‘In summing up, it’s the Constitution, its Mabo, it’s justice, its law, it’s the vibe and…. No that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case.’
Denis Denuto, the fictional solicitor in the satirical Australian film The Castle, was no great constitutional lawyer. But in his bumbling he managed to come upon something very important – that our Constitution contains a vibe. There is more to the Constitution than what is revealed by the text. Much of the Australian Constitution is contained in unwritten conventions; practices which have developed over hundreds of years; practices which have give us the stable system of government that we have now. Those practices are fundamental to the way the Constitution works and fundamental to the question of this proposed republican model. For the purpose of this referendum, the Australian Republican Movement and its front groups want Australians of all generations to not only ignore the vibe but the Constitution itself. This may be fine for a baby boomer generation of freaked out flower children uninterested in the consequences of their actions, but it is not good enough for younger Australians who are generally more concerned with practical problems and have grown up as a more cautious and sensible group.
Issues Confronting Young Australians
Whilst our parents grew up in a safe world made secure by the post war economic boom, our generation is growing up in an uncertain and challenging world. This security gave young people of the 1960s and 70s the freedom to fight the important social battles. However by the end of the 1980s the baby boomers had sold out many of their ideals. The 1980s was the decade of selfishness and material obsession. The baby boomers were ready to find a new challenge. Rather than trying to regain their lost soul through substantive change and reform of society they simply decided to use the guise of reform to obtain change for change’s sake. That is why they pursued the issue of the republic which is essentially a baby boomer issue. That is evidenced by support for this republic in the polls which peaked around those aged 35 to 55. There is little support for this republic among older Australians and younger Australians.
I believe the republic is the Absolutely Fabulous baby boomers’ last hoorah, their last tango in Paris, the zenith of a generation who value style over substance, to whom touchy-feely, kumbaya motherhood notions are more important than results. Whilst the baby boomer generation has made some achievements, like all great social movements, they have gone too far. So I cry out to [all young people] in the tradition of youth rebellion: stand up to the Ab Fab generation, stand up to them and their vacuous republic.
The most important thing to note is that young Australians are not like the baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s. Different conditions have shaped different values. This is not to say that there is one youth view. Opinions amongst young Australians are as diverse as among women, ethnic communities, older Australians, etc.. Young people are not as united on the republic issue as the ARM and others would like to think. Indeed they have seriously overestimated support among Young Australians. Young Australians are generally better informed than their parents were at the same age. This change in conditions means that we are not the same as our parents in either views or values. The more pragmatic nature of younger Australians means that so far as issues like the republic are concerned, what my generation wants is not to hear that the debate is about the ‘little Australia’ notion that we should ‘kick out the foreign Queen’. What my generation wants to know is the details without the marketing smoke screen.
Young people (18-30) will be particularly important to the outcome of the referendum. The polls indicate that opinion on this issue is more divided amongst the young than in other sections of the community. The Newspoll published on Wednesday 28 July 1999 indicated that 46 per cent of people aged 18-34 would vote in favour of a republic. When asked the specific question of ‘do you want a president chosen by parliament’, the response among 18-34 year olds indicated that less than 40 per cent of voters will vote in favour of change. Some republicans would have you believe that the younger people are the more likely they would be to vote ‘Yes’. This is not borne out by polling either. Only 45 per cent of people aged 13-19 support the idea of a republic in principle. Republicans, the media, and people considering themselves to be voices of youth will all attempt to paint this republic as a natural thing for young people to support.
