Consulting not leading an enemy of the Australian Republic

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Dr John Hirst, in the final part of his 2011 National Republic Lecture, says the third main enemy of an Australian Republic is an over-commitment to consultation.

The 2011 National Republican Lecture was delivered in Canberra on November 21. Read the first two parts of Dr Hirst’s lecture:

Part 1: Enemy One: Waiting for the Queen to die

Part 2: Enemy One: A scorn for nationalism

Third enemy of the Republic: the commitment to consulation

My third enemy of the republic is the commitment to consultation.

The desirability of consultation is on everyone’s lips. If your magazine’s circulation is falling, consult your readers; if your party membership is melting away, consult the members; if the republican cause is ailing, consult the citizens. To achieve the republic we are going to consult the citizens by plebiscite on whether they want one; then by another plebiscite establish what sort of republic they want; and some schemes include a third plebiscite to discover what the head of state should be called. A cascade of plebiscites will produce the republic. Perhaps consultation is sometimes effective. In the case of the republic I regard this form of consultation as unnecessary and damaging to the cause. It is a true enemy of the republic.

If you are inclined from the jump to disagree with me, you are in excellent company. Consultation by plebiscite is not only the policy of the Australian Republican Movement, of which I am a not very active member, but also the Australian Labor Party, the Corowa conference of 2001, the Committee of the Senate which reported on the Road to a Republic in 2004, and the late Professor George Winterton, eminently wise and learned, the intellectual father of the modern republican movement. I should say, lest you think it is dreadful manners to criticise the policy of the organisation which has invited me to give its annual lecture, that I alerted the organisers to my perverse views and they were content to hear me out.

After the failure of the 1999 referendum many people reported that they felt the issue had been rushed; that they had not been adequately informed and consulted about the proposal on which they were required to vote. I don’t doubt these feelings— I don’t doubt them even though the consultation had in fact been comprehensive. The people had been given the opportunity to elect delegates to a Constitutional Convention. They could vote for candidates promising to support the monarchy; for Candidates from the ARM who were committed to an Australian head of state elected by the parliament, and for the Real Republicans who wanted the people to elect the president and much else beside. The elected delegates met in Convention with an equal number of appointed delegates carefully chosen to represent the community in a balanced way by gender and ethnicity and age. The Convention voted in principle for a republic and after an exhaustive consideration of all options voted for a president endorsed by a two-thirds vote of a joint sitting of parliament. Basically, the ARM’s scheme with some modifications. The proceedings of the Convention were widely reported in the media. No proposal to amend the constitution has been preceded by such an open, popular, inclusive and deliberative process.

The people who nevertheless said the consultation was inadequate may not have engaged with this process and then blamed the process rather than themselves when they found themselves voting NO though inclined to vote YES. “If you are uncertain, vote NO’ has been the killer weapon in all constitutional referendums. The chief reason for the complaint about lack of consultation is that overwhelmingly Australians wanted to elect the president themselves. If that proposal had been put at the referendum there would have been much less complaint about lack of consultation. We know why that proposal was not put. The ARM believed that a president appointed by a two thirds vote in parliament would be a bi-partisan figure and not be a politician—which is also what the people said they wanted—and more importantly that most politicians, expert opinion, and the ARM itself were opposed to direct election as a threat to the existing system of government.

In my view consultation by plebiscite is the wrong remedy for the defeat of 1999. Before I suggest a better remedy, let’s look at how consultation by plebiscites would operate, if any government could be found to commit itself to them.

Faced with a question of whether you support a republic in principle any thinking elector is naturally going to say it depends on what sort of republic. The devil is in the detail. It is not as if there is an overwhelming need or desire to get rid of the monarchy immediately in which case any republic might seem preferable. And we are a long way into this argument. People who are engaged with this question are beyond thinking of it in the abstract.

In the 1890s George Reid Premier of New South Wales was asked to support federation in principle. His own colony followed a policy of free trade; the other five colonies were protectionists in varying degrees. The plan for federation was that the first federal parliament should determine the nation’s trade policy. This, said George Reid, was like a teetotaller setting up house with five drunkards with the question of beverages to be settled later. He was looking to how in practice a federation would operate. There are millions of Australians who will not vote YES to a republic until they can be sure how a republic will operate.

The proponents of a plebiscite think an in-principle question would force the monarchists to defend the monarchy, which so far they have managed to avoid. A defeat of the monarchist principle would then bring greater authority to the republican cause. The usual form of an in-principle question is this:

Do you want Australia to become a republic by replacing the British monarch with an Australian citizen as Head of State?

How would monarchists campaign against such a question? Would they defend the principle of monarchy? Of course not. They would say you should vote NO because change is dangerous and there is already an Australian head of state— the Governor General. So that red herring of who is the head of state— Queen or Governor General— would be dragged right through the campaign. The monarchists would detail all the shortcomings of republics ancient and modern. So, willy-nilly republicans would have to defend republican proposals for Australia as perfectly safe without the details of the schemes being before the electors and without republicans being agreed on which scheme was preferable.

The monarchists would warn the people that if they vote YES the politicians will concoct a republican scheme without any further reference to them.  ‘Don’t give them a blank cheque’ would be the cry. This danger has at least been realised by some of the proponents of an in-principle plebiscite. They suggest that the question itself should say that a YES vote is given on condition that the people will again be consulted on the detail. So what could the monarchists say about that? It’s too easy, isn’t it? They would say: you have a politicians’ promise that you will be consulted again—and how reliable are promises from them? Of course no republic can be established without the people voting at referendum—that’s the guarantee for popular control. But sadly only half the people know that Australia has a written constitution and that they are the ones who at referendum must approve its alteration. Upon this ignorance, much mischief can be made.

