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Back to the Future: The 2004 Senate Inquiry's Report into an Australian Republic

By Stephen Souter - posted Thursday, 23 September 2004

On August 31, 2004 the Senate's Legal and Constitutional References Committee finally released the report of its inquiry into the Australian republic issue. What follows is a series of observations about the process recommended by that report for achieving a republic, including the models listed in Recommendation 17.

The Process

Four stages were proposed:

  • an initial "threshold" plebiscite on the "do you want a republic" issue;
  • followed by a second plebiscite on the kind of model (with the possibility of "other relevant questions" being asked, such as the "preferred title for the head of state in an Australian republic");
  • followed by an appointed "Drafting Convention"; and
  • followed by a constitutional referendum.

The second plebiscite would offer voters a choice of the following five mechanisms for selecting a president:

  1. Prime Ministerial appointment;
  2. appointment by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of parliament;
  3. appointment by an electoral college elected on the same basis as the Senate;
  4. direct election of Parliament's candidates; and
  5. direct election by the people.

A proposed new parliamentary committee, the Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness, would draw up the "broad details" for the models prior to the second plebiscite.

I could find no mention in the report of any attempt to justify why these five mechanisms for selection are recommended. I did note though, that three of the five have the president nominated or appointed (or both) by the Commonwealth Parliament or one of its MPs, while the list itself appears to have been quietly cribbed (with some amendments) from the Australian Republican Movement’s submission (pdf file 96kb).

Overall, the committee's process would seem to combine the one Paul Keating proposed during the 1996 election campaign for implementing an Australian republic (plebiscite plus joint parliamentary committee plus referendum) with the original version of a proposal by the 1998 Constitutional Convention's Working Group I for carrying out "ongoing constitutional change" (an appointed constitutional committee plus plebiscite plus referendum).

Monarchists and the Second Plebiscite

When the Constitutional Convention held a series of ballots on February 12, 1998 to choose a republic model, at each stage a "no republic" option was offered. The existence of a separate "threshold" plebiscite suggests no such option will be offered at the second plebiscite of the committee's process.


Should that prove to be the case, then from a monarchist perspective that second plebiscite will be the equivalent of Tasmania's Dams referendum of the 1980s, which asked voters to select a dam site but did not offer a "No Dams" option for those who wanted no dam at all. True, in this instance "no republic" would have been one of the choices offered at the initial "threshold" plebiscite. On the other hand, because voting will be compulsory monarchy supporters cannot simply sit that second plebiscite out. They will be compelled to choose a model whether they want to or not. That in turn will present them with an additional choice to the one faced by republicans: Do they vote for the model they would prefer Australia use in the event of a republic or do they vote for the one they feel most likely would lose the subsequent referendum?

On that point, I note that Newspoll has consistently put the proportion of those supporting the monarchy in recent times at about 35 per cent, a minority certainly but one substantial enough to influence the outcome of such a vote.

The Drafting Convention

The proposed "Drafting Convention” would:

  1. Pages:
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  5. All

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About the Author

Stephen Souter works at Sydney University (as a technical officer) and has a long-standing interest in Australian constitutional law and the Australian republic issue.

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