Saturday 30 October 1999

How Howard Killed The Republic
by Alan Ramsey (Sydney Morning Herald)

You know what John Howard is doing, don't you? He is blowing $70 million of public money on a referendum that can't win. For the republican "yes" case to get up next weekend would be to defy a century of voter precedent. In this country, no referendum proposal formally opposed has ever succeeded. Not once. Overall, eight only in 44 referendums since 1901 have come home.

Nor does failure need major party support. In 1967, a handful of whinging, scaremongering senators defeated a proposal supported vigorously by all three major parties. That was an attempt to break the constitutional link between the respective numbers in the House and the Senate. Because it failed, we now have many more Federal politicians than otherwise, and we have them because 10 self-serving MPs argued the "no" case against the rest of the Parliament - and won a clear majority of votes in five States (the exception was NSW).

This time, half the Coalition, including the Prime Minister, along with some of the shrillest, meanest, at times ugliest and most addled voices across the community, line the "no" barricades. The republic has no chance.

And for all those who think such a relatively small but heavily symbolic change is an obvious and commonsense move at this time, you need blame only one person. Kim Beazley was never more right. John Howard has blatantly manipulated the republican issue from the moment he was forced, by Paul Keating, to embrace a public position in June 1995.

The ensuing four and half years of manoeuvring has shown the man now prime minister to be an astute and shrewd politician. It has also shown him up as a national leader not worth a bumper.

The wording of the question to be answered next Saturday is as rigged as the supposedly educative advertising has been biased to favour the status quo.

This was meant to be a referendum on one simple question: do Australians want an Australian head of state? Except that issue is now a dead letter. Of course a clear majority now want an Australian head of state. Shorn of all the miserable humbug that has come to infest the republic debate, nobody can doubt most Australians prefer one of their own. They do not any longer want the fag end of the British monarchy to dominate our Constitution. They want the 42 references to "the Queen" and "Her Majesty" expunged and replaced.

That is all the change being asked.

The sheer absurdity of what Howard and company are insistent on keeping is emphasised by the reality that "the Queen" referred to in the Constitution is actually named in the schedule as Queen Victoria, a monarch now dead for 98 years. Since the very year, in fact, the Constitution came into effect: 1901. While it refers to "her heirs and successors", the reality remains in a document almost impossible to amend: a British monarch dead almost a century is the head of state named in our Constitution.

Yet the strident argument that voters are being confronted with is not the British monarchy versus an Australian head of state, but an elected head of state versus an appointed head of state - a choice not available on the ballot paper. The "no" campaign has erected a straw man. Howard has ensured voters must say either "yes" or "no" to an appointed head of state only. The wording allows no other choice. And to vote "no" is to vote "yes" to the British royal family. Crude but effective.

John Howard can't lose.

Not on the republic issue, anyhow.

In the absence of a genuine referendum based on reasonable candour and goodwill, most interest is in the intriguing alliances thrown up behind the "yes" case. While the "no" people contain all the meanest elements of the Liberal Party's inflexible Right - key among them Peter Reith, Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop, with Howard pretending to remain a lofty distance above the fray - the "yes" people have brought together identities as different as Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser and Peter Costello behind an organisational umbrella that includes the Liberals' former Federal director and 1996 campaign strategist, Andrew Robb, and some leading figures from Labor's great election-winning years, Peter Barron, John Singleton and the pollster Rod Cameron.

Looking for a strong public identity with credibility and energy, Singleton and Barron phoned Hawke in the Philippines eight days ago and pleaded with him to return home for a full schedule in the last 10 days of campaigning with Malcolm Fraser. That was last Friday week. Hawke cut short his business commitments and was back in Sydney on Monday. He went straight to Singleton's advertising agency and reeled off 10 television advertisements without a break. Four began going to air on Wednesday night.

Wednesday was the same day that coverage of John Howard's 2,500-word "manifesto" for doing nothing appeared in the newspapers. This had been released the previous night under a midnight embargo to get the widest publicity in the morning press. But Wednesday, too, was the day Peter Costello shrugged off caution and got stuck into the campaign.

