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  Issue No 37 Official Organ of LaborNet 29 October 1999  





What Price a Just Republic?

Interview with Peter Lewis

Magistrate Pat O'Shane is far from happy with the republican model. But she still believes a Yes vote is her best chance for genuine constitutional reform.


Pat O'Shane

You have been critical of the model that has been put up by the Australian Republican Movement for minimal change to the Constitution. Why are you voting 'Yes' anyway?

Well, the fundamental issue is about Australians governing Australians. It really is, do we need to have a Republic? And my answer to that is 'yes", we must have a Republic.

Presently we have a Constitutional Monarch. That means that sovereignty is exercised by the Queen, that is, total control basically over our lives is exercised by the Queen. Now that is no longer the situation in fact, but it is the situation in law. If we value our independence; if we value our self respect; if we no longer want to be subjected to a foreign power, which is the present legal situation - then all Australians must vote Yes for a Republic in the upcoming referendum. That's really the fundamental issue.

That sounds like a pretty simple message. Why do you think supporters of a Republic are having such difficulty convincing other people that this is a useful thing to be doing at this time?

I think they recognise that if we are to move to become a democratic republic of Australia then we also have to change our Constitution to ensure that we have a manual, if you like - a handbook - a blueprint for our Government of ourselves. That will mean that we have to change the Constitution very substantially.

Now there is a line of thought amongst many Republicans that changing our Constitution is a very difficult thing to do. Under the present system it certainly is. But our Constitution presently is in fact a description of an Act of a Parliament of a foreign power. It is no different a situation than if say, China or Mongolia or South Africa or Peru decided that they would legislate to give Australia a Constitution. That is what the situation is, it is that ludicrous. And it is that which those campaigning for the "no" vote are really asking us to accept. And I can't imagine that any self respecting independent-minded Australian would tolerate that situation any longer.

Now, it is true that the processes of doing that will engage us in a lot of discussion over a long, long time. To actually get the details out is going to take us a lot of thinking; a lot of hard work; obviously a lot of time; and therefore a lot of money. There are many, many people in Australia who do not want to make that effort and they don't want to put that kind of money into the situation. And you would have to ask why? If we believe ourselves to be in an egalitarian society and if we really believe we are a democratic society, which are our enduring myths, then we have to say we want very substantial changes to our Constitution and it is that which is the law part of our campaign.

Yes we want a Republic, but we want more. We want to change the Constitution and we want to put in place those instruments which will help us to develop a democratic republic of Australia.

A perception of the 'Yes and More' group is that you are basically a bunch of direct electionists who are saying we'll vote for the Republic because it's the best chance of getting our agenda up. Are there other issues you would also like to see addressed if the Republic cleared the first hurdle?

Well first of all I think that any Constitution of any country should really spell out our aims and our values. Secondly, our Constitution must spell out what are our duties and our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Thirdly, it must spell out our rights and responsibilities as voters and explain what is the value of our vote.

Our Constitution must spell out what are the powers and the responsibilities of the Prime Minister vis-a-vis the Head of State and vice versa. What are the powers and responsibilities of the Head of State vis-a-vis the Prime Minister and Government. I think it is important because we do cherish the principle of responsible Government. It is important for our Constitution to enshrine that principle. We have moved away from that principle in practice in the State and at the Federal level over the last 20 years in particular, and that is a serious erosion of democracy in this country. And I think we then have to set out in the Constitution - or enshrine in our Constitution some very fundamental human rights.

In any event I would say that those should be spelled out in terms of what are our rights and responsibilities as citizens of the country. That, in my view, is the kind of Constitution that any decent Australian, any self-respecting, independent minded, democratic Australian would want in our Constitution. And that is what we should be striving for in the next millennium. .

First of all, let's get the Constitution right. Let's spell out those fundamental principles. Sure, we are going to have to talk about it for a long time. Sure, it's going to take some teasing out. Well, you know, we are not going to get the perfect formulation but we should at least start ourselves on the process. And the only way to start ourselves on that process really is to vote yes for the Republic to start with but then to say, but we want more than that - we have to go down this path of more basic reform.

