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It's all over for the republicans
Peter Brent
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 choice.

The 1999 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 constitutional change.

A 1977 referendum on ''simultaneous elections'' got 62 per cent support and still failed.

''Double majority'', 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 grown-ups.

We, and 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 questions themselves.

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 politicians''.

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 this country.

French novelist Victor Hugo said, ''Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.'' Hugo never met Section 128 of the Australian Constitution.

Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au

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