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Debating our republic: unity is needed to move forward

By John Warhurst and Richard Fidler - posted Friday, 13 August 2004

Republicans will require their best creative minds to take seriously the task of moving forward on the issue of a republic.

We know from public opinion polls that a majority of Australians want our nation to be a republic instead of a monarchy but they are divided over two questions: what type of republic Australia should become and how we should move towards it. The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee will report next week on both these questions. That is where serious discussion of these questions will be found, based on the 600 plus submissions received and on the public hearings that recently concluded.

Greg Craven is undoubtedly a republican with the capacity to illuminate such questions in a constructive way. But he fails to do so in his On Line Opinion article. Instead he uses technicolour language to run a scare campaign no better than the scare campaign run by the "no" camp in 1999. Republicans should lower their voices for a moment so that they can hear what the people have to say.


Craven misrepresents the plebiscite approach towards a second republic referendum. In his haste to demolish direct election he attributes bad faith to those, like the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), the Corowa conference and the Labor Party, advocating plebiscites and gives a false impression of how the plebiscite process will be conducted. His self-assured assumptions regarding the outcome are nothing more than an educated guess.

Plebiscites, contra Craven, certainly are "about allowing the Australian people to make an informed choice on the sort of republic they want". But you would not know it from the description he provides. The ARM believes that the people need to be consulted at every step of the way if the republic is to be truly meaningful. This is a matter of simple democratic principle for us.

At the Senate Inquiry hearings in Sydney in April the former Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Gerard Brennan said in support of the plebiscite process, "We believe it is vitally important that the Australian people have ownership of their republic. It makes sense that they have a say in its defining characteristics before voting on it in a referendum." This expresses the view of the ARM exactly.

The whole plebiscite process will be accompanied by considerable public discussion and education provided both by the government of the day and by community groups, such as the ARM and by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, to name just two. It is also almost certain that before the plebiscite devoted to choosing which republican model to put forward occurs, there will be a number of specialised groups of republicans arguing the case for their preferred model and against other models. The ARM itself certainly contains many differing views among its several thousand members.

Should the Labor Party be elected it will be two more years before the second plebiscite is put before the public. That is plenty of time for substantial public debate and discussion. There is no reason to believe that this will be "a constitutional beauty contest where superficial good looks are everything". On the contrary it will be a warts and all contest with plenty of people ready to point out the warts.

Among those who will be doing so will be both the Government and the Opposition. Mark Latham favours direct election and Peter Costello favours parliamentary appointment. There are significant Labor figures, like Bob Carr, who also favour parliamentary appointment. A spirited and healthy public political debate will ensue.


Craven shouldn't sell himself and his side of the argument short. In 1999 he was a persuasive advocate for the "yes" vote. During the plebiscite campaign he is likely to be equally persuasive on the side of parliamentary appointment.

Pragmatic supporters of a minimalist republic should consider that a plebiscite process might well be the only way a minimalist republic has any chance of getting up. A minimal-change, parliamentary appointment model was rejected in 1999. No government will risk putting up a similar model again unless it has been shown to have popular support in a plebiscite first.

Central to Craven's analysis is his unsupported assertion that direct election "will win the vague encounter of a plebiscite at a canter, and everyone proposing the process knows it". If Craven had been privy to ARM internal debates he would know that the outcome he identifies is far from accepted among republicans.

Everyone will have a vote at this plebiscite, including monarchists. In these circumstances a model supported by the majority of the Coalition, important Labor Party figures and perhaps the monarchists could quite easily win. If there is a danger for republicans it is not that direct election will win easily but that it will be such a rugged ‘knock em down and drag em out’ affair, that there will be bad blood whatever the result. The weaknesses of the preferred model, whatever it turns out to be, will have been pointed out for all to see by fellow republicans. Those arguments will be used by the "No" case in the referendum that follows.

There is no fix. There is no thought of inevitability among republicans. What there is though, is a genuine concern to address the problem of uniting republicans and moving forward. The strength of Craven's article is that it reminds republicans that disunity is death and that we have yet to solve that problem. Doing so involves consideration of positive ideas on how to move forward. On that front Craven is silent.

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About the Authors

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Richard Fidler is a member of the ARM’s National Committee.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by John Warhurst
All articles by Richard Fidler
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