It’s almost five years since the November 1999 republican referendum was lost, but a clear majority of Australians still want a republic. The polls consistently record, as they have for a decade now, that most Australians would prefer an Australian head of state rather than the retention of Queen Elizabeth II or a future King Charles III at the top of our constitutional system.
Last week, the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee's Inquiry into an Australian Republic released its report, The road to a republic. The Australian Republican Movement considers the inquiry to be the most important initiative since the ‘99 referendum in moving Australia towards a republic.
The terms of reference of this Inquiry are built around two simple questions: What kind of republic do we want, and how should we get there?
After receiving more than 600 written submissions, the Senate Committee has spent the past 4 months traveling around the country, hearing from Australians about what kind of republic they want and their ideas about how we move forward towards a republic with an Australian head of state.
The ARM has put forward a comprehensive submission to the Inquiry. The ARM’s submission includes five detailed republican models. But the key issue for us is process: how should we, as a nation, go about making this republic? The two issues of models and process are interrelated: the best model for Australia can only emerge from the best, most consultative process.
The ARM believes that it is for the Australian people themselves to decide what kind of republic Australia should have. We believe the best way to determine this is through a plebiscite process.
A plebiscite is a vote of the Australian people to express an opinion on a particular issue. It is a non-binding national vote; an effective and cost-efficient means to gauge the views of Australians on important issues. We’ve had plebiscites in Australia before. Many would remember the National Song Poll in 1977 when the Fraser Coalition Government held a national vote to ask Australians their preferred national anthem.
A plebiscite does not change the constitution; it simply provides an opportunity to ask the Australian people what they think. A plebiscite process is a democratic mechanism to ensure that the people get to choose. It is a process for the people.
The Australian Republican Movement, in common with many of the submissions to the current Senate Inquiry, supports the use of plebiscites as the framework to move towards an Australian republic.
We suggest a three-plebiscite process with an elected Convention leading to a referendum. The first plebiscite we advocate is a threshold question: a simple non-binding indicative vote from the people on the fundamental question of “Should we become a republic with an Australian head of state? ‘Yes or no?’ “
A second plebiscite would ask Australians their preferred republican model and a third question would choose the title of the head of state. A fully elected convention would then draft the details of the model, according to the plebiscite results. This model would then be put to the Australian people in a referendum.
A plebiscite process is the most democratic way to allow Australians to choose the kind of republic they want. There will be plenty of opportunities for public discussion of the alternatives before the second plebiscite. And the preferred republican model that emerges from that vote and is put to the people in the referendum will have the legitimacy of the Australian people’s support. The model put to referendum won’t be the favoured model of individuals or parties but of the Australian people themselves.
The original of this article was broadcast as a Perspective on ABC Radio National on 31 August 2004.
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