It's all over for the republicans
Monday, 23 September 2002
THE AUSTRALIAN Republican Movement should throw in the towel.
It's all over. New chairman John Warhurst can go home, and Labor MP
Lindsay Tanner can find oxygen elsewhere.
Australia will only become
a republic if developments in the Mother Country leave us with no
referendum provided the best chance we'll ever get. It scored 45 per
cent yes, but not within cooee of success. To pass, a referendum
needs a national majority plus a majority in a majority of states. A
majority of six is two-thirds.
Throw in the fact that enthusiasm for a republic
is lower in the smaller states, and it becomes likely that even the
highest yes levels in opinion polls would be insufficient for
A 1977 referendum on ''simultaneous elections''
got 62 per cent support and still failed.
however, is not the problem. That honour goes to that stinker
bequeathed to us by our founding fathers - the referendum process
itself, outlined in Section 128 of the Constitution.
Only Australia and
Switzerland alter their constitutions by popular vote. (Others
generally do it by vote of a large majority of parliamentarians.)
The Swiss practically invented the referendum. Citizens there can
initiate them and voters give them the seriousness they deserve,
consider the issues and vote accordingly. They behave like
our politicians, are not up to the task. We combine the most
combative political parties in the democratic world with the lowest
(apart from Americans) levels of political interest.
That's why referendums in
this country are a farce. We are not necessarily more
''conservative'' than people in other countries, we're just forced
to perform a task for which we are not, by temperament, equipped.
That we've passed just eight from 44 is not necessarily bad. But
referendums held concurrently on wildly disparate topics almost
invariably receive near identical votes. The same question, put on
different occasions, gets hugely different results. We consider
anything - the Government, the Opposition, the weather - but the
You might expect a republic referendum to be
different. The model voted on three years ago involved as few
changes as possible. It too failed, not due to a surfeit of
celebrities. Nor was it because, as Phil Cleary wrote in the Age
last Thursday, the ARM foisted an unpopular model on the voters. It
failed because Australians just can't help themselves.
And if you thought the no
case in 1999 was a tad over the top, just wait for the mother of all
scare campaigns against the direct election model.
The 1999 minimalist
proposal simply transferred the governor-general's present powers,
written and reserve, to the new president. A direct election model
that did this would condemn Australia to what the Chinese call
''interesting times''. (In this two-headed monster the president
would control the armed forces, for example.) No sane person would
put this to the vote. So the president's powers would have to be
codified. That's when the fun would really start. This would be
heaven on a stick for all those rent-a-crowd ''no'' case populists
who emerged three years ago.
It would mean a vast rewrite of the Constitution,
so alienating conservative voters. And defining away the new
president's powers relocates them to, of course, ''greedy
Imagine the fun Tony Abbott would have with that.
Malcolm Turnbull complained that the ''no'' case told porkies in
1999. This misses the point. Voters know garbage when they hear it,
but they don't care. They just want to vote ''no''.
Why? To give someone a
boot up the bum, to feel empowered - the usual reasons.
The minimalist model will
never again go to the people. And direct election is unelectable in
novelist Victor Hugo said, ''Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose
time has come.'' Hugo never met Section 128 of the Australian
Brent is editor of mumble.com.au
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