The Convention debates return
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Sunday, 01 April 2012

A few weeks ago, I wanted to check a reference in the 1998 constitutional convention debates. (This was the convention to develop a proposal to make Australia a republic, that is, a politicians’ republic instead of our present crowned republic.)   

The Commonwealth Parliamentary website has just been been upgraded, and the link no longer worked.  No matter where I looked, I could not find the debates which were recorded by Hansard.

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Now there was a possibility that the Parliamentary website officials had taken a decision that it was not appropriate to store the convention records on the Parliamentary website.  However the website still retained the debates for the 1891 and 1897-1898 conventions which led to the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia.  

(Incidentally, these are probably the oldest verbatim records of any constitutional convention to form a country.  We sometimes forget how politically sophisticated and advanced, and indeed how free Australia was, even in the 19th century.  Much of course was due to the British who allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom in their colonies.)

I could understand that strictly speaking, the 1998 constitutional convention is not part of the records of the Parliament of Australia. So before contacting the Parliament I discussed with our Executive Director, Jai Martinkovits - who is an expert in matters relating to computers and the Internet – where else the records could be stored so they could be accessible. Of course there are print copies of the debates, but this limits their accessibility.

If the records had been deemed not appropriate for the Parliamentary website, we decided that ACM should make a proposal that they be stored elsewhere so that they would be accessible to all Australians. They are accessible here.

After I first published this, that great constitutional monarchist, Nick Hobson, tells me they are also accessible here. 

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[Dame Leonie Kramer, Nick Hobson & Sir Harry Gibbs ]




...website administrators...

           

I then contacted the relevant Parliamentary officials to discuss the matter. I always find the staff in our parliaments to be both courteous and efficient. Without any delay I was put through to Sandra Bailey, who Is in the Publishing Section of the Information Access Branch in the Department of Parliamentary Services.

Now it would be unrealistic to assume that everybody in the branch would have known the debates were on the server. After I was able to demonstrate that they were once accessible, Ms Bailey soon located them for me, and undertook to discuss with her colleagues the possibility of making them again accessible. I was particularly relieved to know that there was still there and not inadvertently lost.

When we discussed the matter a few days later I was delighted to hear that the link would be re-established. This was done with expedition, and I am delighted to say that are now fully accessible. While we are discussing this matter, It's worth saying a few words about the convention.


...about the 1998 constitutional convention....




After Prime Minister Paul Keating established the 1993 Republic Advisory Committee chaired by Malcolm Turnbull and on which only republicans could be appointed, the proposal that Australia become a politicians’ republic was greeted with approval by what could broadly be described as the inner city elites of Australia, together with a number of celebrities who jumped onto the bandwagon.

 The media gave overwhelming support, and the result was that a number of politicians outside of the Labor Party were tempted to join in.  (Becoming a republic had already been adopted, without great enthusiasm, in the closing sessions of a national conference as part of the Labour Party platform.)

Paul Keating was then able to use the republic as a very successful wedge to divide the Liberal Party, with the support of the many in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.  The then leader of the Liberal party, Alexander Downer very effectively neutralised this by declaring that the question of Australia removing the crown from the constitution and becoming a politicians’ republic would be referred to a convention by a future Coalition government.  This policy was adopted by his successor, John Howard, who went on to win the 1996 election.

After some reservations in the Senate, the form of the proposed convention and especially the fact that the election would be both voluntary and postal, was approved.  The convention was to consist of 152 delegates.  Of these 76 would be elected, with each state or territory forming a single electorate.  The number of delegates for each state or territory would be equivalent to the total of members of the House of Representatives and Senate to which they were entitled.  The remaining 76 were to be nominated.  The government decided that 40 of these would be made up of Parliamentary leaders, government and opposition, from the Federal, State and Territory Parliaments.  In addition to these ex officio delegates, 36 would be nominated by the government to include some eminent Australians and also to ensure representation from those elements not otherwise at the convention.  As a result a number of youth and indigenous delegates were appointed.  Although John Howard is accused of rigging the convention membership, the majority of the nominated delegates turned out to be republicans. 

The convention had complete freedom to choose a model.  The one overwhelmingly preferred by the republican delegates failed to achieve an absolute majority but John Howard decided that it would be sensible to put that to the people.  For that he was praised by the Australian Republican Movement delegates, the opposition and the media.  The legislation supporting the model was drafted by the strongly republican Attorney General, Daryl Williams. 

The question which would incorporate the long title of the legislation was developed by the Cabinet after advice from a joint Parliamentary committee which held meetings at which interested parties were heard. The Australian Republican Movement proposed that two words be removed from the question.  One word was "president".  The other word was "republic".  This was greeted with surprise and ridicule, even in the republican media.

Australians for Constitutional Monarchy proposed that the question include a reference to the way in which the president could be dismissed by the prime minister.  We said this was crucial because this would be the only republic ever known in which the Prime Minister would find it easier to dismiss the president then his cook.  The president could be dismissed by the prime minister without notice, without reason and without any effective appeal.

Neither the proposals of the ARM or of the ACM were adopted.  The question, which centred on the long title of the act, was approved by both houses of parliament in which about two thirds of the members and senators were republican. 

The Convention was a successful exercise.  It achieved its aim which was to produce a proposal which could be considered by the Australian people.  It is possible to make a number of criticisms, but the ones usually made are based on misrepresentations or misunderstandings of the facts.  John Howard did not manipulate the convention nor did he manipulate the question, something which the veteran republican, Dr John Hirst, has recognised.