Yet with only 10 days until voting, Costello was leaving it very late. There is no more senior Federal Liberal parliamentarian to oppose outright John Howard's wholehearted embrace of the monarchy. Why did he wait so long? Well, some of us feel Peter Costello is far more interested in his own political ambitions than the referendum. His Wednesday speech was more likely, therefore, to have been less about the republic debate as such and more a public challenge in political leadership to Howard's insipid manifesto.

The pity is Costello has not made a better speech since he got into Government. If he had the passion for a republic that he pretends, you wonder why he wasn't out there in public much earlier to argue the case. But no, he waited until the very day that his key speech on the issue could be contrasted with Howard's. Which, of course, it was.

It dominated the news that night.

One of Costello's sharper excerpts: "The traditional defence of monarchy is that it is above politics, able to unite society as a whole. But in our society, monarchy doesn't unite. In our society we have difficulty allowing the monarch to perform those ceremonial functions because something gnaws at its credibility and its believability. And the proof is in the pudding.

"If this were a unifying symbol, above politics, able to perform the ceremonial role, the monarch would be performing the ceremonial role in Sydney - our Olympics, our head of state, our Queen. But we know, don't we, that something is wrong. Something jars. It didn't jar in 1956 when Prince Philip opened the Melbourne Olympics. In our society at that time, it was a unifying concept. It isn't today."

Indeed, it's not. John Howard will open the Sydney Olympics, at his insistence. For the first time, a head of government rather than a head of state will open a modern Olympics. Howard clearly doesn't have the courage of his convictions. He embraces the monarchy for political expedience, but the Queen herself won't come to Sydney, or hasn't been asked. The Prime Minister has yet to explain the conundrum.

Malcolm Fraser seized on the same point. "We're told the governor-general is effectively our head of state," Fraser said at the same function where Costello spoke. "Well, he isn't, and I hope the Prime Minister will forgive me if I say he [Sir William Deane] has also told us he is not. Because if he were, he would be opening the Olympic Games. John Howard is a traditionalist. The fact Bill Deane is not opening the Games indicates clearly, in the Prime Minister's mind, he is not our head of state, which of course is accurate."

Then there was Michael Lishman, a senior Perth lawyer and founding member of the group Conservatives for an Australian Head of State. In a speech of style and substance, Lishman said, in part: "I find the problems SOCOG are having over the ticketing fiasco reassuring [see right]. The Australian public do not expect tickets to be allocated on an English model based on connection, position and privilege. Or on an American model by being sold at the highest price. And yet these are the choices the 'no' case offers in their schizophrenic argument.

"Our history, our English history, has been the triumph of Parliament over the head of state. This model Australia has been asked to vote for [next Saturday] retains this key and important feature of the Westminster system. And yet it allows Australia to have a head of state who barracks for Australia and who symbolises our independence ..."

In a sense, nobody said it better than Paul Keating in that speech of madness and bravado a few weeks ago to the NSW ALP. "I remember a great story by Dan Minogue, the former Irish member for West Sydney," he related. "His sister was a nun at Sale in Victoria, and Arthur Calwell was the leader at the time, and every year Dan used to go to the convent and spend two weeks with his sister. After one of these sojourns, he came back and Arthur, who knew everyone's relatives, said, 'Dan, how's Evelyn going? How are they going down there?'

"And Dan said, 'Well, they're going well, Arthur.' And Arthur said, 'Tell me, Dan, what are they saying about me?' 'Well,' he said, 'Arthur, they're praying for you - but they ain't voting for you!' Now, this is a bit like the Queen: I'm praying for her, but I ain't voting for her. But John Howard is!

"Can you believe this, in this day and age, with all we've created and all we have, that anyone can believe that everything we've come to represent about ourselves can be represented by the Queen of Great Britain? I mean, what sort of fossilisation gets you to think like that? The fact is, we need the republic and we need it now, not because of what it says to others but what it says to us about ourselves."

If only Howard thought so, too.

How different it could have been next Saturday.

Email: Malcolm Farnsworth -
The URL of this page is:
last modified
©copyright 1999