Referendum’s Day Of Destiny Draws Near

Daily Telegraph, 4/11/99With polls showing support for the proposed republic failing in all States, campaigning comes to an end in the next 24 hours, setting the stage for the historic referendum on Saturday 6 November.

Opinion polls suggest that both the referendum on whether to become a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of parliament, and the referendum to insert a preamble into the constitution, will both fail. If so, this will mean that of 44 referendums submitted to the people since Federation, only 8 have succeeded. No referendum has ever succeeded without the support of both sides of politics. No referendum has ever been held before which has not had the support of the Prime Minister of the day.

A breathtakingly dishonest campaign has been waged by the monarchists in recent months. They have teamed up with the direct election republicans and campaigned against “this republic”. The direct electionists, led by Ted Mack and Phil Cleary, have thrown in their lot with the monarchists and held out the possibility of another referendum with a direct election republican model.

The cynicism of this alliance provides valuable political lessons for students of politics. As Kim Beazley pointed out yesterday, any proposal for a directly-elected president would immediately lose the support of most republicans on the conservative side of Australian politics. Direct election would require a review of the relationship between the two houses of parliament, particularly over the question of the Senate’s power to block Supply. Moreover, the prospect of a directly elected president with uncodified powers (the model supported by constitutional hoon Peter Reith) would give rise to an executive presidency at odds with Australia’s Westminster parliamentary traditions.

It is possible to support this particular model for an Australian republic simply because it will remove the link with the British monarchy from our political system. It will remove the link with an institution based on privilege, lineage, gender discrimination and sectarianism. It will mean an already politically independent Australia will take that last step towards nationhood, a step that began with Federation, continued with the assertion of our right to appoint an Australian Governor-General, and progressed through the adoption of our own national anthem, and the abolition of imperial honours and appeals to the Privy Council.

Many republicans would not quibble with the proposition that there is much more that could be done to improve the existing constitution, perhaps even by directly electing a president. But it difficult to view with equanimity the behaviour of so-called republicans who proclaim their belief in the people whilst they simultaneously cozy up to the Australian supporters of the British monarchy, the very same monarchists who have resisted at every turn each and every one of the steps towards independence in recent times.

These are depressing times for republicans and others who look on as fear and misrepresentation are employed by the monarchists and their erstwhile direct election supporters. All of this has been engineered by Prime Minister Howard, complete with the distraction of a banal preamble. As was said of Howard in a different context, he has seized this historic opportunity and shrunk to the occasion.

A poll published yesterday in the Daily Telegraph indicated that only 9% of Australians still regard the monarchy as a relevant symbol, yet many of the same people intend to vote NO tomorrow. Perhaps this is a tribute to the success of the monarchist campaign, but perhaps, as Laurie Oakes discusses his column in this week’s Bulletin magazine, it is also testimony to a shift in sentiment away from representative to more participatory and direct democracy.

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