Copernican Republican Robert Vose advocates ditching the initial threshold plebiscite question proposed as part of the Australian Republican Movement’s process for Australia becoming a republic, and asking a preferential question on the sort of republic they want instead.
This article is about the process for Australia to change into a republic. The ARM proposes an initial threshold plebiscite asking Australians if they would like to remain a monarchy or become a republic. This strategy runs the risk that the vote for the monarchy may be higher than the vote for a republic after a successful scare campaign run by monarchists. An alternative to the high risk ARM process is to change the initial threshold plebiscite on a republic into a question about a preferred framework for a republic. A preferential plebiscite with at least three framework options would tip the scales towards a victory for republicans.
The policy of the ARM with regard to the process of Australia becoming a republic is listed below. My proposal for a preferential plebiscite vote on frameworks would replace item number one in the policy:
Pathway to an Australian Republic — the process
The ARM recommends the following process for achieving an Australian Republic. Each of the following steps should be supported by the public consultation and education necessary to ensure that all Australians are fully informed and involved in this important decision about our nation’s future:
1. A non-binding plebiscite on a threshold question along the following lines: ‘Do you want Australia to become a republic by replacing the British monarch with a resident Australian citizen as Head of State?’
2. After extensive consultation with the Australian people on the possible forms of an Australian Republic, including the selection method for the Head of State, a second non-binding plebiscite to determine the form of Australian Republic preferred by the Australian people.
3. A referendum, as required by the Constitution, offering a choice between adopting the form of an Australian Republic preferred by the Australian people and keeping the Constitution unchanged, that is retaining the British monarch as the Australian Head of State.
For a preferential vote on the preferred framework for an Australian republic, we will need to have at least two republican frameworks to choose between. One framework would be the ARM framework where we replace the Queen and Governor-General with an Australian. A second republican framework for this plebiscite could be a Copernican framework where we only replace the Queen with an Australian, while keeping the Governor-General. We would also have the existing framework with the monarchy as one of the three options for the preferential threshold plebiscite.
To demonstrate the appropriateness of having the threshold plebiscite on a preferred framework for a republic, consider the following thought experiment.
First, imagine seeing a picture of Queen Elizabeth II as the Queen of Australia.
Second, imagine a well-known Australian in that picture as Australia’s head of state today. It could be anyone – a well-known public figure, a sports star, an actor, Barry Humphries in character if you like – any popular Australian.
Third, all else being equal, what would the framework for that republic look like? Julia Gillard is Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce is Governor-General, Alex Chernov is still Governor of Victoria, etc. Our parliamentary democracy is still the same. What framework for a republic would we have?
Answer: We would have a Copernican framework for a republic. The ARM framework changes the structure of Executive Government in Australia. The ARM would remove the Governor-General in a republic, and they can provide reasons for this change to the existing framework. The point is that there are at least two alternative frameworks for an Australian republic.
Consequence: With regard to the framework for a republic, the public should have the choice of frameworks for an Australian republic as well as a choice on the method of selection.
The Flags Act now includes a condition that the existing Australian national flag will have to be one of the options in any plebiscite to change the Australian flag. To have a fair plebiscite on the framework for a republic there should be a preferential vote on at least three frameworks:
Three frameworks for a preferential threshold plebiscite on a republic
1. Monarchy: The existing framework with the monarch as head of state (the head of state remains the Queen).
2. Copernican: The existing framework with an Australian as head of state (head of state replaces the Queen only).
3. ARM: The ARM framework with an Australian as head of state (head of state replaces the Queen and the Governor-General).
A preferential vote will give republicans a guaranteed preferred framework for a republic, no matter which framework wins outright. A preferential vote can be interpreted as either a loss for the monarchy and/or a loss for one of the republican frameworks. There will emerge a preferred republican framework no matter how the vote goes. This is one way to reduce the risk in a republic plebiscite.
This strategy of a preferential vote for the threshold plebiscite will reduce risk for republicans in a number of ways. First, in a three way race the three different lobby groups would have to decide who to give their second preference to. This will change the dynamic of the debate. Monarchists will need to favour one republican framework over the other, and they will have to give their reasons for their preferred republican framework. If monarchists were to simply run a scare campaign against both of the republican frameworks, they run the risk of their supporters casting informal votes and thus lowering their tally. They would also run the risk of alienating many voters by appearing stubbornly narrow-minded. The republican frameworks would naturally give their preferences to each other. If any of the republican framework supporters were disrespectful towards the monarchy, they might also find that this will count against them in the final vote.
A three way race changes the dynamic of the debate so that people are more likely to focus on the issues, rather than the irrational fears. Monarchists would be hard pressed to use the term “Politician’s Republic”, if in fact the people were being given a choice of frameworks for a republic. Given a choice of republican frameworks in a non-binding plebiscite, people should be more inclined to make their vote count towards their preferred framework for a republic. The vote will actually make a difference. People cannot just reject the republic in a three way preferential vote.
A second point about reducing the risk is that you have two vote tallies with a preferential vote. You have the raw first preferences, and then you have the two-party preferred totals. Both of these tallies will be important for the outcome. You could expect the preferences for the republican frameworks to go towards each other. Only in the case that supporters of both republican frameworks were to be rude, arrogant and insulting to the public would you expect the monarchists to triumph with an absolute majority.
One risk for republicans on having a preferential plebiscite vote for the preferred framework in a republic would be if the reasoning and arguments presented are considered too arcane, complex or esoteric by the general public. The messages need to be honest, true and straight-forward.
The aim of an initial framework plebiscite could be to arrive at a preferred framework for a republic. A second preferential plebiscite at a later time would then ask a question on the method of selecting the head of state in a republic. This is just the first step in the process.
This is a variation on the process of the ARM. The ARM would like to have an initial threshold question on whether Australians would like Australia to become a republic. This is a high risk question if it were formatted as a YES/NO plebiscite question. There is the possibility that the vote for a republic could fail with the ARM process if the monarchists launch a powerful scare campaign for the threshold question — as they surely will. A bad outcome could delay the republican movement in Australia for a generation.
To reduce the risk of the threshold plebiscite for a republic, the question could be phrased as a question on preferred frameworks. You need at least two republican frameworks to have a meaningful preferential vote on frameworks. Once a framework is settled it makes sense to ask the public about the method of selecting the head of state. A preferential vote on the republic will reduce the risk of the threshold plebiscite for the republic. There would be a guaranteed win for one republican framework – either the Copernican or the ARM framework.
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