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History essay – Why did the Republican referendum of 1999 fail?

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In the lead-up to Australia’s referendum of November 6, 1999, the republican movement was beset on all sides by barriers historical, imposed and self-imposed. Seeking to overcome the challenges set by section 128 of the Constitution for any referendum proposal in Australia the movement fell short at both hurdles, failing to secure either a majority of the electors in a majority of States or a majority of all the electors voting. This does not make the republican referendum unique in the history of Australian referenda; rather it joins thirty-six other such attempts in the dustbin of Australian constitutional reform. These were the historical barriers – those that were imposed were due to the incredibly tight schedule required in order to put a question to the people by the proposed date. And although some of the self-imposed barriers came about because of this narrow time frame, many were due to shortcomings and failures in the conduct of the ‘Yes’ campaign itself, and specifically due to the attitudes taken by ‘Yes’ voters towards the ‘No’ coalition. Furthermore, it is also worthwhile considering the concept of a “compound republic” as described by Graham Maddox, and how this could have affected public support for the republican proposal.

The seeds of the 1999 referendum defeat can be seen as being sown almost a century prior to the vote, in the crafting of the referendum section of the Australian Constitution. Section 128 establishes that the Constitution can only be altered or amended through a popular vote, and a double majority of both electors overall and electors by State at that. As John Uhr surmises, the requirement of electoral acceptance is almost anomalous – and is certainly far removed from the US system, which is based on the federal and State legislatures rather than a direct appeal to the people.  Uhr links this need for a “special super-majority”  to Australia’s distinctive compulsory voting laws – supposedly to lessen the impact of disinterested voters. Furthermore, there is a suggestion that as well as the difficulties created by section 128, the Australian Constitution as a whole is notoriously resistant to change. However this is not because of unmanageable constitutional requirements but rather because it was advanced and “radically democratic for its time, being framed in a series of constitutional conferences…by delegates elected by the people of the various colonies.”
Whether or not there are barriers to reform inherent in the Constitution itself, there can be no doubting the historically “modest”  success of referendum proposals in Australia. Only eight of forty-four proposals have achieved the required double majority, the referendum immediately preceding the republican question saw four simultaneous proposals rejected with ‘Yes’ votes of below 40%, and all of the eight most recent proposals were also rejected.
There are many conflicting opinions as to the reasons for these numerous rejections: John Uhr believes the high failure rate “reflects more on the defective approach of initiating governments than on the alleged deliberative defects of voters”,  whilst also citing “the conventional interpretation holding that the referendum system gives too much weight to voter apathy and ignorance”;  Galligan and Wright specifically target “the quality of proposals” whilst also acknowledging that “some blame the ignorance and apathy of the people”.  However, perhaps the most important historical precedent to consider in regard to the republic referendum is Galligan’s and Wright’s explanation of the low success rate of referendum proposals in Australia: “the commonwealth government that controls the framing and initiation of proposals has often sought to expand its own powers or to put questions lacking popular support”. This historic suspicion of politicians and governments attempting to expand their own powers is borne out throughout the republican debate, and is an issue to be examined in greater depth when addressing both the imposed and the self-imposed barriers faced by the ‘Yes’ campaign.
One final historical barrier to be discussed involves the immediate history of the republican issue in the decade or so prior to the 1999 vote. From the very beginning of his time as Prime Minister, Paul Keating was passionate and vociferous when discussing what he saw as the absolute imperative for Australia to become a republic in order to escape its rigidly conservative past and take its place amongst the adult nations of the world. “It sometimes seemed”, writes Justice Michael Kirby, “that, by this issue, he was seeking to exorcise the ghost of Menzies’ dominance of Australian politics in the second half of the first century of federation”.  So passionate was he that “he effectively claimed the republic for himself and for his party”.  The difficulty this creates is that, historically, without bipartisan support at the federal level it is almost impossible to secure the required double majority. Keating made the republic a major part of his 1996 re-election campaign, and his promise of a referendum was quickly echoed by John Howard in an attempt to neutralise the issue in the general election. Keating’s eventual defeat in that election, coupled with Howard’s promise of a referendum, meant that the 1999 republican referendum was initiated and enacted by an avowed monarchist leading a party that did not support the referendum in the first place. This led to many of the imposed barriers referred to earlier, and it is to a more detailed examination of these that we now turn. But, in reality, by seizing the issue and making it partisan, Keating had almost certainly defeated the referendum before it had even been drafted.

