December 13

The plebiscite: a disreputable subversion of the Constitution [Part 2]




The constitutional safeguards requiring the politicians put all of the details on the table before the people vote on constitutional change are there "…not to prevent or indefinitely resist change…but in order to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible and inevitable".

 (Founding Fathers, Sir John Quick and Sir Robert Garran)

 In my previous column I referred to the  republican proposal to have the taxpayers fund not one but two plebiscites before  having yet another expensive  republican referendum. This is because the republicans believe they would lose another referendum, so they propose to trick the people with that disreputable and dishonest distraction, the plebiscite.  This may be acceptable to ascertain views on some minor matter; it should not be used to lock in a referendum result. This would be a subversion of the Constitution. 

The '90s were a decade of constitutional introspection, even instability. This was brought about by that small group who want constitutional and other change, against the general indifference of the Australian people.


In 1998, Prime Minister John Howard, seeking a final resolution of the question, honoured an election promise made to the Australian people. He set up a Convention to choose a republican model to put to the people. Half elected, the other half was made up of State and federal government representatives, along with a few notables. Such is the fairness of our former Prime Minister that a majority of the latter turned out to be … republicans! 

At that Convention, the Australian Republican Movement turned its back on the obviously flawed 1993 model which its best minds had developed. In the very last few days they suddenly revealed yet another model. Although it did not win the approval of the Convention, it was overwhelmingly the preferred choice of the republican delegates. It was put to the people in a referendum in 1999.


The question was settled by a committee of almost wholly republican politicians. They did reject an attempt by the republican movement leaders to have two words removed from the question – “president” and, believe it or not “republic.”  Their focus groups and polling must have told them these were unpopular with Australians. 

 There, against overwhelming odds — almost all of the mainline press, which actively campaigned for the model, about two-thirds of the politicians, a cast of celebrities, the Labor Party organisation, a good part of the Liberal Party organisation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and with great wealth — the "No" vote won about 55 per cent of the electorate against 43 per cent. About 2 per cent voted informal or abstained.

 Even where the Australian Republican Movement was most active, in New South Wales, 70 per cent of electorates voted "No". In the other States the number of electorates voting "No" ranged from 51 per cent in Victoria to 75 per cent in South Australia, 80 per cent in Tasmania, and 93 per cent in Queensland and Western Australia.

 No matter how apologists explain this landslide, the people clearly preferred the existing Constitution to the best model the republicans could come up with.

 Australians could be forgiven for believing that the defeat of the 1999 proposal should have settled the issue. 

 After all, the Australian Republican Movement announced it would not be around after the referendum.   




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