An Exercise In Creative Constitutionalism


Adam Brereton is quite wrong when he writes in New Matilda that the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) is trying "to please everybody". That is impossible but it is true that we are trying to maximise support for the idea that Australia should have its own Head-of-State so that when a plebiscite is held on the subject it is victorious.

Indeed to imagine that we can succeed by returning to the process that was followed in the 1990s is foolhardy. There will always be contention on these matters and the particular approach last century (convention followed by referendum) didn't lock in all the republicans or indeed knock out the monarchists. This meant that despite the good efforts of many republicans a majority of the public didn't feel that the republic was "theirs".

This time around we intend to ensure that they — the sovereign people — are in charge every step of the way. That means a plebiscite followed by democratic engagement on a model and then a referendum. In other words the ARM isn't avoiding "the model question" at all but rather it is making it clear that a proper process has to exist to find a package to put to the people at a referendum.

There is, then, a new strategy for the movement that means being involved in the existing and ongoing conversation about the future of Australia and its place in the world. Within that conversation we can make the ARM case for having our own Head-of-State and a plebiscite. We would like to think that "Australia", "the future" and "the republic" will come to be seen as inextricably linked in the public mind.

We understand how important it will be to win that plebiscite so that democratic authority is given to the cause of the republic. Then the question of a model can be dealt with. How that will be done will also be important and if too "top down" unnecessary ammunition will be given to those who oppose change. Indeed it's worth remembering that the monarchists have an easier task — they simply oppose the republic and are happy to use every trick in the book to confound and confuse.

This takes me to the question of conflict. It is important then in the balance between what we oppose (the British Monarchy as our Head-of-State) and what we propose (an authentically Australian institution that gives us one of our own as Head-of-State) the emphasis should be on the latter. Indeed it needs to be — and seen to be — an exercise in creative constitutionalism rather than an exercise in negativity about the British connection.

There are, of course, many views on why Australia should change to a republic. Some of our leading businessmen and women genuinely believe we could harness the institution to better promote the national interest overseas. Australian nationalists genuinely believe we should have "one of us" as Head-of-State. Constitutional reformers want to have more clarity on the relation between the Head-of-State and the Government and others see the inclusion of indigenous recognition as an essential part of the package. Some want an elected President, others oppose that idea.

Some believe that republic will — in and of itself — produce more energy within the nation that will support other initiatives both economic and social. Others see it in more "matter-of-fact" terms as an inevitable next step in the progress of the nation.

To bring all this together requires a strategy and that's what the ARM has developed. To us the republic isn't just a "good idea" whose "essence" we can debate amongst ourselves; rather it's the basis upon which we want to build a movement for constitutional change that will be followed by political leadership for change.

This time round we want to win!

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.