Many of the most difficult challenges to overcome were, in fact, almost a direct result of Paul Keating’s passion and zeal for an Australian republic. A Commission had been created prior to 1988 and charged with reviewing the Australian Constitution in time for the Bicentenary, and in their final report  recommended that there was no sense taking steps towards a republic “as there was no significant movement”  pushing for the change. However, as Justice Kirby relates at length, once Keating became Prime Minister Australia’s progress towards a republic accelerated greatly. In 1992 Keating declared his intention to propose the necessary changes to the constitution in order to establish a republic, splitting the Liberal Party and giving a boost to the demoralised Australian Labor Party, which was at this time staring down the barrel of an unwinnable election. Following the remarkable Labor election victory in March 1993, Keating announced the establishment of a seven person Republican Advisory Committee in April, met the Queen in London in September to inform her of his government’s plans, and in June 1995 announced his government’s adoption of the Advisory Committee’s minimalist model – for the new Head of State to be detached from politics and “an eminent Australian, a widely respected figure who can represent the nation as a whole.”  At this same time Keating indicated that he aimed at a referendum on the issue “sometime in 1998 or 1999 with a view to acceptance of the referendum entailing a change to a republic in the centenary year of Australian Federation, 2001. ” However, in Justice Kirby’s assessment:

To change the Australian Constitution in such a significant respect, within the space, effectively, of five years, imposed requirements of comprehension and adaptation to change which proved unacceptable to the majority of the Australian electors.

It is easy, though, to understand the pressing urgency, especially when one is reminded of three hugely symbolic dates looming large in the hearts and minds of Australian Republicans circa 1995: the advent of the new millennium; the Sydney Olympic Games in September 2000 and the thought of who might represent the nation in opening and closing the games; and thirdly the centenary of Australian Federation in January 2001. Any and all of these events would provide powerful symbolism for a new age in Australia and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the nation. Yet here we see that one of the greatest challenges to the ‘Yes’ movement – trying to convince the Australian people of the need for this fundamental constitutional and ideological reform – was simply not given enough time to be fully understood and accepted by the electorate.
Compounding this challenge was that Howard was certainly not going to allow any extra time for the republican cause to get its house in order, and so was perfectly willing to stick to the deadlines already proposed by Keating. The effects of this imposed brevity were especially evident during the Constitutional Convention in February 1998, when one hundred and fifty-two parliamentary delegates and appointed and elected non-parliamentary delegates were limited to just ten days to reach consensus on how best to proceed with the complex issue of the mooted republican referendum. Justice Kirby recounts that:

The republicans had to endeavour to secure a consensus in order to call up the fulfilment of the Prime Minister’s promise to have a referendum in those circumstances. Yet this imposed upon them the haste and unwillingness to explore and forge links with republicans of different persuasions, which produced the proposal ultimately put to the people.

