Friday, 27 June 2014

Flogging the Dead Horse of the Republic

     Things are getting slack in some quarters. We've had a royal tour and the long overdue return of knighthoods, and now the Queen's Birthday holiday has come and gone without the republicans getting out their whips to flog their dead horse. Normally, we would expect the media to at least head for a prominent republican spokesman, then convey his opinion to a monarchist spokesman for a reply, then announce that such-and-such had "re-opened the republican debate". Of course, it did no such thing. The comments had been elicited; they had not been volunteered. All that was happening was the media again stirring the possum. But this time, all we had had is the occasional statement, often made in sadness, that a republic is further away than ever.
     What makes me say that Australian republicanism is flogging a dead horse? Let me put it in a simple sentence:
      The long march through the institutions halts at the barrier of the Constitution. The long march through the institutions is the means by which the left infiltrates the corridors of power, and then introduces acts of social engineering which the people never asked for, and would certainly have rejected had they been asked. This is how the vast majority of the unpatriotic, immoral, and/or socially disruptive laws and policies have been introduced. But it can't get into the Constitution. This is because the Constitution can be changed only by means of a referendum. That means that the rank and file, hoi polloi, the great unwashed masses have to make the decision, instead of having it forced upon them by their masters.
     Now, since I know I have readers in the United States - indeed, more than twice as many as in Australia - I had better explain that Australians do not view their Constitution the same way as Americans view theirs. It is not part and parcel of our identity as a nation, but merely a practical means of dividing the jurisdictions of State and Federal Governments. Most of the time, we give it little thought. But that doesn't mean we don't take it seriously. When a referendum is put to us, a flashing red light goes on: they are asking us to change the fundamental method of running the country, they are likely to have ulterior reasons of their own, and if we make a mistake in the vote, we will never get a chance to correct it. Therefore, the average citizen takes the view: if in doubt, vote no. Bear in mind, too, that voting is compulsory. Thus, if any significant group opposes the referendum, it will not carry. The record is very clear on this point. In 1967 both major parties supported the referendum to break the nexus between the membership of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but a minor party, the Democratic Labor Party opposed it. The proposal failed.
     Thus, the only way to make an end run around the Constitution is to do what American governments do: stack the High Court and hope that they will interpret the Constitution according to their own political opinions rather than according to plain English, or the intentions of the writers. Now, while this has had some limited success in Australia - the Franklin Dams decision was certainly unconstitutional - getting rid of the Queen and replacing her with someone else is too big a morsel for even the most activist judge to bite off.

The 1999 Referendum
     The 1999 referendum is approaching ancient history for some people and a source of mythology for others, so it is best to summarize what actually happened. Prime Minister John Howard decided he would settle the republic debate once and for all by calling a Constitutional Convention (ConCon) to come up with a working model of a republic to be put to a referendum. Half the members were to be appointed from various community groups, and half to be elected on the basis of non-compulsory voting. As far as the election was concerned, a large number of small clusters of crazies put themselves forward, but ultimately there were only four groups worthy of consideration: two monarchist groups which essentially sang from the same hymn sheet, and two republican groups, the smaller of which publicly campaigned for a directly elected president.
     There was a 55% turnout in voting, and ultimately the republicans gained a majority, though not an overwhelming one, so the rest of the ConCon became a talkfest between the direct-election republicans, and those who recognized that such a radical change would not get past the people. In the end, they cobbled together a proposal for a president to be appointed by a two thirds majority of Parliament, but who could be dismissed by the Prime Minister alone. It received the support of only 73 of the 152 delegates, but since it had gained a plurality of the votes, it was put to the electorate. At that point, the direct-electionists decided to join the monarchists in opposing it, presumably hoping they could win in a second referendum. They lost.
    However, the most important statistic is not the opinion polls (although they are increasingly in favour of the monarchy) nor the voting on the referendum. It is the voting for the ConCon itself. 45% didn't bother to vote! Once that figure was in, it was clear the republic was doomed. Not all of those 45% would have been closet monarchists, but almost by definition, they were people who did not feel strongly about change. Their default position is: If in doubt, vote No. In fact, a prominent monarchist spokesman made this very point at the onset, but the republicans were too caught up in their own dreams to notice. Indeed, it is likely that many of those who voted Yes did so on the spur of the moment, or because the Labor Party supported it, but they were never really enthusiastic, nor were they wringing their hands the day after its defeat. A more typical attitude would have been the comment a friend of mine made when I met him early the next morning: "What a waste of $150 million! Most of the people I talked to couldn't see the point of the exercise."

