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Plebicites can be, and have been, used to confuse voters about constitutions

By David Flint - posted Thursday, 12 February 2004

Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the potential for misuse of the constitutional plebiscite. They had seen too many examples of that. That is why they determined that the way - the only way - to change the Constitution should be the Swiss-style referendum, where the people get the details of any proposed change before - and not after - they vote. The only reason republicans have embraced the plebiscite is not that they want to know what the people think - it is that they see it as a useful device to lock the people into change they do not want. They hope that the first vote will wipe out the constitutional monarchists, who if they lose that, will either retire from the campaign or be neutralised.

Mr Keating had a similar strategy when he stacked the Republican Advisory Committee with republicans. Similarly, the present Senate reference doesn't even bother to examine whether the change to any republic will improve the Constitution, it just asks how to achieve some sort of republic - presumably any republic; anything but the present Constitution with the Sovereign to whom the Senators have sworn their allegiance.

In the meantime, it is worth recalling that the experience of countries since federation has confirmed how open to misuse is the constitutional plebiscite.


For example, when the Quebec government decided in 1995 that it was time to secede from Canada, they knew they would need the support of the people in what was called a referendum but in reality was a plebiscite.

The honest approach - the approach to ensure an informed vote - would have been to put all the facts before the Quebecois. In particular, that there was no guarantee that even if Quebec were able to secede, the new state could retain the advantages it had enjoyed as part of Canada. Could Quebec continue to use the Canadian dollar? What would happen to the national debt? Would Quebec continue to be a party to each of Canada's treaties, for example, the free trade treaty with the US and Mexico? Would Quebec's boundaries remain the same? And what of the Indigenous people, who preferred to stay in Canada? Could they secede from Quebec?

All of these unresolved issues were swept under the carpet by the secessionists. Instead, the question was devised, and deliberately devised, to attract a maximum uninformed vote. In brief, the question was designed to deceive the people. The question should have been, "Do you approve of Quebec leaving Canada and becoming a separate nation?", or words to that effect.

This was the actual question that the Quebecois voted on:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on 12 June, 1995?

To say the referendum question was misleading is an understatement. Exit polls demonstrated that many people who voted "Yes" actually thought they were voting to stay in Canada! To the credit of the Quebecois, they voted "No". But only by a hairsbreadth because they were not properly informed.


In other countries there have been a handful of plebiscites and one referendum, in all about 13, to change to a republic. Most were of doubtful validity and several taken under dictatorships. Only the Australian referendum in 1999 allowed the people to see in advance what precisely was being offered.

Now some will say that this is all very well but the Australian referendum makes it too difficult to change the Constitution. That is not so. As two of our Founders, Sir James Quick and Robert Garran wrote (The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, 1901, reprinted in 1995, at 988), the safeguard in s.128 is:

... necessary not only for the protection of the federal system, but in order to secure maturity of thought in the consideration and settlement of proposals leading to organic changes. These safeguards have been provided, not in order to prevent or indefinitely resist change in any direction, but in order to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.

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This article was first published in Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy's e-newsletter Hot News on 11 Februray 2004.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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