As we shall see, the very nature of this compromise proposal opened itself up to charges of elitism and raised public suspicion. A proposal put together behind the closed doors of Old Parliament House (where the convention was held) immediately put the ‘Yes’ movement on the back foot, forcing them to expend a great deal of effort and energy explaining the proposed constitutional changes – something at which, ultimately, they failed miserably.
Almost from the outset this compromise platform was in serious electoral danger. As the Australian Constitutional Referendum Study  makes plain time and time again, the majority of support for a republic was based on the model of a directly elected president, not the parliamentary appointed president that was the Constitutional Convention’s platform. A majority of the sources,  too, cite the importance of direct election advocates in the ultimate defeat of the referendum, with David Charnock declaring “the votes of direct electionists were as important as those of monarchists in the defeat of the republic referendum.”  Charnock’s reasoning for this is simple: the three competing options (direct election, parliamentary appointed, and status quo) were each unable to secure an absolute majority in their own right, so inevitably the other two options will defeat it; creating what Charnock dubs a “ cyclical majority”.
Justice Kirby, in his article, goes on to reveal how the assembled republicans at the convention were unable to prevent Howard using “his position to undermine the referendum’s success”  quite so effectively:
In this respect, the republicans were probably outflanked by the strategy of Prime Minister Howard, whose unwavering support for the existing constitutional arrangements was never in doubt. His offer locked republican supporters into a time frame, and then a model, which was difficult or impossible to change in any material respect.
In this compressed constitutional convention we see both a barrier imposed by Howard and a barrier imposed by Keating. Essentially, Justice Kirby summarises, “neither side was willing to take the time which retrospect suggests essential if the proposal was to have a chance of being accepted.”  However, while Howard’s loading of the electoral dice was the last and most decisive of the imposed barriers to constitutional reform, Keating’s error of haste proved only to be one of the first of many self-imposed barriers put in their own path by the ‘Yes’ vote.

While there can be no doubt that the model of a parliament-appointed president which emerged from the 1998 Constitutional Convention was the less-preferred republican model for many voters, there were a great many errors made by the ‘Yes’ campaign that ultimately served to exacerbate the challenges already facing the movement. It may well have been the case that the parliament-appointed model was the one that would have caused the least upheaval to the constitution and indeed the established functions of government in Australia, but there was a noticeable failure on the part of the ‘Yes’ campaign to adequately make this case to the public:
A constant theme of explanations for the negative response to the change was the feeling that the electors were being taken for granted, talked down to, condescended with jingles but not provided with basic and detailed information of what precisely was involved in the change.
A perfect example of these condescending jingles and slogans were two aimed specifically at the youth vote: “Give an Australian the Head Job” and “Rooting for a Republic.”
Furthermore, those who retained affection and sentiment for the monarchy were often attacked and insulted in sections of the Australian media as being wrong, outdated and out of step with the rest of the country,  and belittled by some supporters of the republic as being somehow less patriotic and un-Australian.  Obviously, while the ‘Yes’ campaign could not possibly have controlled everything that the millions of republican supporters said or did, it is perhaps not unfair to suggest that, in the notable absence of a positive, substantive and detailed campaign for change emanating from ‘Yes’ headquarters, these negative, sensationalist attacks began to fill the void. Certainly, if having to convince a large number of voters of the substance, necessity and timeliness of the proposed model was already a significant challenge, these attacks were not helping the ‘Yes’ cause in the slightest.
Admittedly though, this was not solely the fault of the ‘Yes’ campaign, but one contributed to by the Australian media. That even the ABC was considered by some to be perceived as biased towards the republican cause  speaks to how total was the media push toward the success of the referendum in 1999. This media support was not simply limited to editorials and opinion pieces, but often, particularly with the News Ltd. publications, the aggressively pro-republic line carried through into supposedly factual reports, the coverage of the ‘No’ coalition, and even the photographs and cartoons. “Most of these”, Justice Kirby argues, “showed the Queen and her supporters in a bad light and the republicans as the only cause which real patriotic Australians could possibly support.”
Perhaps, though, the greatest campaign error made by the ‘Yes’ ticket was the practice of recruiting high-profile public figures to be used in promotional material and to be featured heavily in all coverage,  most notably former Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke, former Chief Justices Mason and Brennan and even a former Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen. This error was greatly exacerbated by the choice to appropriate the “It’s Time” slogan from Whitlam’s historic election victory in 1972 – thus presenting a campaign to establish an apolitical head of state by using probably the single most famous and identifiably partisan election campaign in Australia’s history. This was an ill conceived, poorly considered choice that perhaps deterred as many voters as it inspired. It was, unquestionably, a massive failure of the ‘Yes’ campaign that no one foresaw the potential for formerly great public figures reappearing on the national scene to cause feelings of discomfort in the electorate, especially given that they were reappearing to support a constitutional referendum granting the Federal Parliament the power to elect the Head of State. As we have already seen, many referenda had failed that sought to expand the powers of politicians, and the re-emergence especially of these three former Prime Ministers was always going to arouse suspicion when one considers that the referendum model allowed parliament – the institution that Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke had dominated for many years not very long ago – to select the Head of State. There was, as Justice Kirby recounts, “a cynical view that their real motivation was a desire by them (or their contemporary equivalents) for the top job of President which the current constitutional arrangements safely denied them.

