The Phony Republic: An Unholy Alliance of Wheeler Dealers
Written by Phil Cleary   
Friday, 20 August 1999
From the moment the Australian Republican Movement’s head honcho, Malcolm Turnbull, gave Gareth Evans and the party boys, Liberal and Labor, a matey wink in the old Parliament, I knew they were up to no good. Rather than affirm the hope and optimism of the people who crammed Kings Hall in February 1998 and excitedly followed proceedings through the media, Turnbull chose to foist a phoney republic upon us. Now, those of us who see in the ARM model the death of any real republic have only one option. We have to vote it down.

The election of a President, despite all the limitations and shortcomings, has the potential to free political discourse from the clutches of a tired and authoritarian two-party system in which commonality of policy rather than diversity of thought is the orthodoxy. The ARM model, with its cosy appointment of a President by a two-thirds majority of John Howard’s Parliament, and its autocratic dismissal process would, if successful, bury the aspirations of the people, destroy the foundations on which a republic is built, and dangerously reinforce executive power. That’s why the Prime Minister gleefully embraced the ARM model despite only 73 of the 152 delegates at the Convention voting for it. And that’s why Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, and every other political leader in Australia are now singing its praises.

John Howard well knows that historically Australians have voted against referenda that have attempted to centralise power in the Parliament, and that the authoritarian model proposed by the ARM is almost a monty to go down at a referendum. However, if the Queen is to vacate her throne, then the monarchist John Howard wants to ensure that the people don’t ease their candidate into it. If there’s to be a republic it’ll be the republic John Howard the political pragmatist had to have. Given the lessons of history and the widespread community support for an elected President, it’s astounding that the ARM rank-and-file should have fallen into John Howard’s trap and proposed such a model.

Or is it? Maybe the truth is that while many members of the ARM (as they implied during the 1998 Convention campaign) are comfortable with a republican model in which the President is elected, it was never the intention of the power brokers to make the people sovereign in their republic. Conscious of the people’s desire to elect the President, ARM candidates carefully avoided chanting the ‘elect a President and you’ll end up with a politician’ mantra during the Convention campaign. Yet, as the referendum draws near, this piece of deception has become the set piece of the spruikers for the ARM model. This despite the fact that the Parliament has paved the way for the appointment of a politician. Now, following a late night amendment to the Bill, the anointed candidate can virtually resign as the Prime Minister stands to make the announcement. This amendment makes a joke of the sanctimonious claims of the ARM that only by allowing the Parliament to appoint the President will we be assured of someone other than a politician assuming the role of President.

Desperate to suppress the popular desire for political reform, the power elites have stitched together an unholy alliance of political pragmatists, trade union leaders, newspaper editors and big-end-of-town operators to defend the ARM’s phoney republic. Standing alongside those mouthing a stream of hysteria about the direct election delivering us a politician President are the self-proclaimed ‘constitutional experts’ who’ve been ascribed the job of painting a lurid picture of the constitutional and political chaos that will accompany the election of a President. An elected President with a mandate derived from the people would threaten the authority of a Prime Minister, they argue. Yet when asked to assess the constitutional purity of the ARM model these very same experts derided it. ‘The model is significantly flawed … with hindsight minimalism has been a mistake ... the Convention conclusions are flawed because, at least in one respect they are incomplete … ’, said Professor George Winterton, latterly a convert to the ARM’s cause.

The truth is, the major parties, for which the ARM is but a cat’s-paw, are prepared to support a flawed model because they are opposed to any forms of constitutional change that have the capacity to democratise the political process. By giving the people a direct involvement in the establishment of an alternate site of political thought, the election of a President threatens only to diminish the control of the major parties over political discourse. This is what troubles the media magnates and their political disciples. Even a President with the symbolic and cultural power of the kind available to the President of Ireland is anathema to the ARM and its allies.

It’s not the threat of political chaos and turmoil or the potential sacking of a government by a President, but the submitting of our political system to greater scrutiny and freer intellectual discourse that the major parties fear. If the potential sacking of a government by a rogue President was what really terrified the parties then why haven’t they been campaigning to rectify the precedent set by John Kerr in 1975? It’s no coincidence that only when the question of the election of a President arises that the parties raise the spectre of the capacity of Presidential power to undermine the Prime Minister. In any case, if the powers of an elected President are a serious problem, why not enlist the knowledge of the experts in the pursuit of codifying those powers? And if the experts aren’t up to it, too bad! What we’ll be left with is a more robust democracy.