We must debunk the myth that young people are in favour of this republic. Young people tend to be both cynical about politics and political advertising campaigns and quite cynical about the amount of money that has been spent on this republic. As one young person said at a recent Constitutional Centenary Foundation Schools’ Conference in Launceston: ‘This is all a big wank. You are replacing one useless figurehead with another useless figurehead.’ This comment was greeted with thunderous applause. A lot of young people are not impressed by the hollow national symbolism of Turnbull and Co. The problem for the ARM is that along with every other special interest group in the community, from sports stars to retired National Party MPs, the ARM thinks it has young peoples’ support sown up for November. As the ARM youth organisation erroneously claims on its web site: ‘Young Australians comprise one of the most overwhelmingly pro-republican groups in the Australian community’
The Patronising Attitude of the ARM
One of the reasons that young people do not support this republic is the ARM’s patronising attitude. The ARM and its various front organisations do not appreciate that young people are not just younger baby boomers who slavishly accept the ARM’s ideas. Young republican Jason Li said that the ‘Yes’ republicans were going to run a campaign that was ‘cool and trendy.’ Such a concept would turn most young people off voting for this republic. The ARM does not seem to want to listen to their own young people. In late July Mr Li launched the slogan for an ARM offshoot, the NSW ‘Yes’ coalition, ‘ Give an Australian the head job’. This slogan followed earlier attempts to gain press attention with ‘Rooting for a Republic’ condoms. This slogan was very unpopular with over 70 per cent of respondents to a Herald Sun survey saying that it was a bad idea. More importantly it contradicted the strategies suggested to the ARM by its own group of young people. On Monday 8 February 1999 in an article reviewing the National Convention of Republicans, the Sydney Morning Herald noted:
Ms [Kirsten] Andrews [a Young South Australian republican and Constitutional Convention delegate] taking part in the National Convention of Republicans as part of the lead up to November’s referendum said the media had created a stereotype of youth to compensate for the old one of the ‘drug taking, car-stealing, condom using person
Jason Li also knows it’s the wrong message for young Australians. In a recent article he asked:
Why are young people so uninterested in democracy? A lot of people will tell you its because young Australians have no time. We’re far too busy selling drugs, moving out of home, going to dance parties, taking ecstasy, fornicating, committing crimes and being unemployed, to be involved in politics. Needless to say that it’s attitudes such as these, that vilify and blame young Australians for such social problems, that need to be changed.
Young Australians are extremely sophisticated consumers of messages and will treat condescending and patronising material with the cynicism it deserves.
It seems that the head job image was precisely what the young republicans were trying to avoid. Amanda Tattersall from the National Union of Students spoke for most young people when she said of the ‘head job’ slogan: ‘I find it offensive because it’s patronising. You need more than a catchy slogan to get the youth vote.’ The problem with the ARM’s attitude towards young people is that it seems to believe that young people can not think about government unless it is dressed up with peurile slogans and smutty innuendo. This devalues the contributions of young Australians and their capacity to participate in the Australian democracy.
While some young Australians support this republic, many, including a number of young Australians who have achieved great things for Australia and who are respected for being quiet achievers, do not. Young Australian of the Year, Dr Bryan Gaensler, earlier this year said that he would be voting ‘No’, noting ‘we have a wonderful system, and it’s a model for Governments around the world ’ But you do not have to be an astrophysicist to vote ‘No’. Respected swimming champion Kieren Perkins said at the time of the Constitutional Convention elections: ‘What difference does it make if we’re saluting the queen or the president when we’ve still got the same unemployment, the same national deficit, the same industrial relations problems and every other thing that’s going on in this country at the moment? I’m confident in the fact the Australian public is smart enough not to get sucked in by headlines.’ Young people such as Gaensler and Perkins will vote ‘No’ because this republic is not part of their world view. Indeed the basic sentiments expressed by the ARM come from another world altogether – a world where style matters more than substance.
Young Australians Against this Republic (YAAR)
It is with this background of disaffection of young people towards the ARM that an organisation called Young Australians Against this Republic (YAAR) was reconstituted by fellow ‘No’ Committee member Heidi Zwar and myself to place information in the public domain, so that all Australians, especially young people, can be informed about what they will be voting for. Hopefully, by the time this essay is published YAAR will have its web site up and running with information easy to read and download. We now have YAAR convenors in every State and Territory.
At the National Conference in July we resolved to adopt the following charter:
THE CHARTER OF YOUNG AUSTRALIANS AGAINST THIS REPUBLIC (YAAR)
We are young Australians, proud of our country.
We come from different backgrounds.
We represent all the States and Territories of the Commonwealth of Australia.
We hold different political views.
But we are united in our quest to see this republican model defeated at the November referendum.
We reject the notion that those who are against this model are all monarchists.
We reject the notion that it is necessarily conservative to be against this republic.