All of these errors, failures and self-imposed barriers to constitutional reform made by the ‘Yes’ campaign can all be related back to one great, overarching failure: what Justice Kirby dubs the elitist error. As he documents, post-referendum analysis showed that a typical ‘Yes’ voter was tertiary-educated, a higher-income earner and living in the capital city of a larger state, particularly NSW and Victoria. Outside of these two national centres, however, support for the referendum fell away among the less educated, the lower-income workers, those in smaller cities and town and those in the less populous states and territories.  “Clearly enough,” writes Justice Kirby,

In sufficient numbers to reject it, the alteration was seen by many as an unnecessary distraction from really important issues and one that was being pressed on the nation by an urban elite out of touch with the values and concerns of other citizens.

If one went seeking elitism in the 1999 referendum one could see it all the way from Keating’s seven member Republican Advisory Committee, the Constitutional Convention, the parliament-appointed model eventually adopted, and condescension and sloganeering from both the ‘Yes’ campaign and the media, to the presence of former Prime Ministers, High Court Chief Justices and a Governor General promoting the ‘Yes’ vote. At no point in this process was the wider public consulted or even invited to participate, and the entire campaign was detached from the vast majority of Australians. It is certainly true, as Higley & McAllister argue, that due to the constitutional and procedural requirements all referendum proposals in Australia are unavoidably elite as they must go through several stages of parliament before they are put to the people.  It is also worth pointing out that ‘elite’ means the best and brightest, and that having a referendum proposal initiated, engineered and orchestrated by the best and the brightest might, in fact, be preferable. However there is a world of difference between being ‘elite’ and being ‘elitist’, and that difference proved to be electorally fatal to the republican referendum proposal.

One final point to consider in assessing the failure of the republican referendum is the extent to which people felt there was need for change, and the extent to which the proposed changes were already perceived to be enshrined in both the Constitution and the practice of government in Australia. In his article “Australian Democracy and the Compound Republic”, Graham Maddox advances the idea of a “compound republic”,  which speaks to the importance of federalism in political culture and practice. Maddox posits that, prior to the 1999 referendum, many were of the belief that Australia was already a republic in many respects, and that “there was a strong opinion that Australia enjoyed all the benefits of republicanism under the constitutional monarchy”.  The importance of federalism in the Australian political system had led to other writers  considering Australia a compound republic, which leads us to an interesting consideration: if Australia is already thought of as republican in practice, then this precludes any attempt to change our system to a republican one. It must be noted, however, that Maddox shows no evidence that this concept of compound republicanism had reached mainstream public discourse in any meaningful way whatsoever, and so it would be incorrect to cite this concept as assisting in the downfall of the republican referendum. However it is certainly an interesting point to consider in and of itself.

As with any election, it would be wrong to attribute the 1999 republic referendum defeat to one single issue or concern. What can be said, however, is that the reasons for the defeat can be split into three broad categories. Firstly, the less than successful precedent of referenda in Australia and the requirements of the Constitution meant that the republic proposal faced significant challenges even before the formal process was begun. Secondly, once that process got underway the republican cause had barriers imposed upon it, deliberately and unintentionally, and from both sides of politics. Thirdly, following the adoption of a referendum proposal that was less popular than some of the alternatives, the ‘Yes’ campaign was unable to convince either those who supported the monarchy or those who supported direct election that a parliamentary-appointed president model was the most effective, or that there was a pressing need for change. While the election of Kevin Rudd and Labor in November 2007 has seen the republic issue tentatively put back on the table, it will be impossible for any proposal to succeed unless it learns from the mistakes of 1999.


Written by soundaffects

October 10th, 2008 at 5:41 pm

Paul Keating – Template for peace is inclusion

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reposted from Sydney Morning Herald

August 25, 2008

We are living through one of those rare yet transforming events in history, a shift in the power in the world from West to East. For 500 years Europe dominated the world; now for all its wealth and population it is drifting into relative decline.