What Kind of Republic?
     But, of course, you can't just have a republic; you have to stipulate exactly what sort of republic. It has even been suggested that support for the Yes vote in 1999 declined in Western Australia when the local newspaper, The West Australian ran a series of articles on the question: Exactly how would this republican model work out in practice? So let me express the problem in another simple soundbyte:
     The republicans have already conceded the field to their opponents on the matter of practicality. They don't even pretend that a republic would work better than the current system. All they can say is, in effect: Trust us; we'll somehow find a model which works just as well (maybe).
     Now, the system for selecting a Governor-General is not perfect, and probably cannot be made perfect. But, provided he is reasonably competent and not unpopular, it doesn't really matter, because he is representing the Queen. It is, after all, the Queen who gets the glory. If anything, it is preferable that he keep a low profile. But it takes quite a different turn when you are talking about a President who, by definition, represents the people.
     Admittedly, there are a few radicals who want to completely re-write the Constitution and replace the Westminster system with the Washington system, with a President who has real power. But the average republican knows the people will shy away from such a step, so we are left with selecting a President who will nevertheless remain a figurehead. There are any number of ways of doing so, but ultimately they boil down to variations on two themes:
  • An appointed President. But appointed by whom? The Prime Minister? The party in power? Essentially you would have a partisan President. Or by Parliament as a whole: the two-thirds majority proposed in 1999? The trouble is, as was pointed out at the time, this would give the President a greater moral authority to intervene when he is supposed to be aloof from politics. For that reason, the 1999 model permitted the PM to sack him at his own discretion, but that is easier said than done when a President originally had bipartisan support. Also, though it wasn't much canvassed at the time, it also allows the Opposition to control the appointment by veto. No doubt that would be a blessing to the left establishment, ensuring that only one of their own ever got the post.
  • An elected President. It is a face-saving doctrine of the republicans that this is what the people "really" want. But it ignores the fact that, at the ConCon, the group actively campaigning for that position failed to get a majority even of the republican votes, and 45% of the population didn't even vote at all. That's not what I would call a general consensus. As was correctly assessed at the ConCon itself, its defects are too obvious. Such a President would really have moral authority to meddle in politics - and it would be a lot harder to get rid of him. Also, the political parties couldn't help themselves from getting involved in the election. Even if there were a rule that no former politician or party member could serve as President, the major parties would still feel the need to back one candidate or the other. And how would a candidate get nominated, anyway?
     Let's face it: there is no way you can replace the Queen's representative with a people's President. You will get either a politician's President, or a President who is a politician.

