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  Issue No 42 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 December 1999  





Referendum With Class

Labor heretic Michael Thomspson analyses the failure of the Republican proposition.

At the ballot box, the model of parliamentary appointment of the president was rejected by the Australian electorate. With approximately 55% voting No and 45% Yes, it is nonsense to say, as Andrew Robb did, that it "nearly got across the line". In a general election, a political party registering 45% of the vote would suffer a landslide defeat.

Further, the vote split neatly along class lines. Labor's traditional blue-collar electorates in the outer suburbs, such as Banks and Paul Keating's old seat of Blaxland in Sydney, solidly voted No.

It came as no surprise. In the week leading up to the vote, one commentator wrote of a poll conducted in the first week of the Constitutional Convention that "[a]sked what model they preferred, 68% of Australian's favoured a head of state elected by a majority of the people. Only 16% wanted a head of state elected by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament."

Other than the Monarchists, why did the political elite hasten to the vote with a model of presidential appointment by Australia's political leadership?

There were those among the ARM, such as David Williamson, who, "in good faith, pushed a minimalist model because [he] believed it was the only one that had any hope of a 'yes' vote". Labor leaders like Bob Carr were genuinely concerned about the president's powers under a directly elected model.

But one suspects there were other, unstated, reasons for the haste.

For instance, with "virtually every media outlet advocating a Yes vote" (as Garry Morgan said in The Bulletin), they may have thought aggressive marketing would get them over the line.

Or maybe they simply did not trust ordinary Australians to vote for the president?

There is evidence to support this theory. As Dennis Shanahan said (in The Australian on 11 November 1999), the republican's explanation for the defeat was "[t]hat those who voted no are ill-informed and ignorant; all they have to do to see the light is to be shipped off to re-education camps and given a second chance ... ABC's Triple J radio said that 'ignorance has won the day'".

In the same vein as most of the ABC, Phillip Adams thought that "[w]e deserve this outcome. ... In light of the referendum vote, big bums and small brains seem entirely appropriate. For we are, quite clearly, a nation that can't think and won't get off its arse". Not to be outdone, Pamela Bone wrote (in The Age on 8 November 1999) of the "other group: the ones who voted no because we told them to vote yes, and they don't like us. Us - journalists, politicians, academics, lawyers, commentators. The chattering classes, the chardonney set. The elites."

But as Shanahan rightly observed, "even if you don't possess a degree or have access to the full array of the media, it doesn't mean you are ignorant". In truth, these outbursts were not engendered by the No case's victory; rather they encapsulate the chattering class's feelings for ordinary Australians, particularly the blue collar workers. The other side of that coin is the chattering class's "moral vanity". As Bone put it, "it is usually the educated middle-classes who are more imbued with notions of justice and equality than any other group."

But does this theory help explain the voting down of the republic in working class seats?

Well, one battler in the seat of Werriwa was alienated by the campaign's "tone". He did not like the way republicans were saying "if you don't vote for a republic you are pretty stupid" (quoted in Leonie Lamont's article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 November 1999).

One poll (in The Bulletin on 9 November 1999) showed that after the launch of Labor's "Yes, It's Time" campaign, "Yes support ... fell from 55.5% to 46.5% among ALP supporters". Did the campaign create the impression that sympathisers with the Keating era were influential within Labor's parliamentary leadership? Interestingly, former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch admitted (in The Courier-Mail on the 8 November 1999) that his being seen as "part of the Keating era" meant he "carried too much baggage".

And, for Paul Kelly, "it was not just a vote against the republic on offer; it was, at a deeper level, a vote of distrust in the political class and its agendas of 1990s reform". This meets Charles Maier's definition of "moral crises" in Foreign Affairs, a broad distrust of political representatives regardless of ideology. In my book, Labor without class, I argue such a "moral crises" characterises ordinary Australians' attitudes towards their political class (including the media).

In any event, as it was defeated so decisively, many people believe the referendum was a massive waste of money. For the working class, the republic was never a priority. They have now had a gut full of it. If they are annoyed with anyone, it is with the ALP for treating the referendum as if it were a federal election campaign - knowing they wanted a directly elected president (although, to his credit, Kim Beazley did not fudge the fact that they wanted a directly elected president). A recent authoritative Newspoll in The Australian suggests they are annoyed, and that they are giving vent to it. According to the survey, during the last two weeks of the republican debate the Coalition's support rose four percentage points from 42 to 46 per cent, while the ALP's fell two percentage points from 44 to 42 per cent.

If Labor goes to the electorate with a plebiscite for a blank cheque republic, to be followed by the rejected model at a later referendum, people are very likely to see this as the Party refusing to accept their verdict. Instead, Labor should be saying it unequivocally accepts the people's verdict, and follow Peter Beattie's advice of pushing for a direct-election republic in the future. This may involve, as The Courier-Mail notes, consideration of other changes such as the Senate's powers and codification of the powers of the president. So be it. Australia is a mature democracy.

If it does not, and the republic becomes a focus of debate at Labor's next National Conference, any electoral consequences will be easy to predict. After all, those who voted Yes in Bennelong will not vote Labor at the next Federal election; those who voted No in outer western electorates of Sydney and similar seats in other States may vote for an alternative to Labor.

Michael Thompson is author of 'Labor Without Class' (Pluto Press)


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 42 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Costa Bravo
Labor Council�s chief trouble maker chronicles the battles of the past year and ponders those still to come.
*  Unions: More Wins Than Losses
Workers Online ranks the Top Ten industrial relations stories from a year of frenetic activity.
*  International: Eric Lee's Year in Review
The editor of Labourstart looks back over his favourite stories of 1999.
*  Politics: So Many Questions
It was a year in politics that threw up more questions than answers. We look at some of the sticky ones.
*  Republic: Referendum With Class
Labor heretic Michael Thomspson analyses the failure of the Republican proposition.
*  Environment: Seattle Kills Greens V Jobs Bogey
The sight of US unionists, environmentalists and human rights activists being attacked by police in Seattle shows how far the progressive movement has come.
*  Deface a Face: Give Him a Hairdo
What better present could Michael Costa offer Workers Online readers than the chance to give him a Deface a Face style make over?
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
See the latest issue of Labour Review, our resource for officials, activists and students.
*  Review: Cultural Wasteland
Workers Online resident door-bitches Zanga and Paul pass judgement on the year that finished the millennium.

»  What Price Aussie Jobs as Olympics Loom
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»  Peace in the Gong
»  Workers Support Register Gathers Steam
»  Pay Equity Enters Campaign Mode
»  Union Aid Agency to Establish Dili Office
»  Job Vacancies at the LHMU

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Aquilina's Insult
»  Well Done 1999
»  US Union Site Worth a Look

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