The Green's Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 2008 has been slightly updated Bill retabled into the new Parliament. Under the "new paradigm" – and bearing in mind an Australian republic is ALP policy – this new Bill stands some chance of success. How much chance remains to be seen.
Therefore, it is worth considering the Australian Republican Movement's written submission to the Senate Inquiry that considered the Bill last year. This submission was presented in person by the chair of the ARM, Major General Michael Keating.
SENATE COMMITTEE INQUIRY
PLEBISCITE FOR AN AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC BILL
ARM SUBMISSION (2009)
The Australian Republican Movement would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to make a submission to your inquiry and to give evidence today. We note the large number of submissions and that other organisations and individuals will give evidence today.
While the ARM is the largest republican organisation in Australia we recognise that other republican groups have specific issues of their own which they wish to bring to the attention of the Committee. We recognise their right to do this and encourage all forms of balanced input to the discussion. In fact, we encourage the participation of all Australians in what should be a great national discussion. The republic issue is really all about the sovereignty of the Australian people and what could be more fundamental than the people playing a central role in the discussion of options and the eventual choice of what type of republic would best suit Australia in the twenty first century.
The Role of the ARM
Despite our central place in the debate we do not think that the ARM knows best about all matters republic. Quite the opposite really, because for several years we have been trying to get the opponents of a republic in Australia to accept that it is not the role of the ARM to tell the people of Australia, or the Government the people have elected to represent them, what process should be followed or what type of republic should be preferred and offered at the eventual referendum. These are matters which are rightly the responsibility of the government of the day and the people to decide. As an advocate organisation the ARM has been urging the current Government to commit to a process and a timeline which will allow the long overdue reconsideration of the republic issue by the Australian people. We have also been emphasising the important requirement for greater community education and information to allow sensible discussion before any vote is required. As you know, this requirement was also recognised in the 2004 Senate Report, ‘Road to a Republic’.
I think our submission is fairly self explanatory, but can I add some comments which might assist you to see our submission in the context of the other submissions you have before you, and in the context of where we seem to be at in Australia today in regard to this issue.
In 2009 we have a majority of Australians who want to severe our remaining ties with the British monarchy. We also have avowed republicans occupying many of the community leadership positions in Australia. What we currently lack is strong leadership on the republican issue from those with the power to take action. We seem content for our leaders to be vaguely supportive of the concept of a republican Australia, to comment on the so called ‘ inevitability ‘ of us becoming a republic and yet to find a myriad of excuses for inaction. We are screaming out for committed and selfless leadership to put the issue at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, to decide a process, and to foster a meaningful national consideration of our own national identity and future. Senator Brown has made a start by introducing this bill and the Senate has made a start by referring it to this committee for consideration. We now need to transform this initiative into a plan for action.
The ARM thinks that it is vital to decide and make public the complete consideration process before embarking on it. The bill as it stands addresses only a first stage in the process and is prone to the criticism that what is to happen after the plebiscite is not clear. The doubters and those afraid of the future will have difficulties in accepting this vacuum and are more likely to vote ‘No’ when subjected to the inevitable scare campaign it will foster.
Some submissions have highlighted the desirability of framing the question to be asked to avoid the possibility of it leading to other questions about what kind of republic. The ARM supports consideration of this issue. Other submissions suggest the desirability of multiple questions on the first plebiscite. The ARM recognises the potential advantages of multiple questions. At some stage in the process the people must be afforded the opportunity to indicate their preferences concerning the kind of republic to be considered. Exactly when this is achieved is a matter for judgement and that is why it is important that the complete intended process be transparent from the outset.
The bill proposes that the plebiscite be held concurrent with the 2010 Federal election. While that timeframe is desirable it should not be achieved at the expense of providing adequate time for education, information and consideration. Surveys consistently highlight Australians’ lack of knowledge about constitutional matters and before we even start the discussion we need to ensure that the people understand that a plebiscite is non-binding and is at best only a ‘preliminary final’. The referendum will be the ‘grand final’. Twelve months would seem to be a minimum for this consultation process and given that it will require maximum effort to achieve the 2010 election timeline and we would need to start the national discussion as soon as possible. The suggestion that we should delay consideration of the issue until the current monarch dies or abdicates is absurd. To link the timing of the consideration of our national future to possible events in a foreign country, over which we have no control, is a delaying tactic at best. It also ignores the fact that we are considering cutting ties with a system – not an individual.
Concurrency with Elections.
There are, of course, some advantages in not staging the plebiscite concurrent with an election. This will presumably be a political decision made by the government of the day. Perhaps it would be possible for the Parliament to agree that the complete process should be completed within the life of the next government regardless of who might form that government. This would be a fine example of the bipartisanship which will be required to achieve the best result.
Improving our democracy and making the Australian people sovereign is worth the cost. In practical terms, the financial costs involved in Australia becoming a republic are the running costs of a functioning democracy. Let’s be prudent, yes, but let’s not try to hide inaction and lack of national will behind a smokescreen of the almighty dollar.
The GFC and Other Events.
Let’s not use this smokescreen either. There will always be other pressing issues for governments to consider. The Parliament and the Government are elected to manage ALL the issues of interest to the Australian people – not just a convenient or selected number of them. The majority of the Australian people want to pursue the issue of a republic. It may not be the most important issue at any given time but it still needs to be addressed.
Australia is a great country. We Australians are lucky people. Republicans want to see our Australian values reflected in our Australian democracy. While we acknowledge our British heritage, and are grateful for what it has provided, we also need to recognise our indigenous heritage, our immigrant heritage and our still developing home-grown, and difficult to define, ‘Aussie’ heritage. A national discussion on the development of an Australian republic affords a brilliant opportunity to draw on the best parts of all our heritages, reflect our values in our democracy and allow Australia to continue to develop in the future. We have all the ingredients. We now need the leadership. The challenge for this committee, the Senate, the Parliament and the Government is to provide the leadership that will produce the republic that Australia deserves.