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Simon Orme: Republic Referendum Set to Fail

Simon Orme writes again from Sydney

Republic Referendum Set to Fail

Australian electors appear ready this weekend to toss out the proposed republican model - a republic where the President would be appointed by a two thirds majority of Parliament while retaining the existing "kingly powers" of the head of state in Australia's constitution. The referendum will fail not because Australians want a King Charles of Australia. Instead it will fail because they are - sensibly - not prepared to give up political self-determination and transfer power to the Canberra political elite.

A recent opinion poll by Newsweek showed only 14% of the electorate favour the proposed constitutional model. 35% favour the status quo, while a whopping 50% support a republic with a directly elected President.

The result is that each side is now concentrating on wooing direct election supporters.

The "yes" campaign says a "yes" now is a first step toward further constitutional reform down the track. The "no" case argues that a "no" now will mean electors will get the chance of a direct election option later.

The "yes" case has revolved around a crude appeal to nationalism - "let's have an Aussie for head of State, not some bloody foreigner", and fear - a "no" will mean "no republic for a generation".

It has also tried to generate elite fear of a directly elected President by arguing this would result in a US style presidency where only sports personalities would stand a chance of election.

Similarly, the "no" campaign does not promote devotion to the royal family. Instead it condemns the referendum proposal as a "politicians republic". [Clearly, they read scoop, which coined the phrase.] This strand has actually been stronger than the pure conservative - it ain't broke so don't fix it - one.

The "yes" case has had strong backing from the powers that be. The political class supports it (with the notable exception of PM Howard), as does the big end of town.

The ALP is also a backer. Past PM's, and even the iconic Gough Whitlam, himself, have been wheeled out to back the cause. [Though Paul Keating has been gagged following an outburst at the beginning of October when he blamed Howard for the Timorese bloodshed.]

As well, the "yes" side has had massive media support from the Packer, Murdoch and Fairfax media empires.

The noble exception to the latter is the Australian Financial Review (AFR) (1) which, editorially, took a consistent and well thought out democratic line and came out strongly against the proposal. But the AFR's readership is tiny and mainly in the "yes" camp anyway.

The media's position means that a casual watcher would probably have the impression the poll is running neck and neck. The bad news for the "yes" case has been downplayed. Apparent wins, on the other hand, are played up. Last weekend's example was a 60 Minutes item about a group of ordinary Aussies who were scared off direct election and herded into the "yes" camp.

With its overwhelming elite support, why is the referendum set to fail?

Because the battlers rightly see it as an elite jack up.

If they are forced to vote - which they are - they will use it as an opportunity to express their dislike of the political duopoly that dominates Australian politics thanks to its out of date electoral system.

This is the group who last month tossed out former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett in a surprise defeat and who threw their weight behind Pauline Hanson two years ago.

Thus the direct-electionists, together with the conservatives, will out poll the "yes supporters". The "yes" camp is confident it will win in Victoria and NSW, where support is stronger. But even if it does this, it will have to gain a majority in at least two other States to prevail. And this doesn’t look likely.

Many electors have rightly seen that the referendum is more than a debate about the appropriateness of constitutional symbols. It is about power.

The republican model on offer would transfer the formal powers currently attaching to the monarchy to a President beholden to the leaders of the two main political parties in the Parliament.

It would entrench a two party political system in the constitution and institutionalise back room political deal-making.

But it would do nothing to address the problems made manifest by the 1975 dismissal.

If anything, it would exacerbate the gap between the immense power the head of state has under the constitution and the far more limited power retained by the Queen (and Governor General), as a result of constitutional convention and declining real legitimacy.

The model attempts to address this issue by creating a new power for the PM to sack the head of State. But this increases, rather than decreases, uncertainty in the event of a constitutional crisis - precisely the point at which the office of head of state has a real role to play. Commentators have had lots of fun setting up scenarios where the two officeholders make pre-emptive dismissals to save themselves.

As the Guardian (2) put it last week, "[Electors] are merely being asked to replace one form of patronage with another. The very heart of the republican case - that an adult nation governs itself directly - has been ripped out. They are forced to sell republicanism without direct democracy; they are playing soccer without a ball."

An important point about the whole referendum process is that it has shown the symbolism needs changing. It has also opened the door to real debate about the powers of the head of state under the constitution.

Thus the status quo is no longer tenable.

This means that a "no" next weekend will not be the end of the Republic of Australia. It will be an act for, not against, self-determination by Australian electors.


Simon Orme made narrow escapes from both the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is now a strategic consultant living in Sydney.


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