The Australian published five letters on the issue. One called for the ALP to be renamed the Australian Republican Party.( A Republican Party already exists). Another called on Mr Turnbull to give parliamentary support for the republican campaign. One letter said republicans outnumbered monarchists. Another, from republican Paul Tully, said that republicanism will soar under King Charles. K.M. Gunn argued that although republicans are in a minority, they still enjoy the support and encouragement of the media, which he sees as a blatant misuse and abuse of power.
And to end, let me refer to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald of 27 January, 2005, which demonstrates the fact that to of our public holidays, the Queen's Birthday, and Australia Day, are now never complete without at least one republican stunt.
Their farce this year was when Mr. Howard took the salute of the 100-member Federation Guard, in the national capital on Australia day. A small group of republican protesters in the crowd "flashed" a sign reading "THE QUEEN'S MAN ONLY DELAYED REPUBLIC".
They just con't know what to do,do they.