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Why arenít the Universities leading on the Republic issue?

By Klaas Woldring - posted Friday, 22 March 2002


With a few exceptions, usually individual academics who take an interest in the Republican issue as activists or who write learned papers after a related event, eg. the failed 1999 Referendum, Universities as institutions of higher learning have done little to foster the Republic debate. The academic disciplines one would expect to stimulate relevant ideas and comparative research are Political Science and Law. Neither of these disciplines have been quick off the mark. Given that the debate has been going on for 10 years now this raises serious questions. Is it a lack of money or have Australian Universities lost their creativity and questioning ability?

This is an urgent matter and if public funding cannot be found now, and one cannot expect it from the Howard Government, hopefully Foundations and also Corporations would assist to at least to kick start the process. This could be done by injecting ear-marked grants for such purposes. Centres of the Comparative Study of Republics and their Presidents, or something like that, are hard to find. Occasional reformist articles are written by political scientists and constitutional lawyers but collectively they don’t add up to a substantial body of work that is widely known and distributed for learning purposes.

I doubt whether any regular courses along these lines are offered. Instead, again with some exceptions, most law academics have adopted a very conservative approach - or a minimalist one - with the exception of scholars like Professors Williams and Winterton of UNSW. Most political scientists ignored the issue altogether until the APSA Conference of 2000, held in Canberra, which yielded a number of interesting papers on the Referendum and suggestions for change. Most have built entire careers on the existing federal framework rather than questioning its appropriateness for a future Republic. Very few have questioned Australia’s archaic Constitution perhaps with the exception of ANU’s Reshaping Australia’s Institutions program. Most have concentrated on analysing political history, the status quo, the major parties and specialist studies.

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Yet, while the actual positive support for the continuation of the Monarchy was shown to be less than 10 per cent in 1999 the NO case still won decisively. The principal causes for rejection of the referendum were identified as a serious lack of knowledge of the system, distrust of politicians as well as distrust of the only model presented. What have the Universities been doing in all these years aware Australians surely must be asking themselves.

After the victory of the Howard government, there certainly has been considerable renewed interest in the republic debate by several activist groups. However, these are generally also unconnected with the Universities. After the winding up of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation, headed by Melbourne Law Professor Cheryl Saunders, one of the more progressive law academics, the forward-looking Foundation for National Renewal was launched in Brisbane, as a successor organisation. Other groups like Shed-a-Tier, the Abolish the States Collective, Republic Now! and Beyond Federation have also emerged. A couple of fairly reformist texts about the urgent need for constitutional change have been published - eg. one by the Fabian Society, a record of conference papers, The Big Makeover. However, Minimalism continues as the official dogma of several more conservative groups.

The Australian Republican Movement has acknowledged its mistakes in the 1990s but happily continues to merely consider the Head of State issue and now proposes a number of different options (six) that voters could chose from in a possible new Plebiscite or Referendum. A Conference in Corowa organised by the Victorian Centenary of Federation Committee, held early in December 2001, concentrated on "process" only, in contrast to models, through which a new Head of State could be chosen. Officially, the Republic was not even to be a subject of discussion and although advertised as a "Peoples Conference" it was dominated by conservative elites and politicians. Discussion of any wider constitutional change was avoided. Fear of major change seemed to be the driving force behind such Conferences rather than a desire for change. Nevertheless, the emphasis on "process" could be an important contribution, if taken a lot further.

A response to republican minimalism: strategic maximalism

What is lacking at the establishment level is a clear recognition that the Republic and Head of State issues can only be regarded as an important and necessary first step towards much broader constitutional change. By arriving at a suitable process to address these issues in ,say, three or four Multiple Question Referendums, preceded by Preferential Plebiscites to test the priorities, constitutional change can unquestionably be advanced rapidly. Obviously this does require political will on the part of the Government and that can only be a achieved by a coalition of left and green forces. Piecemeal "updating" of the constitution has been nearly impossible in Australia for 100 years. Therefore, a strategic and innovative approach is required to modernise the inflexible constitution because it is totally unsuited to a democratic and responsive Republic. The process adopted should be seen as a vital and integral part of such a strategic approach. It would involve a growing and extensive involvement by the voting public so that the final document is indeed owned by the people. This can hardly be said of the present Constitution. How can it be that the Universities are not initiating research and educational programs to enlighten the people and overcome this almost total alienation of the Constitution?

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This is part one of Dr Woldring's series. Part two can be found here.



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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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