Palace Letters: Bring On The Republic! How To Ensure A ‘Yes’ Vote This Time!

John Kerr’s correspondence with the Palace before he dismissed Gough Whitlam highlights how irrelevant the British Monarch is as our Head of State. That the dismissal of a Prime Minister wasn’t even brought to her attention, and was instead handled by her Secretary, beggars belief!

One wonders what issue would be important enough for Her Majesty’s opinion and advice to be sought – perhaps the plans for the next Royal visit to Australia?!

This travesty should be a wake-up call to all Australians that ‘it’s time’ for our nation to become a fully independent Republic. It’s passing strange that, when assertion of national identity and independence is rampant, Brexit, Scotland, Trump’s USA and Hong Kong being but a few of many examples – a significant number of our fellow Australians still seem content with a Governor General appointed by a foreign monarch!

While the Palace Letters should reduce opposition to a republic significantly, the difficulty of gaining a majority of ‘yes’ votes in a majority of states should not be underestimated. To succeed this time, we must avoid the problems of the 1999 Referendum, when, despite previous opinion polls indicating a strong preference for a republic, not one State recorded a ‘yes’ vote!

One fear that can easily be allayed is that becoming a republic would sever our links with the UK, which many Australians cherish as important to our national, and their personal, sense of identity. They must be reassured that an Australian republic would still have formal links with Britain and its monarch, thanks to the precedent set by India when it became a Republic in 1950. India chose to remain a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, with the British monarch as its titular ahead, a practice since followed by several other newly independent former colonies. Reassurance by both Labor and the Coalition that an Australian Republic would follow suit is certain to shore up the ‘Yes’ vote. Multilingual marketing of the ‘Yes’ case will also maximise the vote of migrants, especially those of non-British origin who have no sentimental links to the monarchy.

However, the real reason for the failure of the 1999 referendum was not that Australians didn’t want a Republic. It was doomed by arch-monarchist John Howard’s clever tactic of making it primarily not about a Republic, but about who would elect the President, Australian voters or parliamentarians. The latter, recommended by the Australian Constitutional Convention in 1998, was chosen, the specific proposition being that the President would be elected by a two-thirds majority of Commonwealth Parliamentarians. Howard’s ploy worked because Republicans were so divided on the issue of who should elect the President that those opposed to politicians making the choice added to the monarchists were in a majority in every jurisdiction except the ACT!

That this problem has not gone away is widely recognised and there have been many proposals to resolve it. In 2019, Bill Shorten proposed a two-step process – an exploratory plebiscite on whether Australians wanted a republic and, if the response was ‘Yes’, a referendum. Recently, Malcolm Turnbull has suggested a different two-step process – “a plebiscite … or maybe a postal survey”, on how the President will be elected, also followed by a referendum. Unfortunately, both proposals don’t address the real problem in 1999, which was getting the required majority to agree to Australia becoming a Republic and a single specified method of electing the President. Even if the method in the proposition is one which voters had indicated a preference for in a previous plebiscite, as would happen in the Turnbull proposal, there is no guarantee that it will succeed in a referendum. Campaigning for a referendum will be far more intense and robust than for a non-binding plebiscite, with those against the chosen method warning of all sorts of dire consequences. To guarantee success, we need a new approach that overcomes the stumbling block of how to elect the President.

A possible solution is to have a compulsory and binding referendum with two clauses. The first would seek approval for the Australia to become a Republic with a President as Head of State. The second would ask voters to choose one of two or more options on how to elect the President by voting for them in a preferential order as we commonly have an option to do in parliamentary elections involving more than two candidates.

Preferential voting guarantees that the majority choice prevails after distribution of preferences. Moreover, its use in a referendum has a precedent. The 1977 referendum included a preferential, albeit non-compulsory, vote regarding our national song, which stated, “Against the background that ‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’ is the NATIONAL ANTHEM to be played on Regal and Vice Regal occasions, electors may indicate their preferences as to which of the tunes of the (four) songs listed below they would prefer to be played on other occasions”. Advance Australia Fair was chosen and has been well accepted by the Australian public because it was their choice.

Of course, the constitutionality of the overall proposal is a complex question! My proposal would need review by constitutional experts, who should also help draft the exact wording of the referendum propositions. To be safe, the legislation for the referendum could even be referred to the High Court for validation. Once approved, the proposed referendum would checkmate Howard’s 1999 gambit, and Australia would finally become a Republic!

Given that Prime Minister Morrison is an avowed monarchist and the Coalition is hopelessly divided on the Republic issue, championing this cause is a golden opportunity for Labor and Anthony Albanese, which they should capitalise on immediately. Australians suffering the challenges of Covid-19 need a dose of nationalism to boost our spirits and a Republic is just what the doctor ordered. Albanese must be bold and articulate an exciting national vision à la Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Rudd-1, with a Republic at its foundation.

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Neville J Roach AO Former Chairman of Australian Government’s Business (Migration) Advisory Panel.

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