Will our understanding of this transformation, and our acceptance of its equity for the greater reaches of mankind, lead us to a position of general preparedness of its inevitability, or will we cavil at it in much the same way as Europe resisted the rise of Bismarck’s creation at the end of the 19th century?

We can see, with this the 29th Olympiad, the questioning of China and the resentment at its pretensions about being one of us. Even becoming one of us!

The Western liberal press featured, generally in critical terms, the world-long torch relay, juxtaposing all that it represents and is good about it with what it sees as China’s democratic defects, viewing it almost exclusively through the prism of Tibet.

Saying, almost, that the aspirations of this massive nation, a quarter of humanity, a legatee of a century of misery, dragging itself from poverty, is somehow of questionable legitimacy, because its Government’s attitude to political freedoms and in specific instances, human rights, are not up to scratch. Ignoring the massive leaps in progress, of income growth, of shelter, of the alleviation of poverty, of dwindling infant mortality, of education, of, by any measure, the much better life now being experienced by the great majority of Chinese.

The Western critic feeling the epicentre of the world changing but not at all liking it, seeks to put down these vast societies on the basis that their political and value systems don’t match up to theirs.

Henry Kissinger made the point recently when he said, “We cannot do in China in the 21st century what others thought to do in the 19th – prescribe their institutions for them and seek to organise Asia.”

And he went on to pose the question: do we split the world into a union of democracies and non-democracies, or must there be another approach key to regional and historic circumstance?

There is a view that should China become a democracy, a real one, many tensions in the global system would go; that democracies find peace with other democracies; that the former political-military state first turns itself into a trading state and as wealth and opportunity rise so, too, do democratic values.

But what we must remember is that even if all the states of the world became democratic, the structure of the international system would remain anarchic.

The greatest challenge we face, whether for managing incidents or easing the new economic tectonic plates into place, will be to construct a truly representative structure of world governance which reflects global realities, but which is also equitable and fair.

For two Clinton presidential terms and two George Bush terms, the world has been left without such a structure; certainly one able to accommodate Russia and the great states such as China and India.

Instead Clinton and Bush left us with the template of 1947; the template cut by the victorious powers of World War II, the one where Germany and Japan were left on the outside, and still are 60 years later, and in which China and India are tolerated and palely humoured.

Sixteen critical years have already been lost. And it is not as if we are dealing with a world where things are the same now as they were 16 years ago. The world is dynamic: 16 years ago China was not a world power; today it is. Sixteen years ago, Russia was collapsing; today it is growing and strongly.

We are now sitting through, witnessing, the eclipse of American power. Yet for those 16 critical years, two American presidents did nothing to better shape the institutions of world governance.

And there has been no help from the old powers; Tony Blair’s Britain and Jacques Chirac’s France. After all, they had box seats to the event, courtesy of being on top in 1947.

But Blair’s contribution was not anything new or free-thinking, rather he thought being an American acolyte was all that was required. Chirac was simply incapable of adding any strategic value to the equation.

The fact is we are again heading towards a bipolar world. Not one shaped by a balance of terror like the old one, but certainly not a multipolar one – in fact, one heavily influenced by two countries; the United States and China.

Russia’s economy, while growing in strength from the burnt-out wreck it was in 1990, will not be in the league of that of the US or of China.

But Russia will still be wealthy; wealthy enough to continue to field its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. So whether you attribute to Russia full “pole” status or not, you can certainly attribute to it huge strategic standing.

It is more the pity then, that following that unexpected epiphany in 1989, the Clinton administration rashly decided to ring-fence Russia by inviting the former Warsaw Treaty states of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO.

By doing so, the US failed to learn one of the lessons of history: that the victor should be magnanimous with the vanquished.

At some time the US will be obliged to treat Russia as a great sovereign power replete with a range of national interests of the kind that other major powers possess.

In the meantime, the great risk of this sort of adventurism is that with NATO’s border now right up to western Ukraine, the Russians will take the less costly military option of counter-weighing NATO’s power by keeping their nuclear arsenal on full operational alert.

