The fate of a bill in the Victorian Parliament [shown here from the front page of the Illustrated Australian News, 1 February 1895], to change the law in relation to abortion would seem to have nothing to do with republicanism. But when Rick Wallace reported in The Australian on 19 July, 2007 that senior Labor ministers were predicting that the proposed private member's bill to decriminalise abortion in Victoria would fail, he compared this with the 1999 republic referendum. He wrote: “The likely rejection of Labor backbencher Candy Broad's bill has the Bracks [now Brumby]Government scrambling for an alternative, and for someone prepared to introduce it. The backlash against Ms Broad's bill and an inability last night to find a consensus on an alternative has Labor staring at a possible rerun of the 1999 republic referendum, where popular support was squandered through disagreement over the model.”
This is not so. There is no comparison, for three reasons.
The first point is there was and is no popular support for a republic. As Malcolm Turnbull lamented in his diary, “nobody is interested.” [See this column, 4 April, 2001.] The overwhelming majority of Australians are not interested at all in change. The corollary of this is that serious republicans are a small minority; the state of the republican movement today is ample evidence of that. Republicans tend to come from the inner city elites who have little in common with rank and file Australians.
That said, the second point is that republicans are to be found in disproportionate numbers in politics, and in the media and consequently, they have had a disproportionate influence on the debate.
The third point is that most “serious republicans” fall mainly into two groups, which are irreconcilable. This does not mean that individuals do not cross sides. Former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC has moved being a constitutional monarchist, to a republican but a strong opponent of direct election. More recently, as we noted in this column on 10 October, 2006, Sir Zelman observed that “if popular election is the only way of achieving this outcome, I would reluctantly support it.”
The overwhelming majority of protagonists in one group dominated the republican movement in the nineties. They want a republic where the president is appointed by Parliament, and prefer the status quo to a republic where the president is directly elected. The other group want a republic where the President is directly elected. But they too tend to prefer the status quo to the politicians republic. Now, it is true that a few from the first group would move to the second if the President were to be stripped of all power, but then others would then move the other way. But the numbers are not sufficient.
In 1999, the people were not interested. With the massive media and politicians’ campaign, including a scare campaign as to what would happen if we did not become a republic, they were able to push the republican vote higher than it would have been.
The republican movement today is desperately trying to appeal to both groups, and therefore proposes that cascading series of plebiscites and referenda. This is designed to trick republicans from the first group, and the general population, into voting for a republic in which the president is elected by the people.
Of course this strategy will not succeed. If it were to come to a vote in a referendum on a republic with an elected president, the republican politicians and the media would be split on how to vote. According to republican constitutional lawyer Professor Greg Craven, such a referendum would ensure that would ensure that Australia lives under the reign not only of King Charles III, but also King William V.
Any assumption that all republicans could ever agree on a model is fatuous.
(In the meantime the abortion bill is dividing government and opposition ranks. The Age reported on 25 July, 2007 that the Labor Sports Minister and a social conservative James Merlino had rejected a move to decriminalise abortion, saying there was a need to cut the number of terminations in Victoria. According to The Australian on the same day, but not posted to the web, the Labor and union powerbroker, Joe de Bruyn, criticised the Premier because he had told voters in the recent election campaign that there were no plans to introduce such bill . He said that although it is a private member’s bill, some people will feel the Premier has betrayed them. The principal parties allow a “conscience “vote on abortion, but only the Liberals, founded by one of our greatest if not the greatest Prime Minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, allows a conscience vote on republicanism. Sir Robert would be appalled. )