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ACM Home arrow Anthems arrow Convenor's Column Archive arrow HOW PLEBISCITES ARE MISUSED

HOW PLEBISCITES ARE MISUSED Print E-mail
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the potential for misuse of the constitutional plebiscite. They had seen too-many examples of that. That is why they determined that the way -the only way- to change the Constitution should be the Swiss style referendum, where the people get the details of any proposed change before- and not after- they vote. The only reason republicans have embraced the plebiscite is not that they want to know what the people think-it is that they see it as a useful device to lock the people into change they do not want. They hope that the first vote will wipe out the constitutional monarchists, who if they lose that, will either retire from the campaign or be neutralised. Mr Keating had a similar strategy when he stacked the Republican Advisory Committee with republicans. Similarly, the present Senate reference doesn't even bother to examine whether the change to any republic will improve the Constitution, it just asks how to achieve some sort of republic, presumably any republic-anything but the present Constitution with the Sovereign to whom the Senators have sworn their allegiance.

 

In the meantime, it is worth recalling that the experience of countries since federation has confirmed how open to misuse is the constitutional plebiscite. For example, when the Quebec government decided in 1995 that it was time to secede from Canada, they knew they would need the support of the people in what was called a referendum but in reality was a plebiscite. The honest approach -- the approach to ensure an informed vote -- would have been to put all the facts before the Quebecois. In particular, that there was no guarantee that even if Quebec were able to secede, the new state could retain the advantages it had enjoyed as part of Canada : Could Quebec continue to use the 'Canadian. dollar? What would happen to the national debt? Would Quebec continue to be a party to each of Canada's treaties, for example, the free trade treaty with the US and Mexico? Would Quebec's boundaries remain the same? And what of the indigenous people, who preferred to stay in Canada? Could they secede from Quebec? All of these unresolved issues were swept under the carpet by the secessionists. Instead, the question was devised, and deliberately devised, to attract a maximum uninformed vote. In brief, the question was designed to deceive the people. The question should have been, "Do you approve of Quebec leaving Canada and becoming a separate nation?", or words to that effect. This was the actual question that the Quebecois voted on: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on 12 June, 1995?"

 

To say the referendum question was misleading is an understatement. Exit polls demonstrated that many people who voted "Yes" actually thought they were voting to stay in Canada! To the credit of the Quebecois, they voted "No". But only by a hairsbreadth, because they were not properly informed. In other countries there have been a handful of plebiscites and one referendum, in all about 13, to change to a republic. Most were of doubtful validity and several taken under dictatorships. Only the Australian referendum in 1999 allowed the people to see in advance what precisely was being offered. Now some will say that this is all very well, but the Australian referendum makes it too difficult to change the Constitution. That is not so. As two of our Founders, Sir James Quick and Robert Garran wrote (The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, 1901, reprinted in 1995, at 988), the safeguard in s.128 is: "... necessary not only for the protection of the federal system, but in order to secure maturity of thought in the consideration and settlement of proposals leading to organic changes. These safeguards have been provided, not in order to prevent or indefinitely resist change in any direction, but in order to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible and inevitable".

 

When I read the Sydney Morning Herald's piece on the weekend recalling the Royal Tour of 1954,there was one aspect of the report I had to challenge. This related to opinion polls. From time to time you will see claims that those who support the existing Constitution are only a small minority. I recall seeing one reference claiming we are only 10%! The opinion polls which ask the question whether the respondent wants a republic have consistently shown that slightly more than 50% will say Yes. But the question does not define the republican model contemplated. In other words the poll is about any republic whatsoever, and the fact that they are voting in favour of any republic is never explained to the respondents. That is unfair further, the respondent has no chance to indicate the priority which should be given to this question. Either the model anticipated should be described, or it should made clear that the respondent is being asked to indicate a preference for any form of republic over the present Constitution. The question could more appropriately be: "Would you prefer Australia to become a republic-any form of republic whatsoever-rather than remain under the present constitutional system?" Why do I propose this question?

 

Because the pollsters are interpreting the answers this way! You could be in favour of a Soviet republic, or the McGarvie model-or for that matter the Mugabe model these are all counted as rejecting the present Constitution. But every one choosing the McGarvie model will obviously prefer the existing Constitution over just about any other model. Which demonstrates the difficulties with polls and, of course, plebiscites. And how about this as the other question: "Now thinking of a republic, so far, the Republican Advisory Committee looked into this, there was a two week elected and appointed Constitutional. Convention, as well as the referendum in 1999 which was lost, (I have to put that in because I have been twice asked whether or not we voted to become a republic then!) costing the taxpayer about 150 million, and now there is the Bolkus- Stott-Despoja Inquiry by the Senate -do you want the politicians to spend more of your money and more of their time on this?" But back to the Herald. I sent this letter to the Editor on

7 February :

 

Opinion polls have shown fairly consistently for years that when Australians are asked whether they would prefer a monarchy or a republic, about two thirds choose a republic, says Tony Stephens (7-8 Feb). The latest Newspoll which asked something like this question produced a result of 51%. The Herald Sun survey of 28,000 of its readers said 55% were against a republic. You have to tweak the question to produce the two thirds result and do what Malcolm Turnbull proposed during then referendum, remove the words 'republic' and 'president'. It may not have changed the result, for unlike opinion polls and plebiscites, our Founders ensured that in the referendum we would have the details of any proposed change before, and not after we vote.
 
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