Rather, we see opposition to this republic as the radical option for young people. We believe that opposition to this republic continues the centuries old tradition of the radicalism of young people.
We reject the notion that people who are against this republic are old fogies.
We reject the notion that by being against this republic we are somehow less patriotic.
We believe, as the High Court has confirmed, that we are an independent nation which makes our own laws. We are unanswerable to any other nation’s courts or parliament.
We are concerned that if this dangerous model of republic is passed it will be our generation that will be left to clean up the mess.
We see this republic as an ill-considered model which is only there for the self-gratification of members of the Australian Republican Movement and assorted cronies and not for the Australian people as a whole.
We are united in saying that the proposed republic is the wrong plan for this nation.
However, our membership embodies a broad church of opinion. We oppose this republic for a variety of reasons:
Some of us support the system of constitutional monarchy, believing that it is the least imperfect form of government which has worked well for almost a century and will continue to do so.
Some of us are staunch republicans, wishing to see Australia adopt a republican form of government at a later stage or in a different style. This encompasses republicans who want a minimalist change along the lines of the McGarvie model, republicans wanting a maximalist change along the lines of a French or American style model and others who want direct election based on the Irish model.
Some of us would be inclined to support a president chosen by the parliament but are deeply concerned about the loose ends and problems of the model relating to dismissal and presidential power. And we are horrified about the way in which the ‘yes’ campaign is being conducted.
Some of us want to see greater constitutional change including a bill of rights and a unitary system of government. This republican model which should be a chance for a major overhaul of the system does not include this point of view.
Some of us believe that this republic is motivated by anachronistic nationalism – a concept which seems incongruous in the modern world of global communications, international institutions and the global village.
Some of us believe that Australia is already a ‘Crowned-Republic’ showing that Australia enjoys the best features of both systems without the drawbacks. This republican push seems unnecessary, divisive and irrelevant.
Some of us believe that the money being spent on the campaign could be put to better use elsewhere. The failed 1988 referenda cost the country $34 million; the associated costs with this republic will be astronomical bearing in mind additional referenda in most States and other subsidiary changes.
Some of us believe that there are more important issues to be debated in the public arena including: youth unemployment, education health and Aboriginal reconciliation.
Whatever our differences, we are united by the view that this republican model must fail. We are committed to the cause of spreading the No case throughout Australia to all young people. We are thus committed to our country as Young Australians Against this Republic.
Why it is OK to say No
There are a number of motivating factors behind this republican proposal which sit uneasily with young Australians. The first of these is the archaic sense of nineteenth century fin-de-siècle nationalism which is just not compatible with the modern world. We live in a world which is dominated by international communications and technologies. Television, 24 hour news services, e-mail, satellite communication systems and the Internet, have brought us all closer together and has made the world more of a global village. At the end of the century we are experiencing the growing influence of international organisations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, and the increased use of the external affairs power. International bodies and institutions are playing a more prominent role in our municipal life and law. This trend towards internationalism is unstoppable. The global village concept becomes more of a reality as each day goes by.
Despite this trend the ‘Yes’ republicans have attempted to place their republic message on the back of nineteenth century nationalism – a sentiment and philosophy that seems anachronistic and totally out of place with the modern world and a multicultural Australia. In an age when we are supposed to embrace the world, xenophobic concepts promoted by the ARM like that we should ‘kick out the foreign Queen’ and adopt a nationalistic ‘little Australia’ mentality seem totally bizarre. Therein lies the major difference between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ republicans. The ‘No’ republicans see the republic as being about the Constitution. The ‘Yes’ republicans only see it as being nationalistic.