This posture automatically carries with it the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack by mistake. The years of Russia’s economic poverty, certainly since the collapse of its economy in the first half of the 1990s, has meant the Russians have allowed their surveillance and early warning systems to ossify. To compensate, they are keeping their nuclear arsenal on full operational alert.

This leaves the rest of the world relying more on the generals, the battlefield commanders and intelligence assessors to restrain a nuclear response than it does the Russian President or his Government. This means that while the Cold War is over, the risk of a mistaken pre-emptory response has increased.

Many people will think and some will say that with communications and the globalisation of economic wealth being what it is, an outbreak of a major conflict seems more and more remote. That global interdependence and the shrinking of the world makes war a decidedly unproductive way of resolving foreign policy differences.

People should be reminded that that was said at the time of the last great intensification of trade between Britain, France and Germany along with the growing US economy before 1914.

The lesson is that when the strategic bits go wrong, the economic bits soon follow. Certainly not the obverse: when the trade goes well, the strategic wrinkles get ironed out.

The structure of the international system is anarchic. Was anarchic; remains anarchic. This condition cannot be remedied but structures to mitigate its most violent manifestations can be put into place.

Against this backdrop remains the open question about “the West” and its fibre. The question that was resoundingly answered by that generation who suffered the Depression and the Second World War and who delivered us into a new era of peace and prosperity.

Is our culture a culture made compliant by too much coming too easily; producing a state of intellectual and spiritual lassitude which can only be shaken by the gravest threats, be they economic, environmental or indeed, strategic?

As that pendulum swings from West to East, are the motivations for the West’s former primacy swinging with it? Has the bounty of science and industrialisation with its cornucopia of production and wealth encouraged us too far away from simpler requirements and concern for the needs of all?

As societies, have we taken our eye off public affairs for way too long?

Can we, all of us, assimilate, adjust ourselves to a constancy of peace and prosperity without lessening our regard for those enlivening impulses of truth and goodness?

A new international order based on truth and justice founded in the recognition of the rights of each of us to live out our lives in peace and harmony, can, I believe, provide the only plausible long-term template.

The old order of victorious powers, of a compromised United Nations, a moribund G8 with major powers hanging on to weapons of mass destruction, is a remnant of the violent 20th century. It cannot provide the basis for an equitable and effective system of world governance.

Just as world community concern has been ahead of the political system on issues such as global warming so, too, world community concern needs to galvanise international action to find a new template for a lasting peace, one embracing all the major powers and regions.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said some day there will be a universal peace; the only question, he said, is will this come about by human insight or by catastrophe, leaving no other outcome possible.

Humankind demands that that proposition be settled in the former and not the latter.

Paul Keating was Australian prime minister from 1991 to 1996. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Saturday.

Annabel Crabb is on fire

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if there are those of you that are unlucky enough to have not been reading Annabel Crabb in the Sydney Morning Herald over the last 18 months or so, you are really missing out.

This woman has risen to be one of the most consistently clever, brilliant, intelligent, insightful and witty journalists at the SMH and in Australia.

Here is her latest article.


Guilty of grievous oratory harm

Annabel Crabb
May 31, 2008

‘Police are currently investigating the possible prosecution of offences regarding the act of publish indecent article under the Crimes Act”.

These are the exact words with which the NSW Police announced their intentions vis a vis Bill Henson, photographer, eight days ago.

A million more words will be expended on these events, of course.

But while we’re cooking up offences against respected citizens, why not turn the eyes of the law towards a grammatical crime committed with increasing regularity by uniformed officers?

Forget “publish indecent article” for a moment. What about “omit indefinite article”?

This offence, among others, has been stealthily on the rise among NSW’s finest for some time.

A quick glance at the NSW Police’s website reveals that the luckless Henson is by no means the only perp to have his collar felt on a grammatically absurd charge.

Only days earlier, a Lakemba man was charged with “disseminate child pornography” after a police raid on his market stall in Campsie.

“A man will face court after being charged over alleged break, enter and steal offences around Newcastle”, the cops announced on Wednesday, May 7.