My prediction about the likely outcome of an in-principle plebiscite is this: if there was a narrow majority for the republic before the plebiscite there would not be one when it was taken. The republican movement can survive the rejection of a particular proposal for a republic. It will not survive if the people vote in principle against it.

The in-principle question is much more likely to get a positive answer if the questions about the form of a republic follow immediately, at the same time, on the same ballot paper. As I have said, a debate over an in-principle plebiscite would morph very quickly into arguments about models, so better to have details on the table. But there are still dangers. If no scheme obtained a majority, the plebiscite would have formalised and solidified differences rather than reconciling them. That assumes that in the voting citizens would mark only the option they preferred.

The Senate committee of 2004 received very few submissions on what form the voting should take on the options, which indicates that the thinking on how this plebiscite would play out has not proceeded very far. If the voting were preferential there would be a winner, but whether all dispute over the form of a republic would then cease is unlikely. We might get a scheme that won its way to the top on the second preferences of all the others. That would be the Senator Fielding republic. Something we would all be excited about. The most likely outcome of the plebiscite would be a majority for direct election. That’s not what the politicians would want; perhaps the Labor Party would accept it; Liberal acceptance is most unlikely. The bipartisan support for a referendum, which all observers see as crucial to success, would be missing. Once there was a clear vote for direct election at a plebiscite, it would be very difficult to put limitations upon direct election to win over its opponents.

We don’t need plebiscites to know how opinion stands on the republic. It can be stated very starkly. The people will not support a republic without direct election of the president; it will be very difficult to get parliament to put a direct election proposal to the people— or if it did, it would not have the support of both major parties. The political need is to craft some modified form of direct election. Some years ago the ARM did very good service by producing a booklet called Six Models for an Australian Republic.

It would do good service now if it crafted six modified direct-election schemes. We are wasting our time with the rest.

The modified direct-election scheme in the ARM’s book of six models was for the people to nominate candidates, parliament to choose seven by two-thirds vote at a joint sitting, and then the people to vote for the president from among the seven candidates. George Winterton assumed that the people wanting to vote for the president would resent parliament controlling who the candidates were. But is he right? The ARM could well conduct pilot surveys or focus group work to see if the feeling about nomination is as strong as the feeling about election. My guess is that if the candidates were to be vetted, it would be better that the vetting agency be some independent body rather than the parliament. That too could be tested. Such an electoral commission might be similar to the Constitutional Council that Richard McGarvie proposed which was to consist of retired Governors General and Governors. To that body he gave the power of appointing the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. In a modified direct-election scheme such a body would choose say seven candidates from all those nominated. In my book on the republic I proposed an electoral commission chosen by lot from the recipients of the Order of Australia. Under my scheme that body was to choose candidates for parliamentary election. It could as well choose the candidates for a direct popular election after an open process of nomination.

My assumption, as you see, is that the politicians should be kept out of the process if there is to be any winnowing of the candidates. But perhaps there are circumstances where they would be accepted. What if each state parliament proposed one candidate for a direct election? That would give six candidates. Perhaps the two territories could propose a seventh. The politicians would be anxious to do their state proud by choosing well and their people might accept their involvement when this was their business. This scheme has the advantage of producing a limited number of candidates so the need for winnowing disappears; it also ensures that all states have a chance to have a local candidate in the election.

If by testing opinion, no schemes of this sort found favour, the other mode of restricting nominations and ensuring quality would be explored: requiring candidates be nominated by a substantial number of electors—and, as some have proposed, not all from the same state.

I don’t think there would be any popular opposition to the reserve powers being codified at least in part if there is to a directly elected president; nor to a requirement that a directly elected president should seek advice from a constitutional council before using them. Those measures would help meet the objections of opponents of direct election.

All such schemes should be debated, tested and modified—and tested not just with ordinary citizens. The leaders of the Real Republic and their likely successors should be consulted on the various ways direct election might be handled.

You see I am not opposed altogether to consultation. I would have the ARM consult samples of the citizenry and leaders of opinion and generate debate on good models for direct election. If the ARM started with six schemes for direct election, it might reduce them to two or three.

At the moment the ARM is offering to the politicians a process for reaching the republic which is protracted and full of hazards. If ever we have a prime minister who wants to achieve a republic, much better to be able to offer him or her a plan for a republic rather than a process. A plan already road tested that could be carried through the parliament and then to a referendum. A plan that could be achieved in six months. If we talk of the republic in this way, as something ready for decisive action, we are more likely to find a prime minister who will take it up.

I was active in the ARM in its first phase. Given how matters stood when we began, I don’t regard the 45% vote for the republic as a disgrace. When we began it was commonly thought that a republic meant a president in the American mode; that our system of government would be turned upside down; that we would get a politician for president, or that we couldn’t participate in the Commonwealth Games or have photos of the royal family in the Women’s Weekly. We worked to dispel all these fears. We did so not just by arguing for a republic in principle but also by having a plan to achieve it. Having a workable plan brings more support to the principle. Having no fixed plan induces doubt and lassitude.

Causes do not flourish without leadership; leaders need to consult only as far as is necessary to craft policies that can win assent. If leadership falters, the demand for consultation grows. We of the ARM proposed the wrong model in 1999. That does not mean we should give up leading. We should lead better, better informed as we are by all that has gone before. That will give us a much better chance of success.
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