|Issue No 50||14 April 2000|
The Referendum We Had To Have
Paul Norton finds some hope in last year's resounding defeat of the republic proposition.
In an article on the issue of an Australian republic for the first Gravity of 1999, I predicted that the referendum would be defeated. I argued that this would be because the majority of Australians who supported a republic with a directly elected president would not change their minds between January and November 1999, and further because a decisive minority of them would feel so strongly about the principle of direct election that they would join monarchists in voting "NO" to the model on offer.
As we now know, I was right. In fact the only thing I was wrong about was that I did not expect the referendum to be defeated as decisively as it eventually was. I had expected a majority "YES" vote in Victoria and New South Wales, at least, but then I did not expect the official "YES" campaign to be the comedy of errors it turned out to be.
In this article I want to offer some thoughts by way of a post mortem on the referendum result, and to suggest a way forward for the republican cause.
Firstly, John Howard has been severely criticised for putting the issue to referendum in the form of a proposal for a specific republican model, rather than letting the people vote on the general principle of the republic separately from the specific question of how to appoint the president. This criticism is valid, as putting the question in that way was both undemocratic and clearly intended to maximise the potential for splitting the republican majority in the general population. I made precisely this criticism in both of my Gravity articles last year on the issue. But the Australian Republican Movement and other "minimalist" republicans were only too happy to accede to Mr. Howard's approach at the 1998 Constitutional Convention. During the course of 1999 it was realised that this was to the great disadvantage of the republican cause, and the Prime Minister was denounced for rigging the question. Why wasn't this obvious to the ARM (as it was to me) at the time of the ConCon, and why didn't they hold out for a more democratic method of putting the issue to the people? In a very real sense, the referendum was lost at the Convention.
However, the situation could have been retrieved in the intervening two years, and in various media I offered a range of suggestions as to how this could have been achieved. The common thread of all these suggestions was the need to persuade direct-election supporters to vote for the model on offer as a "second-best" option, and to also persuade them that a "YES" vote would create a better chance for further progress towards direct election than would a "NO" vote. I wrote, and saved my soul, but failed to save the "YES" camp from itself.
For a start, the Constitutional Convention had resolved that, if the republic referendum was carried, a further Convention should be held to review the form of the republic (including the method of choosing the Head of State) and to consider other proposals for Constitutional reform. If this point had been emphasised during the referendum campaign, and especially if the pro-republic members of Federal Parliament had amended the referendum proposal to incorporate the commitment to a review (as I argued in Gravity), it could have brought many more direct election republicans into the "YES" camp, as they would have been assured of a fair hearing for, and a future referendum on, their preferred model. Whilst Federal ALP leader Kim Beazley did allude to the review in some of his republic campaign speeches, and whilst the "Yes And More" group tried to raise the issue, it was generally neglected by the mainstream "YES" campaign. The failure to emphasise the possibility of such a review, and to incorporate it in the referendum proposal, played into the hands of the monarchists and the "Real Republic" direct election hardliners, who were able to argue plausibly that only a "NO" vote would enable the direct election option to be considered further down the track
Further, I persistently argued that it would be a mistake for the ARM and its allies to assume either that supporters of direct election were "soft" in this commitment and could easily be persuaded to the minimalist line, or that it was necessary to win them over to that line to secure their vote in the referendum. If it had been accepted that their support for direct election was an informed and considered position based on democratic principle, it would have been possible to persuade them that those reasons of democratic principle were also good reasons to regard the republic on offer, with a non-discriminatory (albeit imperfectly democratic) method of appointing an Australian head of state, as preferable to a status quo in which our head of state is an English citizen selected by a combination of biological accident and religious and gender-based discrimination. Labor MP Lindsay Tanner (himself a direct electionist) put forward a very good case along these lines, but these arguments were generally absent from the "YES" campaign.
I also pointed out that many of the most prominent direct-election republicans in Australian politics were not aligned with the "Real Republic"/monarchist "NO" axis, and were advocating a "YES", or, more accurately, a "Yes . . . And More" vote. As well as Lindsay Tanner, they included Peter Beattie, Jim Bacon, Mike Rann, Geoff Gallop, Senator Bob Brown, Pat O'Shane and Natasha Stott-Despoja. The "Real Republic" alliance of Ted Mack, Phil Cleary, Clem Jones et al, who advocated a "NO" vote, were very much the direct election "B team". It was clear a long way from home that the votes of the pro-direct election majority of the general public would decide the outcome of the referendum. The monarchists realised this, and accordingly stood back to let the "B team" make the running under slogans such as "Vote NO to This Republic" and "Let the people have their say", to telling effect. Given the array of talent in the direct-electionist "A team", they could surely have outgunned the "B team" and the monarchists had they been allowed to do so, and might have swung enough direct election voters to a "Yes and More" stance to win the referendum. Yet the official "YES" campaign, by and large, kept the "A team" under wraps, and generally prevented their arguments from reaching a wide audience.