It’s no surprise that the community remains wedded to the notion of electing a President. The diminished power of the nation state in the face of globalisation and the unqualified subservience of Parliaments to free market policies have created deep disenchantment. And whilst it would be myopic to believe that the election of a President will as a matter of course cure us of these problems, it should come as no surprise that Australians wish to create a President with a critical public role in the life of the country. In a sense the present Governor-General, Sir William Deane, has from time to time taken on this role in speaking out on issues about which the Prime Minister has been uncomfortable. My only wish is that he’d gone further and been more daring. Ironically, under the ARM model a Governor-General with the disposition of William Deane would face the very real prospect of dismissal. The truth is Deane would have more chance of becoming President via an election than through the ARM process. A President appointed by and acceptable to the major parties is hardly likely to imbue the political system with the spirit and qualities we’d associate with a real republic. However, an independent President with ideas isn’t, as the ARM delegates made abundantly clear in their public statements, what Turnbull and the major parties have in mind.

In February last year, ARM delegate Steve Vizard told us he longed for an Australian republic with a President who loved ‘eucalypts and vegemite’. ARM running mates such as Mary Delahunty wiped the tears from the eyes and looked wistfully into the sky as they talked of leaving home, cutting the apron strings of Mother England and offering every Australian child the opportunity to sit as Australia’s Head of State on the Queen’s throne. Yet when pressed, it’s the name of Australia’s wealthiest woman, Janet Holmes a Court, or an establishment figure such as Sir Zelman Cowan, that rolls off the lips of these passionate enemies of inequality and hereditary rule. It’s no wonder the ARM model has failed to inspire the people. As Mark Tredinnick from the University of Sydney bemoaned in a letter, ‘At our convention, the scope of the possible was too narrowly imagined. Politics of the conventional kind triumphed ... now all the talk of the kind of nation we are to become, and how else we might be governed, has been contained, circumscribed, kept to the shallows of detail ...’.

In the hands of Prime Minister Paul Keating, the republic became the myth by which to marginalise the Coalition and distract us from the economic and social problems wrought by globalisation. In the Parliament his political opponents were lampooned as ‘lickspittles and Tories’ who belonged in another epoch and had no answers to the problems of contemporary, modernising Australia. A cynical strategy, it was always destined to fail. For no phoney republic can obfuscate an obsequious foreign policy or an absence of economic independence. Nor can it offer real hope. Stripped of jingoism and false hope, the ARM republic is exposed as little more than a power grab by the major parties. That’s why Keating’s so called ‘Tory’ enemies, of whom Peter Costello and Andrew Robb are but two, now so gleefully embraced his republic.

The claim that the ARM model is but the first step in the path to what we call a ‘real’ republic is totally false. Malcolm Turnbull, the international merchant banker, wants a republic in name only. Ironically, whereas conservatives such as Bruce Ruxton share a deeply held, even if politically conservative, understanding and commitment to the place, Turnbull appears only to see Australia as a market for global capital. How else could the republican Turnbull be a party to the sale of The Age (Melbourne) newspaper to overseas interests? Turnbull has made it abundantly clear that there’ll be no consideration of further constitutional reform should Australians vote ‘Yes’ in November. In the mind of the free trader Turnbull, the word ‘Republic’ is but a neon sign to guide the global traders with whom he passes the time. In his republic there are no citizens, only traders.

Taunts such as, ‘It’s the Queen or the republic now, Phil. You don’t want to be a Queen’s man,’ as trotted out ad nauseam by ARM acolytes and those unable to escape tribal Irishness, count for nought. Given the manner in which my seafaring grand father cursed the Black and Tans and the British Empire, it would be easy to be tribal Irish, prattle on about the House of Windsor and then vote ‘Yes’. But really, I gave up the Queen as soon as I could think. What I didn’t and won’t give up is the right to participate fully in the political system. Nor can I abandon the hope that the election of a President who speaks the language of the people is a very real possibility. Ultimately this has nothing to do with the Queen. It’s about the people’s desire for serious political reform. I remain abjectly disappointed that republicans such as Moira Rayner, Tim Costello and Pat O’Shane should now have entered the unholy alliance about which I write.