How Ya Gonna Do It?
    The build up to the 1999 referendum was a great adrenalin boost to the republicans. Most of the media and most of the State Governments supported them, with the result that many of their potential opponents were demoralised and prepared to compromise. It really looked like they were riding the swell of the incoming tide. Now everyone knows it will be different next time - assuming there is a "next time".
     The great hope of the republicans is that the next time will be after the Queen dies. Sure! We will have been mourning the passing of a beloved titular head who has been around as long as any of us can remember. Afterwards, there will be the excitement, pomp, and ceremony of a new coronation, not to mention the continuing attraction of the younger royals. What could better put us in the mood to launch ourselves onto uncharted constitutional seas? Well, if that belief gives them comfort, let them keep it. However, it is up to me to point out a few problems in any future campaign.
  • There is a significantly large group who will never vote for a republic under any circumstances.
  • There is another significantly large group who are basically indifferent, and will stick to the status quo unless they are given a very good reason for changing.
  • Any proposed republican model will have features which will alienate some of those who would otherwise be sympathetic.
     Added to that is the fact that there is not much point in proposing a model similar to the one which has already been defeated. That leaves them with some proposal which is more complex and less likely to succeed. As Tony Abbott, who was Health Minister at the time, put it: if the people have rejected a minimalist change, they are unlikely to support larger changes. Furthermore, there remains the factor mentioned at the start: referendums always fail if any significant body opposes it. And there will be opposition. Even if the Liberal National coalition were to formally support a Yes vote, there would still be opposition.
     But, of course, the coalition is not going to support a Yes vote. If a future Labor government were to propose a referendum, the republican model would be linked politically with their own prestige. Even rogue coalition members would be easily brought across to campaign against "Labor's republic".
     Shortly after the referendum, some Labor spokesmen suggested the next attempt should advance in three stages, and I believe this is still the Greens' policy. The first would be a non-binding plebiscite on the question, "Do you want a republic?" The second would be to determine the type of republic, and the third the binding referendum.
    Politicians may be unaware of the fact that the population gets cheesed off at being called out to multiple elections within a short space of time, especially if they are seen as unnecessary, and that certainly affects the outcome. But putting that to the side, let us examine these three stages.
     1. Do you want a republic? If John Howard had put this question to a plebiscite, he would rightly be accused of sabotaging the movement. It's asking people to vote for a pig in a poke. Why should anyone uncommitted vote for a republic without being told what type of republic? As we found out in 1999, even dyed-in-the-wool republicans will fight against the "wrong" sort of republic. Nevertheless, let us assume that the 45% stay home, and the Yes vote gets through. What then?
     2. Determining the republican model. This would mean another ConCon - but with two differences from the earlier one. Firstly, because "none of the above" is excluded from the enquiry, the monarchists will either stay home, vote for what they consider the least worst option or, if they are devious, vote for the one they think most likely to lose the referendum. The fence sitters and indifferents will either stay home, or take a stab, with the proviso that they are free to change their mind. In any case, the results of the ConCon plebiscite will have little predictive value on the results of the referendum.
     Secondly, all the rancour produced at the 1999 referendum will now be visited on the ConCon plebiscite. The winners will consider, not unreasonably, that they have a mandate to fine tune their own republican model, and not compromise with the others. Suppose republic A gets 60% of the votes compared to B's 40%. Will the As tell the Bs that their model has popular support and that the Bs should step aside? Or will the Bs simply get in a huddle and fine tune their own model? What if model A is too close to the one which lost in 1999? What if the results are closer than 60-40? What if there is a third model in the system? Sit back, folks, and watch the bun fight begin!
     3. The referendum. Now the spectators on this interesting scene will be dragged out again to make the final decision. Remember: we are talking about changing the Constitution. A referendum is not valid unless there is the option of keeping the status quo. Removing the monarchists from the equation at the second step will not mean they can be eliminated from the third. Suppose republican model A is the only one put to the referendum. Will the original proponents of B then throw themselves behind A, accepting that they won't get a third chance, and the "wrong" republic is better than no republic? It is unlikely that all of them will. Probably any republic referendum is bound to have some republicans teaming up with the monarchists. And those who change sides will be considered as turncoats by those who voted for them, while leaving themselves open to having their words turned against them. ("At the ConCon plebiscite you said that model A had such-and-such defects. Now you are claiming they are not important.")
     But the problems involved in the above scenario would be minor compared to what would happen if two models were put to a referendum simultaneously. Remember: you need a majority of the votes and a majority of states, and a majority means more than 50%. The proposal would fail if you got results such as: monarchy 40%, republic A 35%, republic B 25%. I suspect that this grossly underestimates the monarchist vote, but you get the picture: in a three-way contest, it is extremely unlikely that any republican model would reach 50%. In the above example a majority in favour of a republic would still lose. But I don't think you need worry much about that. It is far more likely that the monarchy would cross the 50% barrier - that's assuming the process ever gets past stage 1.
      Campaigners for a republic don't seem to understand that, whether they are loyal monarchists on not, the vast majority of the population are just not as enthusiastic about change as they are. Put away the whips, folks; that dead horse isn't going anywhere in a hurry!

So, What's the Point?
     Fortunately, if you want to know what it means to be an Australian, there is a simple exercise you can take. Just do a circuit of the various war memorials. At a rough guess, I would say that about half of them bear the inscription, "For God, King, and Empire", or simply, "For King and Empire": words written in stone before you were born, and written in blood before any of us were born. They are a reminder of a fundamental part of our identity: that we are part of a greater whole, a segment of the great British diaspora around the world, of which the monarchy is the living symbol, both as the axis of the diaspora, and a reminder of hundreds of years of history to which we are heir. Those who don't like it should be prepared to say why they reject a central part of our identity and heritage. In the meantime, I shall address a few of the red herrings usually put forward.
  • A lot of the population are descendants of non-British migrants. The people who talk like that should meet my parents-in-law. He is an immigrant from the United States. She grew up speaking German, a descendant of immigrants from Germany several generations before. But you won't find a more monarchist household. It is insulting to new Australians to imply they are disloyal citizens. After all, they did take the oath of allegiance. In any case, it is the duty of immigrants to adopt the identity of their new country, not for Australia to change its identity to suit them.
  • The monarchy is a symbol of our colonial past. That's a very good reason for keeping it. This argument is just another way of saying they reject our heritage.
  • A republic is inevitable. That argument is looking a little weak these days. Arguments like this are simply a tactic to disarm one's opponents. Nothing is inevitable except death, and even that can usually be postponed.
  • We're not trying to change the flag. Don't believe them! The anti-monarchy and anti-flag brigades have overlapping membership. Both movements spring from the same source: a contempt for our identity as a British nation.
     The republican movement is more about what they're against than what they are for. They don't offer us anything more practical. They are less concerned with a republican model than with rejecting the current system. They are not so much against the Queen as against Australia, for they reject the heritage and traditions which make us what we are. It is time they were called out on that.