Australian Prime Minister John Howard recently had an “audience” — as some Australian media described it — with Queen Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting in Durban, South Africa. During the meeting, the prime minister of Australia personally informed the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that she will also — following the country’s Nov. 6 referendum — remain the queen of Australia.
Australians went to the polls to vote “yes” or “no” to a proposal to replace the queen and her representative, the governor general, with a president nominated by the prime minister, seconded by the leader of the opposition and appointed by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of members of the Federal Parliament. By a 55 percent to 45 percent majority, Australians voted “no” and opted — for a variety of reasons or perhaps no reason at all — for the current constitutional monarchy. After the referendum, Howard described the defeat of the republic as “comprehensive.”
Yet his statement is only partially correct. Yes, the defeat of the referendum proposal was sweeping. Not only was it resoundingly defeated nationwide; it failed to be carried in any state of Australia. In that sense, it was “comprehensive.” Nevertheless, even Howard is likely to admit that at least some if not a majority of those who voted “no” are not avowed or even nominal monarchists.
How then, can one interpret the result? First, by looking at and analyzing the opinion polls. All the prereferendum polls correctly predicted that the “yes” case would be soundly defeated, as indeed it was. One poll also indicated that a majority (about 53 percent) who would vote “no” to the proposal would still want a republic.
According to a plethora of “post-mortem” analyses, the proposed republic model failed for a combination of the following overlapping reasons:
* the votes of the “true-blue monarchists” (up to one-third of the “no” voters);
* the innate conservatism of the Australian electorate, compounded by fear of change and the “unknown”;
* the weight of the “don’t know, don’t care” voters who said “no” because they were required to vote by law — on pain of a fine of $A50 (about $US30) — and who resent being forced to vote on an issue they don’t care about;
* the influence of “direct-electionists” who distrusted the politicians who would choose the president;
* perhaps most important, the unholy alliance between the monarchists, “statists” (who prefer the status quo) and the direct-electionists in advocating a “no” vote, together with the vigorous campaign by Howard against this “politicians’ republic”;
* and finally, the historical precedent that no constitutional amendment has passed in Australia without bipartisan and prime ministerial support.
Within a few days of the defeat, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley vowed that if the Labor Party wins the forthcoming federal election (due in less than two years) it would hold a nonbinding plebiscite on the simple question of whether Australians want a republic or not at the following election. If the voters say “yes,” Parliament would then “thrash out” two models — indirect and direct presidential election — and these models would again be put to the people in another plebiscite. The model that won a majority in the second plebiscite would finally be put to a referendum about three months later. And if a majority of all Australian voters and a majority of voters in a majority of states approved that model in the referendum, then, voila! Australia becomes a republic.
One does not need to be a logician or a pessimist to see how difficult it is for any form of Australian republic to come about in the foreseeable future. Under Beazley’s formulaic proposal, this “triple win” — possibly spread over five to nine years — has to be achieved and Labor has to win at least the next two federal elections.
A few conservatives or so-called super-minimalists are now also advocating their own proposals to bring about a republic. Seizing on the Australian republicans’ statement that an Australian should be the country’s head of state, these closet monarchists are arguing that a Parliamentary Act should be promulgated formally stating that the governor general is the head of state, while still maintaining the queen (and maybe a future Charles III or William the whatever number) as the sovereign or crown. This not only circumvents the double-majority requirement of the Australian Constitution, but is also a cynical ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of the Australian people or (to quote a Burmese saying) to cover a dead elephant with a goatskin. One should add that the monarchists have successfully done just that in their deceptive campaign leading to the recent referendum.
Many Australians who voted “yes” this month expressed their belief and their hope that an Australian republic would materialize “one day.” Yet I fear that will not happen any time soon.
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