At last year’s Constitutional Convention, Victorian Republican Moira Rayner was one of a number of delegates who proclaimed themselves passionate defenders of constitutional reform and a people’s democracy. The wise old owl Clem Jones, the redoubtable Ted Mack, the recalcitrant Pat O’Shane, the omniscient and passionate Paddy O’Brien and many others refused to be seduced by the shallow jingoism of the ARM. ‘I’m not prepared to support a republic that entrenches discrimination ……..that is not a real republic and is not worth the trouble of creating one. A real republic puts the power in the people…..the quality of a republic depends on the quality of its citizens. No minimalist model, no cautious compromise will capture the will of the people. It must protect the individual from the misuse of her government’s power……,’ growled Moira to the applause of Direct Electionists. When she defended her decision to support the ARM model on the grounds she had to vote with her leader, Tim Costello, I was disappointed but kind of understood her predicament. Now, as I watch her (The Age 27 July 1999) tell republicans ‘it’s time to get passionate again’ and write ‘yes and more’ on the very model she savaged at the Convention, I can only say ‘Moira, you must be joking!’

What is it about contemporary life that ideas and deeply held views can be so easily compromised? What’s the point of condemning rorts, brazen conflicts of interest and lack of transparency in Government, or standing shoulder to shoulder with an embattled Auditor General, only to climb the stump to defend a ‘republican model’ that enshrines executive power and exudes contempt for the people? Moira well knows that the escalating cynicism towards the major parties and politics generally has its genesis in the preparedness of glib politicians to trade in ideas, alleged to have been deeply held. As with the pitiful attempt of a slavishly pro-market ALP to mount a case against the Coalition’s sale of Telstra or Peter Reith’s workplace policies, Moira’s strategy just won’t work. If the extent of Moira’s group’s commitment to democracy is the writing of a silly ‘yes…..and more’ on the ticket it’s no wonder people are indicting the political process. However, as they showed when they defeated conscription in 1916-17, the Anti-Communist Bill in 1951 and Pauline Hanson in 1996, ordinary punters just aren’t that stupid. Nor are they so stupid as to believe that should Malcolm Turnbull and his ARM get their way, it’ll be a case of ‘and more’.

If this model wins the day we’ll live to regret it. No one can seriously believe that the major parties will campaign for further constitutional reform once they’ve fought off the people’s challenge and entrenched their power. Why would they? It should come as no surprise that, at a time when support for the major parties is collapsing and people are voting strategically in the Senate, the usual suspects would chose to foist this model on us. The ARM model with its President plucked from the old boy network after a cosy and secretive nomination process is the antithesis of what Moira demanded at the Convention. Dressed up as heralding a democratic break with the days of the hereditary monarchy, the ARM republic is a Trojan horse. Fancy asking the people to endorse a model that allows the President to be sacked by way of a phone call from John Howard without due process, then denies the Senate a role in any review of the position. As the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, laments ‘this is the most ridiculous Constitution alteration proposal I have ever heard of…….no other republic has such an arrangement’.

Ironically, it’s only by defeating this phoney republic that we’ll have any chance of the ‘and more’ constitutional reform about which Moira writes. If this model is defeated it will be because, as every poll confirms, the model refuses to affirm the sovereignty of the people. Only by reaffirming our commitment to the democratic right to elect a President, even one with essentially cultural and symbolic authority, can we generate the momentum to bring about something approaching a real republic. A hundred years ago the feminist sisterhood from which Moira draws inspiration was told to forego the vote because politics wasn’t any of their business. They didn’t accept that advice. I’d be surprised and disappointed if feminists accept Moira’s advice to curtsey before Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘boy’s own’ republic. Contrary to the assertions of Moira and other public defectors such as Pat O’Shane, it’s not apathy, ignorance or lack of passion that is driving people away from the ARM model and into the ‘No’ camp. If only Malcolm Turnbull and his mates would start rooting for democracy rather than Rooting Democracy (to borrow the title of one of Moira’s books) the people might come around.