Then it was the turn of a 46-year-old finance sector employee, who according to NSW Police on May 21, has been charged on 26 counts including “make false statement, make/use false instrument, and obtain benefit by deception”.

And just last week, the cops issued a press release advising that a 21-year-old Cartwright man and his 260 hydroponically-grown cannabis plants had been parted, after a brief but potentially lucrative cohabitative relationship.

“The man has been charged with cultivate larger than commercial quantity of a prohibited plant and bypassing the electricity meter”, the press release reported.

As you can see from the last example, the odd clause does escape the language mangler – clearly the work of some rogue conjugator deep within the public affairs department, who probably never gets invited anywhere.

But on the whole, copspeak is nothing more than a serious rap sheet of crimes against the English language. Why do our police have to sound like they learnt English from a mobile phone instruction pamphlet?

Is this a funding issue? Is it possible that our police force has been so starved of finances by the NSW Government that it can no longer afford the luxury of joining words?

If so, it’s a real cheek; you’d think this Government would be generous in funding its law enforcement officers, if for no other reason than that its own MPs seem to devote so much of their private lives to the creation of extra work for them.

Shame, Iemma, shame.

A closer look, however, suggests that the problem is more one of resource allocation. What the cops save on the regular omission of the indefinite article, they tend to splurge elsewhere.

If we examine the case of the Sydney man who has been done for “obtain benefit by deception”, for instance, we find that he was nabbed by an outfit called “Task Force Foamcrest”.

Sorry? Foamcrest?

It’s hard to see how NSW Police could possibly justify kitting itself out with all manner of fancy taskforce titles, when elsewhere there are officers forced to chop back whole sentences in a brutal austerity measure.

Many officers also are guilty of substituting expensive verbs where cheap ones would do.

How many times have you heard an officer declare that a murder or accident victim was “deceased at the scene”, when “dead” would probably cover it just as well?

The field of police communications is littered with offenders who “decamped in a westerly direction” instead of just running away, like anyone else would.

Or who “discharged their weapon intentionally into the vicinity of the victim”, rather than taking the cheaper and easier decision simply to shoot them.

And do you know the worst thing about this entire racket? It’s a conspiracy. Journalists cover it up all the time. You wouldn’t even know about most of the instances of “omit indefinite article”, because we in the fourth estate tidy everything up so you don’t find out.

When the Rose Bay commander, Superintendent Allan Sicard, outlined to the cameras on Friday last the clunky crimes with which Henson and his henchpersons were to be charged, a team of clean-up experts went to work straight away.

The ABC’s PM website now blandly records that Superintendent Sicard referred to the offence of “publishing an indecent article”.

The Independent newspaper in Britain was one of dozens who used the same sanitised version. Readers, this cancer runs deep. Everybody’s in on it. There isn’t much time – any minute now, I shall hear the tap on the door and it will be the troopers, come to bust me on 800 counts of “aggravated take piss”.

Written by soundaffects

May 31st, 2008 at 10:02 pm

From Little Things Big Things Grow

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GetUp! is an Australian political advocacy group, modeled on MoveOn! in the USA, but not nearly so reviled by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum

GetUp! has released its first record, a re-working of Paul Kelly’s classic anthem “From Little Things Big Things Grow”. But it is not merely a case of a simple cover version.

The song features famous Australian musicians (John Butler, Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly, Urthboy, Missy Higgins, Mia Dyson, & Ozi Batla) singing not only the original song, but also singing select quotes from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generation as well as former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s historic Redfern Address from 1992.

Their ambition is to reach the very top of the Australian singles charts, thereby achieving high rotation on radio and TV, reaching millions of people who may never even have heard of GetUp and who have never given any thought to issues of reconciliation.

Their website says, “From little things, big things grow. This song can fill every home, cafe, pub and workplace in the country with a message of hope that we will achieve reconciliation and equality for all Australian citizens – a resounding message from the 2020 Summit.”

Lofty aims, certainly. But is the song good enough to achieve this?

As far as the music goes, this truly is an extraordinarily compelling piece. Kelly’s original melody and lyrics have always possessed a certain simplicity and beauty, and that is not lost. Indeed, if anything, it is enhanced by the different voices singing and rapping.

