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The Republican Debate Just Got Hotter

The Republican Debate Just Got Hotter

The republic referendum debate has taken two major turns already this week. First, responding to mounting pressure, on Monday, the Australian Government amended the question to be put at this November's referendum on an Australian Republic. But then late on Tuesday evening the Democrats played their card, suggesting a compromise, compromise question: ".to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic."

The Democrats hold the balance of power in the Upper House.

Unless they agree, the referendum cannot proceed and may have to be deferred. However, it is not clear the Democrat's are prepared to take on the Government on this issue. The Deputy Leader suggested the PM could prevail if he stuck to his guns. The Government's question now reads, in full:

".to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the Members of the Commonwealth Parliament."

Howard said he agreed to change the question not because the previous question was deficient. Instead it was to ensure the referendum was seen to be fair and not loaded. ".if the referendum is defeated, which I hope it will be, I don't want anybody to say that it was defeated because of some trickery with the question", he said.

The PM emphasized that the revision was the final one. There would be no further changes.

The revised wording was put to the lower house almost immediately and was due to be submitted to the Senate in the next day or so.

But the Democrats appear to have stymied the Bill's further progress and contradicted the PM's assertion this was the final revision.

On Monday, Howard took the opportunity to step up his opposition to the proposed republic.

".let's face it, the nature of the selection process [for the President] is something of a facade. In the end the choice will be made by the Prime Minister of the day. .he or she will find somebody who is acceptable to the Leader of the Opposition and I'll bet that person gets nominated.forgive me, but I don't think anybody should imagine that this proposition is an exercise in participatory democracy for choosing the President."

Howard also suggested the new model would result in a slight increase in the power of the PM relative to the Governor General.

Based on the recent opinion poll, the newly worded referendum appears a close call. But I'll stick my head out and predict a close loss on the basis the Australian public won't agree to transfer the Queen's sovereignty to Parliament and particularly the PM.

The whole referendum exercise so far has been cynical.

As an experienced Parliamentarian, the PM knows only too well the need to distinguish between different questions when addressing proposed legislation, regulations and so forth.

But on the Republican issue, he is reducing two questions to one. In doing so he is denying at the outset the option that is clearly supported by a significant minority and perhaps even a plurality of the electorate - a democratic republic.

A positive development is the admission the President would be beholden to the Prime Minister.

But the key issue is whether the Democrat's live up to their name by stiffening their opposition to the Government's referendum question.

Many observers believe the Democrat's are holding their fire for the preamble to the constitution. They wish to remove the reference to "mateship" and beef up the reference to aboriginal "custodianship".

If they opt to focus on the preamble instead of the referendum question, the Democrat's will be living up to former PM Keating's description of the Democrats - fairies at the bottom of the garden.

The preamble doesn't actually DO anything.

The proposed change to the question may have just been a play for the benefit of the Democrat's constituency.

What's really needed is to shift the debate to the key issues, including clarifying the powers of the Head of State.

For instance, what is to happen to sections 58 - 60 of the Australian Constitution, which allow the Queen to disallow Bills adopted by the two houses of Parliament?

It seems unlikely the public appreciate the fact the Australian constitution allows the monarchy to reject decisions made by Parliament.

Further, under the proposed republican model, these provisions cease to have any real meaning, since the PM could simply sack any President who refused to assent to a Bill.

The Australian constitution can be found by searching the link below http://www.austlii.edu/au

For a full transcript of Howard's comments check out, AUS: Transcript:Howard Interview under Scoop's Australia wire for Tuesday.

Simon Orme made narrow escapes from both the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now lives in Sydney, attempting to make the NSW electricity sector user friendly.

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