Paradoxically, it’s only by defeating this model that we can have real constitutional reform and a real republic. No one can seriously believe that those same people who now fight tooth and nail against the election of a President would, if successful in November, put the issue back on the political agenda. For despite public statements by Malcolm Turnbull and Neville Wran affirming the right of Australians to choose the popular election model, the ARM has absolutely no intention of honouring Wran’s promise to ‘embrace their (the people’s) decision and work to implement their decision’. Having misled the people in the interest of securing the election of their delegates at the convention, the ARM now resorts to pouring scorn on those who demand the right to elect the President. Mimicking Winston Churchill’s attack on the suffragettes a century ago, the ARM won’t hear of the great unwashed casting a vote. In these circumstances the only way to ensure a real republic is to vote against the ARM’s phoney republic. Ultimately, this is the logic on which I’ve made my decision to campaign for a ‘No’ vote.

Between 1992 and 1996 I sat on the backbench of the Federal Parliament alongside the Member for North Sydney and direct electionist, Ted Mack. Despite our political differences we never diverged on the question of the misuse of executive power.

Having seen members of Parliament betraying their most treasured tenets in the interest of ‘party discipline’, it’s almost amusing to hear the ARM ascribing the two-thirds majority selection process with the attributes of a serious democratic vote. A secret nomination process controlled by the Prime Minister, then affirmed via a back room deal from which the rank and file members are excluded, is an indictment on the political system. Is it any surprise that the then Leader of Her Majesty’s Queensland Opposition, Peter Beattie, candidly described this selection process as ‘a political deal … and … the sort of arrogance which is making many people in Australia determined to have their own way?’ The only surprise is that now Mr Beattie, having assumed the title of Premier, has decided to support the model. Not surprisingly you’ll struggle to find the aforesaid views of Premier Beattie in the daily papers or across Kerry Packer’s television screen. As Leader of the Queensland Labor Opposition at the Convention, Beattie spoke like a free-spirited man. I remember wishing there were more like him. Now beholden to the party line, Beattie’s free spirit has been quashed and his original statements have the hollow ring of political opportunism. It’s all a bit sad, really.

Those of us in the ‘No’ camp can only have had our resolve hardened by the role of the media in the campaign. Editors and commentators in the major papers have made it abundantly clear where they sit on the question of democratic reform. The use of misleading headlines, the casting of the debate as a struggle between the monarchy and the republic, and the marginalising of the direct election movement has hampered the struggle against this phoney republic. For while pro-ARM sections of the media might delight in mischievously portraying Coalition Minister, Peter Reith, as the ‘de-facto head of the direct election campaign’ the truth is the campaign began with the people and their spontaneous rejection of the ARM model at the time of the 1998 Convention. Whether or not Peter Reith, who’s been a long-standing supporter of the direct election model, has political motives, matters nought. It wasn’t Minister Reith but the direct election at the convention delegates who gave the movement its momentum. Nor will it be Peter Reith who determines its success.

Rather than attempt to discredit the direct electionists by way of questioning the motives of Peter Reith, the media would be well advised to explore the motives of the this unholy alliance now pitted against the people. It’s no accident that a concerted push for undemocratic constitutional change of the kind proposed by the ARM is upon us. Coming at a time when support for the major parties is plummeting, community disenchantment is soaring and Australians are voting strategically in the Senate, it makes perfect sense that the major parties would wish to re-assert their control over the political machinery. It’s the very reason why they’re marshalling forces to abolish proportional voting for the Senate and thereby return control of the Upper House to one or other party.

The ARM model is a disaster for Australia. The vast and deep flaws in the selection and dismissal of the President, as Ted Mack carefully outlines, are enough in themselves to demand a ‘No’ vote. Beyond these structural problems is the role this republican model has been ascribed in suppressing the growing demands for improved and more democratic government. Dressed up in the language of modernity and nationhood are a set of political changes that will neither improve the quality of government, enhance our identity or pave the way for democratic reform. The truth is the Australian Republican Movement’s model is the antithesis of a republic. I genuinely hope the people hold the line and vote ‘No’.