The instrumentation has been revamped from the original acoustic tune to include guitar, drums and even a small string section that swells in the chorus. It’s a beautiful treatment of a strikingly simple song, and it manages to both highlight the beauty of the original and to subtly tug at the heartstrings without ever seeming overbearing and preachy.

But the most remarkable bit of this song is the inclusion of sections from these two famous speeches.

We live in a time of instants.
Instant coffee.
Instant meals.
Instant news.
And what we are losing is our capacity to be overwhelmed.

Every aspect of our lives go by so quickly, and are replaced so quickly, that we are losing patience.

And when you lose patience, you don’t allow anything to grow, and everything becomes quick, immediate and empty.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of oratory.

No one gives speeches anymore. Oh, sure, people speak for a long time, but there is no imagery, no poetry, no sense of performance. Instead, politicians simply try not to offend anyone; to appeal to everyone by playing it completely safe and never actually saying anything of substance.

But humans are, by their nature, hungry beings.

We long for something to inspire us, to stimulate our minds, to force us to sit back and marvel.

Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations was such an event.

True, Rudd is not an orator. His language is almost always bureaucratic, complex and dense, and his delivery leaves much to be desired.

But in this case, the substance of Rudd’s Apology was so extraordinary, and so overdue, that it opened the floodgates on emotions that Australians had been blocking and ignoring for years.

Yes. Aboriginal children were removed (often forcibly) from their families.
Yes. In many cases it was a part of a broader plan to eradicate the Aboriginal race for good.
Yes. This deserves, at the very least, an acknowledgement of past wrongs, and an apology from the government on behalf of those who went before them.

And as the song begins, and the strings swell underneath Rudd’s voice, the song manages to capture the way the Apology made us feel.



“As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

And I offer you this apology without qualification.”


All profits raised by this song will go to GetUp!’s Reconciliation Fund and Aboriginal organisations on the ground. Help take their message to a new audience who they need to join us on this national journey, by clicking here to view and buy the song:

2020 Summit

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For those of you not in the know, the 2020 Summit was a weekend in our national capital when the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, invited 1000 people to share their ideas on the future of Australia, specifically with regards to where we would like to be in the year 2020.

10 groups were set up: Communities & Families, Productivity, Governance, Creative Australia, Indigenous, Health, Rural, Security and Environment.


Much has been written about the 2020 Summit, most of it by far better writers than I. And, admittedly, by far more knowledgeable writers than I.

And I’m sure that in the coming weeks the event will be dissected, analysed and assessed from every angle. Many of the high-profile ideas will be critiqued and discussed, and maybe the same can be said for some of the lower-profile ones.

But what this event has achieved, more than anything, is to get people talking again.

For far too long, Australia was a country were nobody really asked anything of anyone, much less our leaders. We all just plodded along, looking after ourselves and ignoring everything else. The 11 long years of the Howard government led to many things, but by far the most obvious consequence was that we became a nation of ostriches – all 20 million of us had our heads buried deep in the sand.

But now…

There is a reawakening.

People are talking about things, debating ideas and becoming passionate about subjects and issues that no one has spoken about for years.


When Kevin Rudd went to meet the Queen in London he was asked whether he would broach the topic of an Australian Republic – an idea that has been neither seen nor heard since its death by referendum in 1999 – and in response said something along the lines of “I think it will happen eventually, but I don’t think that time is now.” 

This line was repeated in every newspaper, every TV news, every radio news broadcast in the country. And then the Day Two stories began – people being interviewed about whether they thought now was the right time to reappraise the Republic debate.

And then, only a matter of days after the PM declared the Republic was an idea for another time, everyone was talking about it. Talkback radio, letters to the editor, taxi drivers, people at bars, people in the streets – everyone was talking about the idea of an Australian Republic.


And now, the main recommendation to come out of the 2020 Summit is that Australia needs a complete overhaul of its system of government – with a Republic at the top of that new system.


If nothing else, people are talking…

Written by soundaffects

April 22nd, 2008 at 2:26 am