It’s a funny thing about elections. Before the poll, politicians of all parties always express something like “complete confidence in the innate good sense of the Australian people.” After it’s all over, the loser always claims that those same Australian people were dumb enough to have allowed themselves to be conned by the other side.
Last Saturday’s referendum was no different. Despite the most biased media coverage in living memory, particularly by the foreign owned Murdoch media, it seems that Australians, who, on Friday, possessed innate good sense, had, by Sunday, become “the victims of a deceitful campaign by the direct electionists”, thereby voting No.
There were two main reasons for the failure of the referendum questions, in our opinion.
Firstly, it was a bad idea. Our constitutional framework is fragile enough without tacking on a republican system of public administration to a Constitution designed for a Westminster style constitutional monarchy. Even Joe Blow knows that you have to choose horses for courses and the sort of hybrid arrangement that the republican advocates promoted even stretched the credulity of Australian citizens, used to being manipulated by politicians and the media.
The absence of sensible argument either for a monarchy or for a republic, was a disservice to Australians by the protagonists of both sides, as well as the media, because we need to have a rational debate on the merits of each. Out of that, we might expect to either re-discover the significance of the Crown in our constitutional arrangements or else agree calmly that perhaps it is time to move to a different form of Constitution. But to rush in and suggest that we should change the Crown for a President, without any rational reason, was always a bad idea and, let’s remember, it was never carried by a majority at the Constitutional Convention.
Secondly, the Yes case was badly handled. Anyone who thinks that Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser make a good sales team is out of touch with reality. It would be hard to find a pair less capable of persuading Australians of anything, let alone making changes to our Constitution. The vain and egotistical Whitlam and the arrogant and supercilious Fraser, have little to recommend themselves to citizens, having, between them, supervised the laying of the foundations for the economic, social and moral destruction of the country.
Moreover, the Goebbelsian effort of the media in favour of the Yes case only served to anger many Australians who, whatever their other faults, like to see both sides given a fair go. And the media’s revelation that ATSIC Chairman Lois O’Donoghue was going to be our first President presented us with a glimpse of how the new system was really going to work. What came across was that the republic’s most ardent advocates were the rich and powerful and, this alone, was enough to put a lot of people off.
The real outcome of the referendum is to highlight the divisions in Australians society; between the wealthy and the not wealthy; between the cities and the country; between the industrious and the parasite; between those east of the Great Divide and those to the west of it; between those who produce and those who consume; between those who are proud of our history and those who are ashamed of it; and, most significantly, between those very few who have political clout, and the rest of us, who don’t matter much to the others.
But, for all that, the $150 million that this farcical exercise cost us was well spent. Because it has highlighted the need for genuine constitutional reform in this country. Currently, we are at risk. We are not subject to the rule of law, properly considered and passed by our Parliaments. We are subject to the capricious whims of appointed officials, High Court judges, who take it upon themselves to defy the Constitution, believing that they are superior to us, and therefore their views should count more than ours.
The essence of a democratic system is to have a real and effective separation between those who make the laws, that is the Parliament, those who administer the laws, that is, the Executive Government, and those who interpret the law, the judges. That is the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, which is widely understood to be a fundamental requirement of a democracy. It is provided for in our Constitution, but its observance by politicians and officials is dependent on the maintenance of a moral code on their part, that has long since disappeared. The possibility of a Paul Keating becoming Prime Minister could never have entered the minds of the Founding Fathers.
The focus of constitutional reform should not be on the Head of State. The focus of constitutional reform in Australia needs to be on protecting the liberty of individual citizens and of safeguarding them against the abuse of power by officials, whether appointed or elected. One thing that we should have learnt from the last one hundred years is that, when faced with a choice between the public interest and his own, a politician will always go for the latter.
The most important and most immediate reform that we need to our Constitution is the introduction of Citizens Initiated Referendum. This is a mechanism whereby citizens are able to initiate a referendum on any issue, whether to overturn government legislation, or recall appointed officials, or oblige the Government to introduce legislation. It is a mechanism that is in use in Switzerland and the United States, the two most democratic republics in the world. It is a mechanism that used to be in the manifesto of the Australian Labour Party in those long gone days when it was a Party with some integrity.
It is an essential mechanism for Australians to be able to exercise some control over the waywardness and corruption of Governments.