By promoting a minimalist model, the Yes case is saying that the Constitution isn't really broken, there's no need to fix it, we are only changing the little things. But it's hard to capture the public's imagination when they are denying the need for any substantial change. Do you see that as being one of the traps that this debate has fallen into?

Absolutely. I see that as a major problem. First of all it really sells short our fellow Australians. Second of all, it is misleading and obfuscates the issue, so that people are uncertain about what it is that's being proposed. And in fact I think it is quite disgusting that those particularly in the ARM who support a yes vote are not prepared to say to their fellow Australians, as I am saying, Yes, let's have a Republic but let's go further than that. Let's now take this opportunity to re-cast our Constitution in democratic terms that suit us as Australians. The Constitution as it is at present was formulated not by Australians; not by the founding fathers so called, but in fact by the British government at the beginning of this Century. And in those circumstances how could it possibly suit Australians. It can't. And why the ARM is afraid to put those kind of issues on the line is quite beyond my understanding.

What's your general view of how the Yes case has been handled in the lead up to the referendum?

Poorly. I think that Australians are prepared to make changes when necessary. And I think a lot of people recognise that it is necessary to make a changes now, but because of the proposals being put before them they are not quite sure. There is a mood in the community that they are being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are floundering because nothing specific has been again put to them.

What about the preamble? It's almost as if the Preamble is being promoted as yes, we'll accept that because that's the best we can do for now whereas with the Republic the opposite argument seems to be applying?

Well the Preamble as proposed is rubbish. It doesn't mean anything in law. The words don't mean anything in fact. It's just a waste of space. And any intelligent Australian, and I believe all of my fellow Australians are intelligent, and have plenty of common sense - will vote it into the trash bin. It's not worth the paper it's written on.

So, if you were to wake up on November 7 and the Republic has gone down, do you think you will be living in a different country?

Well, we'll be living in yesterday - small people with small minds going nowhere in a hurry and that's a very depressing prospect. A lot of people say you shouldn't have change for the sake of change. It is not having change for the sake of change - it is for the sake of our self respect and independence.

It has been said by people on both the No side and on the Yes side that we already, in fact, have independence. If that's a fact, what is their concern about changing the Constitution to enshrine it in law? If we don't have it in law, then we can be sure that one day it will turn around and bite us. We've had that experience before today and we will have it again.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 37 contents

In this issue
*  Republic: Yes, It's Time
Opposition leader Kim Beazley invoked the spirit of '72 when he launched the ALP's Republic campaign.
*  Interview: What Price a Just Republic?
Magistrate Pat O’Shane is far from happy with the republican model. But she still believes a Yes vote is her best chance for genuine constitutional reform.
*  Economics: Who the EFIC are you?
If you have not heard of Export Credit Agencies, don't be surprised because it seems they're not too interested in letting the public know what they do.
*  Unions: Old Habits Die Hard
With the release of its blue print [email protected] the ACTU seems to know where it wants to go. But again it has failed to face up to the underlying structural issues preventing it from getting there.
*  Legal: Second Wave: Reith's Non-Right to Strike
Peter Reith has called his new laws the Workplace relations Amendment (More Jobs Better Pay) Bill 1999. If legislation is to carry these new, colloquial titles then the ‘More Control, Less Freedom’ Bill would be a better title.
*  International: Wahid’s New Team
Indonesias new government is blemished by Suharto-era appointees but an advance for reform, says Indonesia’s trade unions.
*  History: They Fought Them on the Airwaves
Radio broadcasts were an important weapon in the long-running struggle for equal pay.
*  Satire: Revealed: SOCOG Reserving Gold Medals for Tattersalls
The scandal over the secret allotment of premium tickets for the 2000 Olympics escalated today with the news that members of Sydney’s elite Tattersall’s Club will receive Gold Medals without actually competing.
*  Review: What The Age Wouldn’t Print
Some time before Monday 18 October, Age editor Michael Gawenda saw red and then got out his blue pencil. An article, heavily critical of Robert Manne, written by Overland editor Ian Syson, was pulled by Gawenda.

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