Persevere, a republic is still possible – there’s no need for pessimism in the YES camp

By Anne  Henderson

Persevere, a republic is still possible – there’s no need for pessimism in the YES camp by Anne Henderson, Deputy Director of the Sydney Institute first appeared in The Australian, 6 August 1999 on the features page – this has been (corrected but not shortened with emphasis added) for this website.

Don’t tell monarchist Kerry Jones. But the referendum on the republic could just pass. It’s always been possible, even before this week’s open split in government ranks and in spite of opinion among YES camp advocates (Malcolm Turnbull aside) that the referendum will probably be lost without prime ministerial support.

Peter Reith’s (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) stand for the NO case and a directly elected president has brought Peter Costello (the Treasurer) out for the YES case, saying Reith is being “churlish”.

What’s more, Costello’s disagreement with his Prime Minister in supporting a revised cross-party republic question put by a parliamentary committee will probably force the Government to amend the referendum question to include the words “Queen” and “Australian President”.

Apart from that, there’s much else in favour of the referendum passing. There’s been excessive navel gazing with regard to previous referendums in Australia. Imagine John Howard (Prime Minister) or Kim Beazley (Leader of the Opposition) approaching the next election privately conceding defeat beforehand on the basis of statistics.

True, most referendums to date have been lost, and those that have passed have had the support of both major parties. But we have never had a referendum quite like that proposed in 1999. On the eve of a new millennium, Australians will decide whether to exchange a British monarch for an Australian as the country’s head of state.

At present, the news has the Howard ministry lining up in favour of a NO vote based on 17 of the 29 voting NO. Yet, this leaves another 12 in the potential YES camp and this in one of the most conservative ministries ever – good news for republicans.

Moreover, the federal ministry is skewed by National Party figures not representative of the national balance.

Then, there’s the bigger picture. What about ordinary Australians? Too much of what we read and hear are the views of a regular line-up of public figures, for and against, most of them chaps with predictable views. Let diverse and unheard voices get an airing.

As an elector, I question whether we really need a handful of government ministers telling us how to vote. By all means, let the two sides throw up clear leaders. But, this is a vote on the Australia, that Australians – millions of them – will be satisfied with as we move into a new century after 200 years of non-indigenous settlement.

Monarchists are doing their best to confuse us all. But after sitting through a couple of debates recently between monarchists and republicans, it was clear that the monarchist camp relies heavily on scare tactics over technical constitutional points eg we might not be able to stay with the Commonwealth, what happens if the republic doesn’t work, there are republics around the world that are led by dictators (never mind that the biggest republic of all ie the USA is a model democracy) and so on. Hardly the stuff to scare the young.

Instead of the negatives, take a look at the figures lining up in favour of a republic. Apart from numbers of Liberals, there’s the Labor Opposition, the Democrats and the Greens in the YES camp. After the last federal election (October 1998), that represents potentially more than half of all electors for starters.

Around the States, premiers Bob Carr (NSW), Jeff Kennett (Vic), Peter Beattie (Qld), John Olsen (SA) and Jim Bacon (Tas) are republicans. First ministers, Kate Carnell from the ACT and Denis Burke from the NT are too. Labor’s State opposition leaders are with the YES camp. And while NSW’s Kerry Chikarovski is yet to declare her position, her predecessor, Peter Collins, was a republican. Tasmania’s Liberal leader, Sue Napier, is a republican.

Sure, there’s no room for complacency in the YES camp. But neither should there be such private and even public admission that the referendum will go down, based simply on precedent. While Victoria and NSW are considered likely to vote YES, South Australia and Queensland are the crucial States in winning a majority of States.

The Adelaide Advertiser’s recent poll showed a surge in republic support in that conservative State. 49 percent of those polled on 29 July favoured the republic with 40 percent opposed. And Queensland has the popular Beattie campaigning for the YES vote.

Meanwhile, preference for a directly elected head of State is dropping. Mixing with the monarchists, regardless of Reith’s game playing, hasn’t helped.

But perhaps the most compelling argument in the republican’s favour, is the thought that after voting in the referendum on the eve of a new millennium, a vote for the NO case will have us wake up on 1 January 2000, with a British monarch as our head of state. Just as Australians did on 1 January 1900, as if nothing had changed in 100 years. I’m voting YES.