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Republicans love referendums

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Lewis Holden says that despite anything you may have heard to the contrary, republicans love referendums.

A MEMBER of the New Zealand Republican Movement said to me recently that we're spending too much time talking about the Royal family and claims made by our opponents. In doing so, he said, we made it appear as if the debate was being directed by the opponents of a republic. That is not the case, but there has also been similar feedback posted on Facebook that we're putting too much effort into talking about a certain leading monarchist. This criticism is probably worth taking into account, although it's also worthwhile explaining why responding is important. We do spend a lot of time discussing the half-truths put out by the opponents of change exactly because they're half-truths.

Nonetheless, it does seem that some of their arguments are so ridiculous it's better that we ignore them. For example, suggesting that those who desire and Australian as Australia's head of state aren't loyal to Australia. Or that a republic would make New Zealand as violent and divided as Lebanon. Or that an Australian republic is the slippery slope to Stalinism ... (and they wonder why they're faced with ridicule!). Or that plebiscites are an evil tool of dictators, only ever used by a 'political class' to extend the powers of the Chardonnay swilling liberal inner-city elites. This last point is an intriguing one: it reflects the reality that the republic debate is one where the process of change is almost more important than the outcome. The process of becoming a republic needs to be a grassroots effort, sure, but inevitably its success is dependent on a process set out by politicians.

Of course, when you have a Prime Minister determined to keep the monarchy, they will do everything they can to derail change. That is exactly the point made by one correspondent to The Australian. Somehow David Flint managed to read it as "Republicans hate referendums", even though, once again it's pretty clear to anyone reading the letter that what the correspondent actually said was totally different.

Now, to John Howard's credit he did actually go through with the referendum process. But Howard didn't earn the epithet "Lazarus with a triple by-pass" for nothing: Howard understood the critical division amongst republicans (that is, direct versus parliamentary election of an Australian head of state) and exploited it. He knew that to defeat a referendum on an Australian republic would put the issue back for at least a decade and ensure that as a monarchist Prime Minister he would not, in the words of Churchill, have to preside over a beheading. So far, Howard has been proven to be correct. Whether his political protégée, Tony Abbott, is proven correct that Australia will still be a constitutional monarchy in 2020 remains to be seen.

Sure, back in 1998 (that is, 12 years ago) the ARM celebrated. But unlike David Flint the Australian republicans have moved on from then. They have now, perhaps somewhat ironically, come back to John Howard's thinking in 1998. At the opening of the Constitutional Convention in 1998, Howard said:
"If this Convention does not express a clear view on a preferred republican alternative, then the people will be asked - after the next election - to vote in a preliminary plebiscite which presents them with all the reasonable alternatives. Then a formal constitutional referendum offering a choice between the present system and the republican alternative receiving most support in the preliminary plebiscite would follow."

It's worth repeating this every time someone complains that plebiscites are dishonest, and Howard's approach (a convention then a referendum) was right: Howard originally supported plebiscites. Now, it just so happens that the Convention did have a view on the republican alternative, but that was only because the direct elect republicans and others abstained in the critical vote on a model. Exactly why they did that remains a mystery, and deserves further research. My personal view is that the monarchists must've convinced them that the defeat of the first referendum would inevitably lead to a second referendum where a direct elect model was put forward, and that by joining the No case they'd somehow get public sentiment on their side. But that's irrelevant now.

What matters in 2010 is that Australian republicans support a process that gives as much input and control to the Australian public as possible. The fact that it drives the die-hard royalists mad is all the evidence you'd ever need that it's the right process to follow. Interestingly, New Zealand provides an interesting example of why (which also has a link to monarchists in Australia) a non-binding plebiscite followed by a binding referendum is a good idea.

In 1984 New Zealand elected a radical government under the leadership of David Lange. Lange immediately put in place a Royal Commission on Electoral Reform to look at New Zealand's electoral system. He had good reason to: at the 1978 and 1981 elections, Labour won more of the popular vote than the governing National Party, yet National remained in office. The Commission reported back in 1986, recommending New Zealand adopt proportional representation. Australian Psephologist and monarchist Malcolm McKerras declared the proposal as "so radical that it had virtually no prospect of popular endorsement at a referendum." Lange appeared to agree, and tried to ditch the the proposal. However, Lange's government also embarked on radical restructuring of New Zealand's economy, setting in motion the process of change. By 1990 his government was voted out of office, and under pressure to deliver on election promises, newly elected Prime Minister Jim Bolger put forward a proposal for change not dissimilar to the ARM's proposal.

In 1992, a non-binding plebiscite was held asking the New Zealand public two questions: did they want to change the electoral system, and irrespective of their answer to the first question, which system did they support to replace the current system. The result was emphatic: 85% wanted to change the electoral system, while 70% wanted MMP to replace it. McKerras said following the 1992 vote that MMP was "a rat bag scheme", and predicted it would be voted down. At the 1993 general election, a binding referendum was held: voters had a choice between the status quo or an MMP alternative.

Interestingly, in this example the government of the day didn't support the reform it was putting forward, just like Howard in 1999. It tried to derail the process by increasing the size of parliament under the new system (from 99 to 120 MPs) and talking about re-introducing an upper house of parliament. The public didn't buy it, or the anti-reform scare campaign.

The New Zealand electoral reform example shows why the plebiscites option is the right process for creating a republic. It enables the people to choose the model that's best for them. It gives them ownership of their constitution, it reconnects them with their democracy. That's why it scares the hell out of the monarchists, and why they stridently oppose it. They repeat ad nauseum that a plebiscite can't change the Australian constitution. They're not wrong. So why would they oppose it, since a plebiscite would not create an Australian republic?  
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