Last week a new Senate Committee report offered the most tangible advancement in the republican debate since the 1999 referendum.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee's Inquiry into an Australian Republic was based on the assumption that there is majority support for a republic in the community. The inquiry focused on two questions: what kind of republic do Australians want? and how should we bring about an Australian republic? The inquiry received more than 700 written submissions and involved public hearings around Australia. On 31 August 2004 the committee released its report, The road to a republic.
The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) has welcomed the committee's key recommendations, many of which reflect the ARM's preferred process and position on republican models.
The committee has endorsed 'a three-stage consultative, non-binding process for moving towards an Australian republic'. It recommends a compulsory initial plebiscite, to be determined by simple majority vote, asking whether Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state, separating from the British monarchy. If there is a majority vote in favour of Australia becoming a republic in this initial vote, the committee recommends a second compulsory plebiscite to ask what type of republic Australia should become.
Although the committee considered a 'plethora' of alternative models for an Australian republic, it stressed that it did not intend to endorse any one model over others. Instead, it embraced the proposition that it is ultimately for the Australian people to decide what kind of republic we should become. The ARM shares this view.
The structure of the second plebiscite proposed by the committee reflects this intention: it would be conducted on a preferential voting basis, with Australians indicating their preference between five alternative republican models.
These models are broadly aligned with the five submitted by the ARM in its submission to the committee.
The models suggested by the committee for appointing the republican head of state are:
¢ appointment by Prime Minister
¢ appointment by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of federal parliament
¢ appointment by an electoral college, which has been elected on the same basis as the Senate
¢ direct election of parliament's candidates, with powers of head of state to be codified
¢ direct election by the people, with powers of head of state to be codified
The third stage in the committee's proposed process is a drafting Convention to fine-tune the details of the model - as based on the second plebiscite results - to be put to the Australian people in a referendum. This is where the ARM's preferred process differs from the committee. While the committee recommends a Convention whose members are appointed by parliament and comprising constitutional experts, the ARM instead proposes an elected Convention that receives advice from Australia's pre-eminent constitutional experts.
In endorsing the plebiscite approach, the committee has embraced a considered, democratic and transparent process. It has also effectively weakened two of the central planks in the monarchists' armory. By stressing that the whole process be enshrined in legislation, and by emphasising that the wording of the initial plebiscite question should reflect an assurance that Australians will be consulted in a future plebiscite about what type of republic a majority of Australians want, the Committee has directly tackled the so-called 'blank cheque' argument - that Australians will not vote for a republic without knowing the details.
In recommending that the plebiscites and referendum should wherever possible be held to coincide with Federal elections, the committee has also weakened monarchists' arguments about the cost of a renewed debate. While the committee's proposal may ultimately prolong the journey to an Australian republic, it does minimise the opportunity for scare campaigns such as that experienced in 1999.
Building on another of the central lessons of the 1999 referendum, the committee has made some innovative suggestions to improve constitutional education and engagement within the community, to develop more informed participation in the next republican debate. Suggested initiatives include establishing a Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness to oversee ongoing educational programs on the Australian constitution.
With the federal election campaign in full swing, this report has been largely overlooked. This is disappointing but with the likelihood of a republican Prime Minister ever closer - whether that will be Mark Latham on October 9 or Peter Costello some time in the future - the ARM is confident that the republic will soon be back on Australia's political agenda. When that happens, last week's report will make a valuable contribution to the debate.