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Latham's Republican plebiscites are all smoke and mirrors

By Greg Craven - posted Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Putting aside the theory that Hitler is 115 and living in Argentina, it is hard to combine a public suicide and a major confidence trick. But Mark Latham and a hardy band of Australian republicans are doing their best.

Their plan for a festival of republican plebiscites combines the buoyancy of the Titanic with the transparency of a rigged horse race. The proposal is simple enough, and comes with artificially enhanced sincerity. No more elites driving the republican agenda. No more glowering Malcolm Turnbull. Let the people decide their form of government.

So, Australians would get to vote in two plebiscites. The first would be on the general question of whether Australia should be a republic. If they voted yes, in the second poll they would choose their favourite sort of republic from among a number of models. Only after the people had chosen their model would it be drafted up and formally put to referendum. The people would inevitably approve their own choice, and an Australian Republic would rise like the sun in the morning.


Reading this saccharine constitutional script, you would think that the plebiscite plan – endorsed both by the Labor Party and the Australian Republican Movement – is an exercise in distilled democracy. The reality is that for the republic, the fix is on.  The proposed orgy of plebiscites is not about allowing the Australian people to make an informed choice on the sort of republic they want. It is about ensuring they pick the sort of republic their betters have already selected.

The logic of this exercise in guided republicanism goes something like this. Australia’s mainstream republicans -  conservatives and progressives -  watched in horror during 1999 as a perfectly safe republican model involving parliamentary selection of the president sank beneath a sea of monarchist fibs and direct-electionist treachery. From this dreadful experience two lessons could be drawn. The first is that no referendum has ever won in the face of political division, prime ministerial opposition and a rigged question - all true of 1999. Yet despite these handicaps, the Turnbull model got around 44 per cent of the vote. With the right PM, political consensus and an un-poisoned question, a modest model might just win.

The alternative view has all the sophistication of a two-stroke engine. The people rejected parliamentary selection. The alternative to parliamentary selection is direct election. We think the people like direct election. Direct election will win. This is the lesson drawn by most of ARM and the Labor Party. They are no longer into the republic they think is right, but the one they think will win. Yet in selling direct election, they face enormous difficulties. This is because direct election raises prodigious constitutional issues, most notably what happens when you have a president and a prime minister who each have a popular mandate, and who both think they run the country?

It is issues like this that make direct election stumble during any serious attempt at constitutional design, like a constitutional convention. In that type of deliberative forum, its horrors tumble out like the guts of a road kill.

This is precisely why supporters of direct election are so enamoured of plebiscites. A plebiscite is not a place where people vote on a proposal that has been carefully and exhaustively laid out before them. It is a constitutional beauty contest where superficial good looks are everything. This particularly is the case with a multi-option plebiscite, where each alternative will distract the electorate from detailed examination of the others. In this atmosphere, one type of republican proposal will be favoured: a model with enormous surface appeal, whose underlying problems slip through the confusion of the multi-faceted debate.

Enter direct election, with its games-show appeal and tectonic constitutional flaws. It will win the vague encounter of a plebiscite at a canter, and everyone proposing the process knows it. Once it’s anointed at plebiscite, other republican contenders will be out of the debate.


The exquisite irony of all this is that the republican fixers will have fixed the qualifying round, but in so doing will lose the grand final. Direct election can win a plebiscite, but it can never win a referendum. The reason for this is devastatingly simple. No referendum in modern Australian history has been won without bipartisan political support, and conservatives will never support direct election.

Mainstream republicans tend to respond that there are many conservative republicans, and that faced with a choice between a direction-election republic and no republic at all, they will come across. This is like saying a dog fancier will live with a hyena if there is no Pomeranian available. Conservative republicans will oppose direct election to the death because their first loyalty is to the constitution, not the republic. They will never accept direct election, precisely because they believe that the two-headed government it proposes would destroy the constitution.

These conservative republicans – and they occur in Labor as well as Liberal ranks – will unite with monarchists to provide a deadly barrage of opposition at the only popular poll that counts: the inevitable referendum. Already, monarchists and conservative republicans who have not spoken since 1999 are having pained conversations.

Worst of all, a direct-election referendum will be nothing like a multi-option plebiscite, where direct election – problems and all – is discreetly ushered through the stars’ entrance while the electorate is confused by the noise of competing models. In a referendum, the single option of direct election will be spread like a corpse on a mortuary slab. There will be no other models to distract attention. Republican euphoria will be replaced by the usual cold caution of the Australian people. All horrors will be exposed.

The fixers will be well fixed.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, 27th. July 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Greg Craven is Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Deputy Chairman, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council, and a constitutional lawyer.

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