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People want a say in presidency

THE push in the 1990s to transform Australia into a republic was driven by a handful of eastern states millionaires and associated activists with a few influential interstate mates.

Not widely realised is that the campaign – a Republic Advisory Committee (RAC), constitutional convention, and referendum – cost taxpayers more than $150 million.

That’s an almighty slug for a venture embarked upon by our wealthy pro-republican brethren, and which was a complete failure.

What made it more shameful was their refusal to countenance Australia becoming a democratic republic, one where voters had a say in who their president was.

For them it had to be a politically appointed president, or nothing.

And this was despite Australians consistently disclosing in polls that the type of republic desired – if they were to have one – should enshrine a democratically elected president.

Yet that’s precisely what most politicians, who so shamelessly teamed up with the wealthy eastern staters, were determined not to allow.

Evidence of this anti-democratic tendency within our ruling strata first surfaced in the report of the 1993 RAC, which Prime Minister Paul Keating convened.

A reading of that document shows it dogmatically opposed Australians being permitted to elect a president.

That biased report not only came out backing an appointed president, but deliberately slammed the idea of a democratically elected one.

At page 66 it said: “A parliamentary mode of appointment would avoid many of the negative aspects associated with popular election.”

Can you believe it? Being elected, to the report’s compilers, was a “negative aspect’’?

Elsewhere it said: “For example, a head of state appointment by Parliament would have little justification for believing that he or she had a ‘popular mandate’”

According to the report, a president with popular backing was a “negative aspect”, not something positive, desirable and democratic.

One of the few to highlight this anti-democratic bias was University of WA politics masters student Michael Pepperday, who, well before the November 1999 referendum, delivered a paper at an Austral-asian Political Science Conference in Sydney.

“The flavour of the report is that it was written with a determination to counter at all costs the people’s preference for direct election (of a president),” his paper said.

“The people’s preference appears to have been viewed as ignorance or, thoughtlessness, as an irritating problem to be overcome by talking them round.

“There is no hint of recognition of merit in direct election.

“The RAC will get its comeuppance on November 6, but in the meanwhile its report, the product of a prestigious and wide-ranging inquiry, misled the Constitutional Convention.”

Thankfully, it happened as he predicted.

All States, and the national majority, rejected the RAC’s call for an appointed president.

Why is this still so relevant now?

This weekend marks the convening of a conference in the NSW town of Corowa where the appoint-the-president backers will be out in strength.

Corowa was chosen, we’re told, because it’s where a conference was held in 1893 to kick-start the flagging movement towards federation.

The event is being billed as “A fresh start to the head of state debate”.

Key appoint-the-president backers like Sir Zelman Cowen, Malcolm Fraser and Richard McGarvie, will be there.

So only those with great faith should expect a democratic option, so strongly backed by the late UWA academic Professor Patrick O’Brien, to emerge from this jamboree.

But not all the signs are bad. Not yet, anyway.

For example, according to the conference’s website (corowa conference.com.au) a series of proposals has been collected and one is by none other than Mr Pepperday.

“We don’t need another acrimonious debate and narrow referendum decision,” he writes.

“If we are to become a republic we should do it with a will.

“When East Timor voted 78 per cent for independence there was no doubt what the will of the people was. We don’t need any referendums that pit city against country, well educated against poorly educated, middle class against working class.

“Unless there is obviously a clear majority in favour of a republic proposal, no referendum should be held.”

Mr Pepperday urges two steps.

Firstly, publish the RAC’s hearings and submissions, which have been kept from the public.

Secondly, set up a national conversation on a non-aligned website where alternative re-public models could be posted and thrashed out.

An associated expert committee could award grants to promising proposals so these would be further refined.

These then would be published as a reference book of all feasible models for all to consult and consider.

Only then could broad and widespread political debate proceed in an informed and un-biased manner, in stark contrast to the constant backing given only to the RAC’s model between 1993 and 1999.

Let’s see if Corowa’s conference takes note or tries to re-institute a process that’s again biased towards a presidential model that excludes the people’s will.

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