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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