The other issue stemming from this nationalism is the imagined cultural cringe manifested by an inferiority complex that a number of ‘Yes’ republicans have. Their argument goes that if you vote ‘Yes’, you are having a vote of confidence in Australia. Whereas if you vote ‘No’ the signal you send to the world is that Australians are not as good as other people. This has always seemed bizarre to me. I have always believed that Australians are as good as anyone else and that Australia can and will achieve anything they want to both on a national and international stage. The number of Australians who have made an impact in a diverse range of fields internationally should put an end to this facile argument: Doc Evatt and Justice Michael Kirby at the United Nations, Sir Charles Mackerras or Silverchair in music, the Nobel prize winners in science and literature, the numerous sports people, and business people like Jac Nasser former CEO of Ford Australia who became CEO of Ford internationally. Australians are inferior to no one, nor have they been, nor will they ever be. The truth is that this referendum is not a vote of confidence in Australia but really a vote of confidence in Malcolm Turnbull, Paul Keating et al. If you vote ‘No’ is all you are doing is voting ‘No confidence’ in Turnbull and Keating.
The other bizarre thing about this republic is the timetable. ‘Yes’ republicans are engulfed by millennium madness. They say we must begin the new millennium as a new nation. As one of my friends recently said ‘It is the end of the millennium and all the freaks are coming out’ People will do the most bizarre things just because of a date: not a human achievement of any sort, but just a calendar change. In Sydney people are paying upwards of $1,000 a head for New Year’s Eve functions, so that they can watch a bunch of loud noises and lights in the sky. Babysitters are charging $75 per hour as a starting price. There is a group of women in the United Kingdom who were interviewed on the Today show in June, who are having their faces surgically altered because the millennium is coming. Many computer experts are heading for the hills, because of fear that the millennium bug could have the capacity to destroy the banking system, taking their combi vans and mung beans with them. Along with this dubious list comes the republic. That we should change our constitution because of a date, or a sporting event, or because of a lunch that Tom Keneally and Neville Wran had in Woollahra seems incomprehensible.
The history of constitutional change in Western liberal democracies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals that people changed their political systems because there was something deficient with the way they were governed. There was a sense of striving for democracy, striving to create the best system. Many other nations looked to the system which we have and tried to emulate it. In the age of reason and the enlightenment, systems of government changed because the people had presented those in power with the challenges of democracy. The great issues of the day were how to create government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’, as Abraham Lincoln put it. Today however in Australia we are not being told to change the Constitution to redress some democratic deficit, but to make some people with inferiority complexes feel better about themselves. The reasons for promotion of this republic by the ‘Yes’ case goes against the grain of more than 200 hundred years of Western liberal democratic thought.
Problems with the Model
On November 6 all Australians will have a chance to have their say about the Turnbull republican model which emerged from the Constitutional Convention. When people vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the referendum question they will not be voting for or against the notion of a republic but for or against this specific model of republic. Voting ‘No’ is a vote to acknowledge that Australians deserve a real debate where those supporting the case for change talk about the specifics of the model and do not gloss it over with slick spin doctoring. People who will vote ‘No’ will do so for a variety of reasons, largely because they do not like the model which is being presented. There is no shame in voting ‘No’ even if you like the idea of a republic. Most people would acknowledge that when we are changing the Constitution near enough is not good enough. There are too many flaws in this model to support it.
Many Australians do not like the model because they want the people, not the Parliament, to elect the President directly. This model does not provide for such an election. The model sets up a nominations committee, in ordinary legislation which can be repealed at any time. This committee was placed on the model to attempt to get direct electionists to support it at the convention. It fooled no one. The nominations committee will contain 32 members: 50 per cent politicians, and 50 per cent community representatives handpicked by the Prime Minister of the day. The committee will make recommendations to the PM about who should become President, but the PM can ignore the recommendations and choose his or her own nominee. Then one person’s name is put to the parliament and to be elected president that person must be voted by two-thirds of the members of a joint sitting of parliament. No government since the war has had a two-thirds majority. This process will lead to backroom deals with the public excluded as a government attempts to get the numbers to support their candidate. Imagine the embarrassment to a presidential candidate if they did not get the numbers. That is why we will never see a President of the calibre of people such as Sir William Deane. Such persons would not allow their names to be considered. We could also get a sitting politician as President. All the aspriant needs to do is to resign from parliament just before being nominated.
