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Unfinished business - the republican referendum ten years on

By Peter van Vliet - posted Friday, 6 November 2009

When republicans lost the November 6 1999 referendum we were smart enough to realise that we probably wouldn't see another referendum in the immediate decade following. The anti 'yes' vote slogan "Vote No to this Republic" incorrectly implied a further referendum was just around the corner. But we knew referendums don't grow on trees and a bruising, emotional and ultimately exhausting national debate on the republic was unlikely to be repeated again too soon.

In the immediate years following the referendum, prominent republicans said we needed to accept the umpire's decision. Many of the celebrities who had bankrolled and helped publicise the republican cause quickly left the building. Lesser lights like me were left to keep the republican flame burning in small meetings at places kind enough to let us gather for free, like the Celtic Club in Melbourne.

During those ten years we've had time to lick our wounds, reflect on our mistakes, democratise our national organisation and refresh our policies. We learned that if we are to have success in a future republican referendum then we must follow the people rather than expect them to follow us. The key lesson learned is that if you want a republic you must involve, engage and inspire the Australian public and they must own the change.

The republican movement now has a policy that calls for a three stage process to achieving a republic where the people's choice will be followed every step of the way: firstly an indicative plebiscite on the yes/no to a republic question; secondly a plebiscite around the selection method for the head of state; and finally a referendum around a republic. The republican movement is essentially agnostic on selection methods providing that the final selection method continues to support our existing stable, democratic and federal parliamentary system of government.


So after ten years we feel we have quietly done the hard yards in the background preparing for the next battle. We have sought to constantly remind people of how anachronistic and out of step the distant British Monarchy is with contemporary Australia and how absurd it is that the Queen is still our sovereign. We have reminded people that we have no battle with our British heritage and its important legacy of parliamentary government and the rule of law. But we also want a system that embraces not just our British traditions but also our indigenous heritage, our egalitarian nature and our cultural diversity. We think a republic would symbolise a maturity and a self confidence more befitting of Australia today.

Anyone would think that the stars are aligning for an Australian republic. We have a republican Prime Minister who said he welcomed an accelerated debate on the republic before being understandably sidetracked by the global financial crisis. We have a Federal Opposition Leader who had previously given more of his own blood, sweat and tears for a republic than any other person in this country but who now parrots the line that it can wait until the Queen's death whenever that might be. In essence both leaders remain essentially luke-warm on the issue.

And for anyone who thinks the easy and immediate option is for Labor to go it alone on the republic and wedge the Coalition think again. History shows that referendum success in Australia is scarce with just eight out of 44 referendums succeeding. Bipartisan support is the key to the ones that succeed.

Labor's track record is even worse with just 1 in 25 referendums put by Labor succeeding. This tells us that the partisanship associated with Labor - while successful for winning elections - is poisonous for the national multi-partisan consensus needed for winning referendums requiring a double majority: that is a majority of voters in a majority of states. The republican cause doesn't need another referendum loss brought on by an ill-conceived and overly partisan campaign. That could put us out of business for this century.

One thing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can do is have a measured and lengthy debate about the republic with a strong emphasis on much needed public education, wide consultation and wherever possible bipartisanship. He can seek to bring republicans in the Coalition along with him rather than force them into a corner. He can have a non-binding plebiscite on the threshold yes/no question on or just after the next election. If the answer is yes - which on current polling is almost certain - he can then have a decent discussion with the Australian people about the pros and cons of the various selection methods before presenting another plebiscite to the people to determine their preferred selection method. If people get the sense that this is a consensual, gradual and natural evolution towards our full national sovereignty very few would oppose it.

Yes ten years have past since the referendum. Yes we accepted the umpire's decision back then but no decision on our national constitution is set in stone forever. There is still unfinished business. Our founding fathers put section 128 into our Constitution because they knew that from time-to-time our constitution would require refurbishment. They knew that what seemed right in 1901 might not be right in 2009. How right they were. All that it takes is for someone to fire the starter's gun and Australia is back on track to a more fitting republican future. That challenge remains with the Prime Minister.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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