ARM's way or harm's way? The Australian Republic Movement's new "choice model" tipped to deliver our republic has some glaring flaws, writes Sarah Brasch.
THE AUSTRALIAN Republic Movement (ARM) has issued its new and final method called The Australian Choice Model for selecting our republic’s head of state. It has now plumped for election directly by the people after being the bastion of a "members-of-federal-parliament-as-elected-representatives-of-the-people" vote model for the last 25 years.
The "new way" dropped mid-January into the febrile atmosphere of the COVID omicron BA.2 wave; Russian troops massing on the Ukraine border; Grace Tame’s remarkable visit to The Lodge, as well as the impending Federal Election for which campaigning was already well underway.
On the constitutional change front, the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament had the floor and the momentum — and this had already been the case for several years. ARM apparently missed those memos.
Predictably, the announcement dived without fanfare other than arousing the usual naysayers and 1999 true believers for the parliamentary vote method, including former PM Paul Keating; those who don’t want a republic at all – like former PM Tony Abbott – and “no change” constitutional warriors such as shrill columnist for The Australian Greg Craven.
Meanwhile, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation in its own right, ARM’s head campaigner and backer for the 1999 Referendum, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, announced later that he would vote for it. Everyone else in the republic campaigning scene outside of ARM had moved on pretty quickly after the 1999 Referendum and election fodder it wasn’t. So much so that on 3 April, ARM relaunched.
The "second coming" revealed the complete constitutional amendments. If the punters hadn’t been impressed by ten pages of excerpts issued four months earlier, they were going to have to pay attention now that ARM was dead serious, possessed of gravitas and had done its homework.
With nothing new to offer, this effort didn’t hit the mark either. Even the full-blown, 69-page version is a “barebones constitutional lawyers’ model” for selecting a head of state, nothing more.
The April document is not a policy or a detailed proposal, nor is it a plan. More of a process — but not a complete one. There is nothing to ignite or inspire. Better articulated, more detailed and refined proposals were put to the 2004 Senate Inquiry: The Road to a Republic.
What the “final model” reveals is plenty about ARM as an organisation and its (in)ability to change over time rather than showing it as capable of producing the catalyst to fire up the population to bombard federal MPs’ offices demanding a vote.
What is in this new plan?
ARM’s new idea is for all voters to elect our head of state from 11 candidates.
The field consists of three citizens nominated by federal parliament with the other eight sourced from state and territory parliaments. (Norfolk Island is excluded by means of a sober, lawyerly definition.)
There are good aspects. The process draws largely on the successfully operating Irish model that has produced three excellent heads of state since 1990. Ireland's current president, Michael D Higgins (a former arts minister) is also a poet.
The head of state’s term is set at five years with the possibility of one five-year extension. Head of state elections will be separate from general elections. That all makes sense.
However, ARM’s selection model solution has six glaring flaws:
1. No discussion
It is imposed. It does not invite discussion, other contributions or the possibility of improvement. The public announcement on 3 April had the air of “take it or leave it”, a first and final offer. The following day, via email, ARM informed its members that the amendments gave federal parliament everything it needs to introduce legislation for a referendum. The people aren’t to be involved until the final vote.
2. A single referendum
The choice by the very same people to make the change is to be decided at a single referendum. There is no evidence advanced for dropping one or more preliminary non-binding, indicative votes. Such perilous territory. Alarm bells should be deafening at any suggestion of a “one-shot” proposal.
3. Reconciliation first
The new model drew fire from First Nations people and rightly so. They got only the briefest of mentions in the last paragraph of the January version. The words “Uluru Statement” appear nowhere. This is not good enough for the most significant constitutional statement since Federation and reveals ARM’s continuing contextual blindness.
Everyone must be involved this time. We should be a reconciled republic from the start otherwise the whole exercise will be as seriously flawed as Federation was. The referendum to enshrine an Indigenous voice in 'The Australian Constitution' must come first. On this subject, ARM should engage, listen and understand before it permanently alienates First Nations people as well as Indigenous referendum campaigners.
4. A federal republic with six state governors
It includes the extraordinary implication that the federation would become a federal republic with six state governors (representatives of the British monarch) in the kingdoms of Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania etcetera. The most senior among them is to step in if the head of state is absent. Such a mixture of systems and allegiances is unworkable in practice.
ARM’s handpicked team of constitutional lawyers (three of them women) stopped well short on this one for no apparent reason other than this aspect of the republic is still in the too-hard basket. Without insightful federal negotiators, one or more states could render the change impractical even if a majority of their voters favour a federal republic.
We saw Queensland’s intransigence and Western Australia’s tardiness over passing their own "requesting legislation for federal succession to the Crown" law in 2015 after Queensland refused to cooperate with former PM Julia Gillard on a federal omnibus bill and stood on its constitutional independence. Any prickly state government at the time the republic referendum passes, could create significant problems for the federation reconstituted as a republic.
In fact, without a determined effort by every state as soon as possible after the referendum (by holding their own referendums to change individual states’ constitutions), the whole thing could end up in a legal quagmire.
Despite its importance to the country’s stability and administration, this little twist – that it is up to the states to action – is tucked in as the final transition arrangement right at the end of the lengthy constitutional amendments.
5. Supporting data
ARM provides no reasons for the component parts of its selection method. None of them is argued, rather, allegedly supported by data, polling and surveys (of ARM members only?). This just clears the bar.
Instead, half of the 17 pages issued on 12 January were given over to constitutional amendments and much of the rest is taken up by explanatory text boxes; photos of cute fauna (the stand-out being the climate-change koala ambling along a dead eucalypt branch); unremarkable shots of city skylines and tourist icons. Better ARM had released all of its supporting data so it could be analysed by experts.
6. Choosing a head of state
Down in the entrails — there is not enough detail. Several important elements are missing altogether.
ARM says nothing about how campaigning is to be conducted and the extent to which campaigns would/should be publicly funded — or, alternatively, how much money candidates would be able to raise or fund themselves. However, “lawyers' concerns” – the dismissal process and powers – are well described and neatly drafted into proposed new sections of 'The Constitution'.
With each state and territory pursuing its own method for coming up with a single nominee for head of state, matters like gender balance and variety of candidates across the full national field of candidates are not mentioned.
Why 11 nominees? Why not ten? Why does the federal parliament score three nominations while every other parliament, even those of the most populous states, will only get one? How did ARM determine nominations were to come from parliaments? What alternatives were considered and why were they rejected?
Why do nominees have to meet 'Section 44' eligibility requirements? This section of 'The Constitution' has more than enough problems, is out of date and rules out good candidates for the national parliament. So why also foist it on head of state nominees from the outset?
Why preferential voting for 11 candidates? This does not pass the simplicity test. Choosing one nominee to vote for will be taxing enough for most voters. Nor does it make sense for a national vote to decide on a person, not a party. The obvious way to do it is "first past the post".
And what happened to the idea of voluntary voting to address the overblown but vocal anxiety of the “head-of-state-might-have-a-political-mandate-to-rival-elected-politicians” brigade? We won’t be selecting a member of parliament or of the governing party, so why does every voter have to take part?
Some commentary from lawyers on ARM’s new route to a republic has already appeared, specifically on the head of state’s proposed powers, but further work is required to address the many questions that voters, other campaigning groups and politicians will have.
ARM’s announcement draws a line in the sand as far as its own history is concerned but with the Federal Election now out of the way, there is plenty of time for another crack.
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