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Public involvement is essential for a viable Republic referendum process

By George Williams - posted Thursday, 15 April 2004

Australians have rejected a republic with a president appointed by the Federal Parliament. This failed referendum in 1999 cost more than $100 million and came at the end of a decade of debate. It resulted in "republic fatigue", with few wanting another referendum any time soon.

Nevertheless, the issue has remained alive and nearly five years later is back on the political agenda. It will be an issue at the next federal election, with Opposition Leader Mark Latham arguing for the direct election of an Australian president.

This week the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee will hold a public hearing on the issue. Participants include the protagonists from the last referendum, the Australian Republican Movement and Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, both of which have retained an active membership and a commitment to their causes.


The committee has received more than 500 submissions from politicians, pro and anti-republic organisations, experts and, overwhelmingly, members of the general public.

The Senate committee will examine the changes that might be made to the constitution to bring about a republic. This covers well-trodden ground, such as whether a president should be chosen by the people or Parliament.

At this early stage in the new republic debate, these are the wrong questions and they threaten a repeat of 1999. If a future referendum is to succeed, it must begin with a vision for change that is not mired in (often arcane) constitutional argument.

Debate should centre on how best to involve the Australian people so as to ensure that their voice is heard. After all, it is the people who will actually vote to reject or approve the change.

A referendum is unlikely to succeed unless the change is arrived at through community consultation and education. This lesson has yet to be learnt despite only eight of 44 referendums being passed. The prospect of voting on the republic several times at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars is far from fanciful. Over the past century, many proposals have been rejected two or even three times, with one being rejected five times. Overall, we have an abysmal record of constitutional change with no referendum being passed for more than a quarter century.

Our experience demonstrates that the process by which a proposal is developed can be crucial to its success at a referendum.


Hence, at this stage, process and not constitutional outcome should be the focus of any move towards an Australian republic. In this we need to recognise three things. First, a one-off vote in a referendum is not enough by itself to give Australians a sense of ownership of the reform process.

Second, Australians do not want to be left out of important decisions such as the choice of model for a republic or the text of a new preamble. Hence, the period leading up to the vote should include a plebiscite as well as a convention to work through the specific drafting matters before the model is finally put to the people.

Third, Australians need to be better informed and more involved at all stages of the reform process. A key requirement is access to independent, accurate and credible information about the reform and its constitutional background. This was lacking in 1999. Even the limited neutral advertising was the subject of suspicion and doubt.

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This article was first published in The Age on 14 April 2004.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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