By contrast, much faith was invested in Andrew Robb's Conservatives for an Australian Head of State, and in Coalition republicans such as Peter Costello, to shift a decisive number of conservative voters to the "YES" camp. This was consistent with the "minimalist" strategy's original assumption that, as Australians are constitutionally conservative, a referendum on the republic could only be won with the support of moderately conservative voters, who, it was assumed, would only vote for a republic which involved minimal constitutional change. As I argued in January 1999, the decisive shift in conservative public opinion on the republic had already occurred in the mid-1990s when conservative political and intellectual figures such as John Fahey, Nick Greiner, John Hirst and Robert Manne announced their support for a republic. I wrote that those Australians (some 30+ per cent) indicating continuing support for the monarchy in the polls were "rusted-on" monarchists whose attachment had nothing to do with constitutional reasoning and everything to do with tradition and emotion, and who were therefore not likely to be convinced by the pragmatic conservative logic of the Robbs and Costellos. They voted exactly as I had predicted. If the conservative republicans and their co-thinkers in the business community had any impact whatsoever on the outcome, it would most likely have been to confirm suspicions that the minimalist republic was all a plot by the elites and the "top end of town".
In a way, of course, that is exactly what it was. Australia's political, business, bureaucratic and media elites have, over the past twenty years, turned politics into the art of insulating public policy making from scrutiny, substantive debate and democratic control by the public on whose behalf the policy is made. A necessary aspect of this is opposition to any proposals for constitutional change which could substantially democratise our political system. The question of an Australian republic does not, by itself, entail consideration of such change. However, it is a symbolically and ideologically significant issue which could be utilised as a vehicle for opening up debate of democratic political reform. An unstated aim of the minimalist republican strategy was to quarantine the change in Constitutional symbolism (monarchy to republic) from any risk of contamination by changes in Constitutional substance. Herein lies, I think, part of the reason for the ARM and Robb Mob intransigence in the face of direct election. Directly electing the president would mean that our Constitutional symbolism, as well as being Australianised and de-Anglicised, would also be democratised. A democratic symbolism would not necessarily translate into democratic substance, but it could start people thinking "Why not?". Hence the conservative elites' anxiety to "lock out" the direct election option.
However, such purely rational, self-interested motivations can't explain some of the pathologies of the official "YES" campaign's denigration of direct electionists. I can understand, and respect, the reasons why people of good will might prefer a republic with an appointed head of state. I can appreciate their concerns about introducing a directly elected president without codifying and limiting their reserve powers. But I can't fathom how seemingly intelligent people could argue that direct election of our Head of State would cause our entire political system to unravel. And I would be mystified at the way in which direct electionists became the "hated other" for minimalist republicans - potential and former allies demonised as mortal enemies - if I had not seen, in other times and contexts, a similar mentality grip other political movements in respect of "bloody feminists", "bloody Zionists", "bloody greenies", etc.
I am amazed that ARM supporters can still argue that direct election support is "fundamentally soft" and will dissipate if enough voters can be "educated" before the next referendum. I was saddened by a Semper front cover suggesting that Australians would elect Skippy the kangaroo if allowed to vote for our head of state, and flummoxed by Professor Jayasuriya's claim that direct election republicanism has "deep historical associations with fascism". In the week before the referendum I regularly checked the ABC's republic chat site, to find it dominated by ARM groupies congratulating each other on their intellectual superiority, and speculating on how much better the country would be governed if the franchise was limited to clever people like themselves. The disturbing thing was that they didn't seem to be joking. And to cap it all off, there was the ARM's choice of slogan, which was both unfortunate and unintentionally revealing: "Vote Yes to Our Republic" (emphasis mine). This sort of thing has a name: groupthink.
So, how to salvage the Australian republican cause from the wreckage? Two things appear to me essential: one is a genuinely democratic process to allow the Australian public to debate and decide all the key questions in logical order. The other is to reorganise Australian political republicanism in a way which transcends the tendency of Australian political activism to be an "insider" affair.
To take the latter point first, the ARM has, to its credit, begun reorganising on a democratic basis with a revised Constitution and charter which will hopefully enable it to conjure with direct electionists. However, "insiderism" is a general malaise of Australian politics (as Lindsay Tanner discusses in Open Australia in relation to the ALP) which will take a special effort, and a struggle with old habits, to overcome.
As to the former, Kim Beazley is basically right in calling for a three-stage process in which a plebiscite on the general question of the republic is followed by another on the specifics of how to appoint the head of state, and a final referendum to ratify the outcomes of the plebiscites. Indeed, this was how it should have been done in the first place. What I would argue, though, is that such a democratic process needs to be accompanied and supported by the creation of a range of "discursive spaces" in which the wider public can take part in ongoing discussion of proposals for Constitutional reform, and effective programs for public education and public participation regarding constitutional and democratic issues. One of the crosses I bear, as an educator and as a politically active citizen, is constantly discovering how badly our schools and our media have failed to equip Australian citizens with either basic knowledge of our political system, or with the basic skills required for constructive political participation and the resolution of differences across cultural boundaries. I had many such experiences at meetings and discussions in the lead-up to the referendum. If the outcome of the republic referendum has created some momentum for redressing these failures, it may well be viewed by historians as, on balance, the right result at the right time.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005