ARM policy lets Australians decide the republic they want

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Lewis Holden responds to a recent article criticising the Australian Republican Movement, strongly defending ARM policy of letting Australians decide the sort of republic they want, rather than having one they don't like imposed upon them.

Graham Cooke: pushing the 'abolish the states' barrow?

Over at On Line Opinion, Graham Cooke responds to an article ARM Vice Chair David Donovan published on the ABC website a month ago. Graham makes a number of assertions that require a response.

Firstly, Graham takes issue with what he calls the ARM's "Republic Lite" proposals for changing Australia's form of government to a parliamentary republic. He asserts that it is "quite obvious" from the result of the 1999 referendum – when a particular model of a republic was voted down 45% 'Yes' to 55% 'No' – that Australians want more radical changes. He claims that the ARM, in the mould of the French monarchy's Bourbon dynasty, has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing".

On the first point, we know Graham is wrong. We know this because research, such as the Australian Constitutional Study following the 1999 referendum, shows that the Australian public want a parliamentary republic (often referred to as a 'minimalist' republic for some reason) that would entail the least disruption. The question is how an Australian head of state would be elected, not what powers they should have.

Furthermore, since parliamentary republics have a far better record of preserving (and indeed, expanding) democracy and are on the whole more stable than any other form of government, it's clear the Australian public doesn't want the radical path Graham proposes. There is little support for a head of state with executive powers in the form of a presidential system of government; although the supporters it does have tend to be the most vocal and dogmatic.

The ARM has, proudly, little in common with the Bourbons

What the Australian people rejected in 1999 was both the model on offer and the process of change. That's why the No case, consisting of direct-elect republicans and monarchists, campaigned on the "Vote No to this politician's republic" tag line. It's obvious from the Australian Constitutional Study that a directly-elected Australian head of state was preferred to a parliamentary-appointed head of state, and that many Australians were frustrated with the way the process was handled by then monarchist Prime Minister John Howard. It's important to note that the monarchists also claim that the 1999 referendum was a vindication of the support for the monarchy—they're wrong, though of course there was some support for the monarchy, something Graham does not acknowledge.

Graham states that a directly-elected Australian head of state would have a "mandate" and go power-mad, they would campaign to remove the government of the day and do all sorts of ridiculous things. This mandate argument is little more than monarchist propaganda. What they know is that in many parliamentary republics where the head of state is directly elected, the head of state acts as a check on the parliamentary executive (the prime minister and cabinet). There are numerous examples of elected heads of state doing exactly what monarchists claim the Queen and Governor-General do—namely, keep politicians in check. So they invented the problem of a "mandate"—that somehow an Australian as Australia's head of state would be constitutionally inept, and would sack a government with no legitimacy to do so. Because, as we know, that would never happen with a Governor-General...

It is claimed that moving to a republic "...will mean taking the current 1901 constitution and going through it line by line". Again, this is incorrect. No-one is suggesting a total re-write of the Constitution. The weight of academic literature looking at this issue is clear—the existing Constitution can be amended to make Australia a Parliamentary republic without having to scrap the entire document. Currently monarchists like to speak of Australia's 110 year-old Constitution as if it's an infallible document that can't possibly be improved. This is equally and nonsensical as Graham's claim.

It appears Graham is arguing that abolishing the federal system of states and territories must accompany the move to a republic. This is a familiar theme. We regularly come up against individuals who say "a republic must also do this, and if it doesn't do that it's not worth doing, so I'm not supporting it" etc. As soon as I read that, the penny dropped. Graham sees a republic as a way of getting rid of the federal system, which is the constitutional change he thinks is most important. My suggestion to Graham is the same as it is to everyone who tries to hitch their own issues to the republic issue: if you really believe that Australian would be better off without states—form your own campaign group. This makes more sense than complaining that the ARM doesn't push your particular barrow.

History and experience shows us that trying to achieve a lot of change at once while also building and carrying public support is very difficult to achieve. Strangely, Graham admits this, noting that few amendments to Australia's constitution have been made. This is because, humans being what we are, there are some changes we agree with and some we don't. Game theory teaches us that when a change we support is combined with a change we don't support, the most common reaction is to oppose the proposition. We wager that no change is better than any change we do not support. Hence, if becoming a republic is combined with abolishing the states, there will likely be a number of republicans who decide to oppose any constitutional change, fearing institutions they support may be swept away.

Standard monarchist practice is to claim the ARM wants to change the flag - it doesn't!

This is why, incidentally, monarchists falsely claim the ARM wants to change Australia's flag. They're using good old British-style divide and rule tactics. They know a lot of supporters of an Australian republic don't want a change in flag, or at least they don't want the change to accompany becoming a republic. They would prefer a separate process to allow the issues to be seen in isolation. So, in the style of the divide and rule tactics deployed at the 1999 referendum, opponents of a republic roll all sorts of issues into the mix to confuse the public and destroy clarity in the debate.

Which brings me back to the start and to Graham's parting shot, namely that the ARM has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing". It's fairly obvious to the casual reader that the ARM has made a fundamental policy shift since 1999. The ARM today supports plebiscites on the republic issue, so that the Australian people can decide the two major questions; whether Australia should become a republic, and if so, what model should be used to appoint or elect the head of state. This has been ARM policy since February 2010. Once those issues are decided, then the constitutional amendments required can be put to a full referendum. This, ironically enough, was the same proposal put forward by John Howard in his opening speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1998. It keeps monarchists awake at night, otherwise they would not vehemently oppose it or try to paint plebiscites as a tool of dictators such as Napoleon II. Far from being tools of oppressive dictators, the most democratic societies on earth – interestingly, almost always republics – use plebiscites regularly to decide issues.

In fact, the ARM learned its lesson in 1999—that allowing the people to choose the model creates the legitimacy for the republic we seek to create. That petrifies both those who refuse to accept their own political wheelbarrows aren't part of the mix, and the opponents of change.

(Read the ARM policy in full here.)  
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