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A suggested process for resolving the Republic issue

By Klaas Woldring - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

As argued in my first article, apart from political will a strategic approach is required to embrace a process of constitutional change. To get the ball rolling and achieve a Republic well within one parliamentary term of a left and green coalition the following scenario is presented:
First Preferential Plebiscite - followed by the appropriate Referendum.

Do you approve of a Republic to replace the Queen and the Governor-General: YES or NO?

If YES, please select EITHER (a) OR (b) OR (c) OR (d)


a. Direct Popular Election of a Symbolic President.
b. Indirect Election of a Symbolic President via a Representative Electoral College.
c. Indirect Election by means of a two-thirds majority of all federal parliamentarians.
d. An American-type Executive President.

A second Preferential Plebiscite could be devoted entirely to other constitutional changes (some of which were already recommended in 1988 by the then Australian Constitutional Commission) while in a Third Preferential Plebiscite more controversial issues could be offered for resolution, eg. the abolition of the states and strengthening of local government, as well as the separation of the political executive from the legislature - as exist in very many other countries.

Both Plebiscites would be followed by appropriate Referendums reflecting the preferences expressed by voters in the second an third Preferential Plebiscites.

For those who still wonder what may be wrong with the Australian Constitution let us recap what has been advanced by many progressive commentators already:

  1. The constitution describes a status of dependency on Britain a situation which for all practical purposes ended after WWII in 1945. The position of the Governor-General is that of Her Majesty's powerful principal servant - essentially a colonial relationship.
  2. The constitution doesn’t state that the Government derives its authority from the people’s sovereignty - the very essence of democracy and that of a Republic.
  3. The constitution does not deal with the protection of economic sovereignty of the state.
  4. There are several transitional and outdated clauses in the Constitution which should be removed.
  5. The constitution hardly mentions the political parties and the party system.
  6. Parliamentary democracy is not protected constitutionally.
  7. The constitution has no Bill of Rights, guaranteeing a variety of human rights, including social and economic rights as is done in many modern constitutions, eg Finland, Portugal, Czech Republic and South Africa.
  8. The constitution makes no provision for the reconciliation with and representation of the Indigenous Peoples.
  9. The constitution makes no provision for the protection of the environment.
  10. The position of women and the issues of equality between the sexes and of gender in Australian society is not addressed anywhere.
  11. There is no provision for the election of a diversity of representatives to the two Houses of Parliament, nationally and in the states. These hardly reflect a multicultural society. Many modern states have enshrined proportional representation in their constitutions because it ensures democratic representation and diversity of representation.
  12. Very few people are familiar with the constitution, even less so with its many problems and inadequacies.
  13. It has proved to be virtually impossible to amend the constitution.
  14. Many leaders in the corporate sector of Australia are disenchanted with this constitution. It is regarded as restrictive for business and productive of cumbersome duplication.
  15. Dysfunctional state differences are evident in many sectors of public and professional life as well. Can Australia afford that these barriers continue?
  16. The constitution made provision for a federation, a structure of state which made good sense in 1900 but is now a very costly hindrance to effective government for a mere 19 million people. This constitution does nothing to counter the centralisation of decision-making and concentration of population in cities at the state level. It limits opportunities to achieve national solutions to many common problems.
  17. There is no provision for the appointment of Cabinet Ministers from outside the legislature as is the case in most European countries and in the United States.
  18. The constitution is embedded in constitutional conventions (usages) which are open to a variety of interpretations. Conventions should all be codified for them to be widely accepted.

How can change be achieved given the problems associated with Section 128?


How can this be achieved constitutionally, without bypassing the present Constitution, given that in many previous constitutional amendments a provision of Section 128 proved to be such a barrier that most failed (the requirement that a majority in four of the six states need to approve an amendment in addition to a national majority)?

Obviously, Section 128 has to be changed at the beginning of the process so that the antiquated, undemocratic requirement that a majority of states need to approve constitutional referendums is overcome. Either it is removed altogether or, as an alternative, the requirement is changed to "three out of six states" - which is what the Whitlam Government bravely, but unsuccessfully attempted in the early 1970s. The constitutional equality of states was a prerequisite to make federation possible in 1900. Although that was a political achievement it has now become completely nonsensical after 100 years of nationhood, and vastly improved transport and communications system. Again this option can be tested in a plebiscite and the result translated into a referendum question. If there is any vision left in the ALP can it now move on and take hold of a progressive agenda for the Republic? What Australians have seen thus far can only be described as visionless non-policy in this area.

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This is part two of Dr Woldring's series. Part one argued that Universities should get more involved in discussions of constitutional change.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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