The ghost of an Australian Republic past

Australian RepublicRecent political developments reminded me of the ghost of an Australian Republic past – the pain of being forced to vote against a republic at the 1999 referendum despite my support for an independent, mature Australia with a head of state who is one of us, not a foreign, hereditary ruler.

Then Prime Minister John Howard opposed an Australian republic. However, there was majority public support, and a seemingly unstoppable push, for a republic, forcing his hand on the issue.

But, Howard was nothing if not a clever, seasoned and cunning political operator. He created a ‘Constitutional Convention’ stacked with conservatives and opponents. The role of the Convention was to endorse a model for an Australian republic to be put to a referendum. The model was meant to have the majority support of the Convention before moving to the referendum stage.

Public polling made it clear time and time again the only model Australians were interested in was the ‘direct election’ model, which would have seen the president elected by a popular vote, like in Ireland.

Monarchists of course opposed any change, and many politicians were keen to retain control of the process.

The result was a proposal from the Convention for a model least popular with the public, a model with an appointed head of state resulting in the following referendum question:

To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Despite the proposed model failing to achieve majority support even at the Convention, with only 73 votes in favour, falling 4 votes short, the question was put to the public in a referendum on 6 November 1999 anyway.

The referendum went down in flames, with only 45.13% of the population voting yes on that model, closely mirroring the outcome at the Convention.

The republic referendum experience plays on the minds of the LGBTI community at a time when the current Prime Minister vaguely proposes a plebiscite, a non-binding public vote, on marriage equality, because, among other things, the experience highlighted the significance of the nature and wording of the question that’s being put to the people.

The memories of the failed push for a republic were relived by many this week as the Australian Republican Movement was revived with fanfare, with the announcement of a new Chair of its National Committee, The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter FitzSimon, ex-footballer, colourful patriot.

Consequently, a number of high-profile Australians made their support for a republic known, from Australia’s maligned Treasurer, Joe Hockey to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who valiantly led the Australian Republican Movement to defeat in the 1990s with his trademark smug self-confidence.

Joe Hockey announced he would form a ‘parliamentary friendship group’, whatever that is, to discuss Australia becoming a republic, as the reinvigorated Australian Republican Movement called for a plebiscite on the issue by … 2020, followed by a referendum proposing a specific republican model by … 2025.

Arguably, Joe Hockey’s support for a republic is a kiss of death in itself, and their so-called ‘ambitious 10-year plan for constitutional change’ doesn’t fill me with confidence either.

The words that came to my mind about this plan was not ‘ambitious’, but ‘head-ache inducing.’

Should a plebiscite on the subject actually go ahead within the proposed time-frame, it would be the fifth time within a few years Australians could be asked to go to the polls, among the proposed, controversial plebiscite on marriage equality, the referendum on the constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, and two federal elections in 2016 and 2019.

Perhaps one of the best takes on this latest push was offered by Rowan Dean in The Australian Financial Review:

In other news this week, the Australian Monarchist Society announced their campaign to find a new national court jester to distract the masses with. “Every successful monarchy needs a preposterously absurd court jester to give people a really good belly laugh,” a spokesman for the Monarchist Society said. “Which is why we believe we need a referendum to find one. So far, we’ve had some great comedians put their hands up for the job; one is this hilarious character who sometimes puts a red bandana on his head and sometimes takes it off, which is pretty funny all by itself. And the other is the federal Treasurer. Apparently he’s got oodles of free time on his hands now he’s not allowed on Q&A any more.

A commentator for the government said: “We haven’t seen such a comical republican movement since Mr Turnbull and Thomas Keneally led their hilarious troupe of failed actors, chardonnay luvvies and media celebrities back in the late ’90s. They had the nation in stitches too.”

When asked whether he had the appropriate credentials for the official role of National Court Jester, Mr Hockey was adamant he was fully qualified. “I’ve been rehearsing for this job all my life,” he quipped, lighting up an exploding cigar. “Who can forget my ‘poor people don’t drive cars’ gag, that had the entire country in tears for weeks. If you want someone who can provide endless distractions from our economic woes, I’m your man.”

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