|Issue No 11||30 April 1999|
Jennie George's Republic Update
The Constitutional Convention in February 1998 engaged the people of Australia in the republic debate in a way not seen before. I attended the Convention as an elected delegate from NSW.
Speaking at the Convention I said, "An Australian Head of State at the pinnacle of our system of Government has important symbolic significance. It reflects our sense of self worth as a nation to acknowledge that we want one of our own citizens to fill the position."
The Convention recommended that Australia become a republic and doing so recommended a model for appointing and dismissing an Australian President.
The republic is now back on the political agenda and has been making headlines in the papers since January this year because the Government is now preparing for a referendum on the republic model recommended by the Convention.
A referendum is the only way the Australian constitution can be changed. It requires a vote of all Australian citizens and needs to be supported by a majority of voters in Australia overall as well as by a majority of voters in a majority of states in order to be passed.
The referendum question must be passed by the Federal Parliament before it is put to the vote of the people who then get to say 'yes' or 'no' to the question so determined.
The referendum on the republic will take place in November this year. All Australians will finally get a say on whether Australia should take the last, essentially symbolic, step to independence from Great Britain.
We will get to say whether we want an Australian to be our head of state instead of the Queen of Great Britain.
The ACTU has been involved in the republic debate since it began and has always supported an Australian republic. The ACTU Executive in February 1990 decided that all affiliates should actively campaign in support of a 'yes' vote in the referendum.
The choice in November will not be about different models of an Australian republic. In this referendum voters will get to choose between the Convention model for selecting an Australian head of state and the status quo - having the English monarch and her representative, the Governor-General continue in that role.
The Convention recommended that an Australian President be selected in the following way. First by calling for nominations from the public. Secondly, having a committee which is representative of the community report on those nominations to the Prime Minister of the day.
The Prime Minister is then required to put a single nomination, that must be seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, to a special sitting of both houses of the Federal Parliament. If this resolution is approved by a two thirds majority the President will be chosen.
The Convention chose this model because it is most consistent with our current system of government under which Parliament is the supreme political body. It ensures the appointment process is outside the normal political processes and virtually ensures that a politician will not be President.
Some republicans have argued for a directly elected President. They are supporting a no vote in the referendum in the hope that a directly elected model of republic will eventually be put in another referendum.
There are compelling reasons why a directly elected President would not be suitable in the Australian context. This is why that model was not supported by the Convention.
An elected President would necessarily be a politician. To win office a person will need to be supported by either of the major political parties. He or she will need a political platform to put to the people in an election.
The office of President would become a political office with a political mandate to rival that of the Prime Minister of the day. The role of the President would be very different from the role the Governor-General performs today.
In particular in any constitutional crisis that arose because of a conflict between our two houses of the Federal Parliament the President would not be able to fill the role of politically independent umpire. This is a critical difference between our system of government and, for instance, Ireland's.
It is therefore unlikely that either of the major political parties would ever seek to put a referendum supporting this model to the people. This is especially the case if an earlier referendum on the republic had failed in which case the whole issue would be seen as problematic politically, being both divisive and of uncertain outcome.
It is highly improbable that a further referendum on the republic question will be put to the Australian people in the near future if November's referendum fails.
On the other hand if the referendum succeeds there may well be a groundswell of support for further refinements to our system of an Australian President once that system has been in place for a period of time.
A successful referendum would also encourage future governments to honour the recommendation of the last Constitutional Convention that a further Convention be held within five years of Australia becoming a republic in order to consider other constitutional change.
Winning this referendum for those who support an Australian Head of State will not be easy. Already we have seen the Prime Minister seek to confuse the issue of a Preamble with the republic question. Those in charge of drafting the referendum question have chosen a misleading form of words to put to the people implying that Parliament alone chooses the President.
The referendum should be supported for the reasons Neville Wran gave in his Whitlam Lecture in November 1997. That is because an Australian republic is about full nationhood for Australia, about a true Australian identity; about an undivided allegiance to Australia, about belief in Australian citizenship and about a believable Australian Constitution which means what it says and says what it means.
We all need to work hard to convince as many of their fellow Australians of the wisdom and the safety of a 'yes' vote. If you want to be involved in the yes campaign contact Jenny Doran at the ACTU on 03 96635655 or email [email protected]
Interview: The Young Republican
Jason Yat-Sen Li stole the show at the Constitutional Convention with his community consultation compromise. Now he faces a bigger challenge, convincing Australia to vote Yes.
Unions: ACTU Moves on the Republic
The ACTU Executive has endrosed the Australian Republic -- but it's given Howard's Preamble the short shrift it deserves.
History: And A Hundred Years Ago
Just as it was a hundred years ago, it is important that trade unions and their members are actively involved in the current republic debate.
Reader's Forum: John Passant
A Workers Online reader explains why he'll be voting "no".
Review: Mountain Men and Women Framed
Working Lives, a history of working people from the Blue Mountains, looks back to illuminate future challenges.
Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, Labor Council's fortnightly newsletter for unions.
International: Performers on the World Stage
Australian performers know better than most the importance of identity, self and place. That's why they are committed Republicans.
View entire latest issue
© 1999-2000 Labor Council of NSW
LaborNET is a resource for the labour movement provided by the Labor Council of NSWURL: http://workers.labor.net.au/11/c_tradeshall_jennie.html
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005