As distinguished constitutional law academic and republican, Professor George Winterton, notes: ‘The convention model’s provision regarding presidential removal is its most unsatisfactory feature and has been criticised by virtually every commentator.’ Is it a wonder then that the ARM never mentions it? Under it, the Prime Minister can instantly dismiss the President. No ground or reason need be given for removal. Democratic republics have some system of impeachment which affords the President natural justice – a feature which this system does not have. The President can also remove the PM. This will create a situation of ‘constitutional chicken’ whereby both President and PM will carry round a dismissal note in their pockets. There may be a ‘who will shoot first? scenario.’ The PM needs to take his decision to the House of Representatives within 30 days for ratification; the Senate is excluded from this process. It is also unclear if a Prime Minister does not have his or her decision ratified if s/he will be forced to resign. If a President is dismissed the PM can appoint an acting President but s/he can be dismissed too. So the PM can keep dismissing people until s/he finds someone who will do his or her bidding.
Powers – day to day exercise of powers
This is perhaps the most concerning but least discussed aspect of the model and the legislation. In the exercise of most of the powers under the current Constitution the Governor-General acts ‘with the advice of the Federal Executive Council.’ This means that the Governor-General will take the advice of ministers, while retaining what Walter Bagehot described as the three rights of the Monarch: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. What this entails in real terms is that the Governor-General can, if he or she feels necessary, make recommendations to Ministers to make amendments to tidy up laws before assenting to them. Both Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair and Richard McGarvie, former Governors of New South Wales and Victoria respectively, did this regularly during their terms. If a government wishes to persist with the law they can ultimately do so, because, as representative of the Monarch, the Governor-General must ultimately act on the advice of his or her Ministers. These three rights would be removed under the republican constitution – thus removing a safeguard in our system. The proposed Section 59 states that ‘The President shall act on the advice of the Federal Executive Council.’ Acting ‘on’ the advice instead of ‘with’ the advice seems to suggest that the President will be a virtual automaton with no discretion at all.
Powers – Reserve Powers
There are some powers which are exercisable without the advice of ministers. These are known as reserve powers. The most famous exercise of these powers occurred in 1975 when Sir John Kerr terminated Gough Whitlam’s commission and appointed Malcolm Fraser. The reserve powers are governed by convention. The major constraint on the exercise of the reserve powers is that when the Governor-General acts, he or she is aware of being obliged to act in the like traditions of the Crown and in a way that would bring dignity to the Crown. The fact that the conventions relating to the reserve powers are not written means that they are non-justiciable – that is, the High Court can not rule on issues raised by their exercise. Under the proposed model however, this would change. Reference to the powers in the Constitution (proposed Section 59) would make the powers justiciable. This means that any time the President exercises a reserve power that will not be the end of the story. The High Court will be able to hear a challenge to the use of these powers and could overturn the President’s decision, as the Pakistani equivalent of our High Court did a couple of years ago. The court will need to determine two questions: what were the powers of the Governor General, and were they exercised correctly? Apart from undermining the stability of our political and economic system by sending a message to the world that government in Australia is for a period at least unstable, it will also affect the way in which a President will be inclined to exercise the reserve powers. He or she will be much less inclined to exercise the powers for fear of plunging the country into instability. All of this will make the independent exercise of a constitutional safeguard much more difficult.
Despite all these and other flaws the ARM says ‘vote for the model now and we can fix it up later’. As former Liberal Attorney General, and direct election republican, Bob Ellicott, who was responsible for the success of 3 of the 8 referendum questions passed this century, notes: ‘The leaders of the republican movement have said in effect, support it and change it later. This is a reckless and irresponsible approach to basic constitutional reform. The likelihood of it being changed if adopted is quite remote, as anybody who has experience or in-depth knowledge of constitutional amendments in this country should know.’
At the end of the day young Australians will find it hard to vote for a system which diverts politicians’ energies from dealing with our problems and challenges. This is going to be a very tough fight. The ARM will have oodles of money on top of the $7.5 million from the government. The ‘Yes’ campaign will be slick; they will target young people very hard. What we will lack in trendiness we must make up in substance and grit. We must promote the idea that being against this republic is a great thing. It is fighting stereotypes that the media and other trendies expect you to follow. It is about a very youth oriented concept – individuality. All Australians should be informed about this change, but particularly young Australians. The sobering thought for all young Australians is that if this model is passed it will be our generation which will be left to pick up the mess.