“No” To Another Constitutional Convention! See Federal-State Relations

The Abbott government has two major and radical objectives which have not yet been fully shared with the Australian people. These two objectives are to dismember Australian states via having local government recognised in the Australian Constitution and to have a prime ministerial appointed president of a future Australian republic. To facilitate these two objectives the Abbott government seeks to establish a constitutional convention. Convoking a constitutional convention was canvassed in articles which appeared in The Australian newspaper on the 4th of December 2014.

An article in The Australian (‘Monarchists want convention to debate a new referendum’, Page 6 4/12/14) stated that Professor David Flint – the National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) – had called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to hold elections for a constitutional convention. This call was made following the prime minister’s address to ACM’s national conference in which he asked this organisation to support constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous people.

The basis on which Professor Flint has advocated that there be elections to a constitutional convention is so that the public can be involved ‘from the beginning’ – (The Australian, ‘Monarchists want convention to debate a new referendum’, Page 6, 4/12/14)- when it comes to the process of any constitutional change being undertaken. However, constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous people is just a smokescreen. If a constitutional convention is ever elected, Abbott government backed delegates will probably call for a constitutional amendment which recognises the Governor-General as Australia’s Head of State, which is a proposal that ACM publicly advocates.

Should the Governor-General be constitutionally recognised as ‘Head of State’, then the formal connection with the British monarch confirming the appointment of this position will effectively be eliminated and Australia will become a de facto republic. Ending the British monarch’s role in confirming the nomination of the Governor-General will convert the holder of this office into a mere prime ministerial cipher.

While the reserve powers of the Governor-General will be nominally retained there will be no legitimate reference point to the British Crown so that these powers could not be exercised in an emergency as they were invoked in November 1975. The then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, exercised critical judgement and personal courage by dismissing Gough Whitlam when he tried to continue as prime minister even though he could no longer guarantee the passage of money supply bills. The Senate’s action in deferring this government’s supply bills was legitimate because of the way in which Prime Minister Whitlam had attempted to covertly raise money to finance government purchases of the nation’s mineral wealth.

A Crowned Republic: The Future Non-Elected Australian President

The effective elimination of constitutional reserve powers would also set the groundwork for within five to ten years for the term ‘Governor-General’ in the written text of the Constitution to be substituted by constitutional amendment with ‘President’ so that Australia would formally become a republic. However, in this politicians’ republic, the president would be appointed instead of being elected by two-thirds parliamentary majority*.

(*Even though there is discussion in this article of the mechanics of becoming a republic, Social
Action Australia is adamantly opposed to this development because of loyalty to the Crown and profound respect for this nation’s practically perfect constitution. This asterisk will be cited throughout this text when there is discussion of the processes associated with Australia possibly becoming a republic).

The two-thirds parliamentary election model accords with the republican model which the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) formulated at the 1998 constitutional convention. While Australian republicans might therefore welcome the adoption of a ‘Crowned Republic’ as a transition to a republic, they should realize that such a republic would lack legitimacy because there would be no elective mechanism for an Australian president*.

If senior ACM figures are really monarchist, then they should desist from publicly advocating the establishment of another constitutional convention. Similar to Professor Flint’s call for the election of a constitutional convention, the then ACM Director Kerry Jones previously advocated in the 1990s the creation of a constitutional convention. This 1998 constitutional convention was half elected and half nominated.

The Danger of Elite Control of Constitutional Reform Processes

Although Kerry Jones advocated such a convention on the basis that such a development would remove the process of possible constitutional reform from the control of politicians, the exact opposite transpired. The elected delegates to the 1998 constitutional convention were chosen by a voluntary postal vote while the other half of the delegates were appointed by Commonwealth, state and territory governments which ensured that politicians ultimately controlled this convention.

ACM does not have regular membership but instead has ‘supporters’ who do not elect this organisation’s leadership. Consequently, ACM’s leadership can support policies such as advocating a Crowned Republic or establishing another constitutional convention. Therefore, even though Professor Flint as ACM Convenor has warned against elites controlling constitutional reform processes, his advocacy of another constitutional convention could lead to the elite domination which he ostensibly opposes.

The underlying reason why Prime Minister Howard in 1998 established a constitutional convention and facilitated a republican constitutional referendum the following year was part of his Lasch political strategy. This strategic approach-which has been defined and discussed in more detail in previous Social Action Australia articles-, is essentially one where socially conservative stances are ostensibly advocated in order to win over working class voters to support right-wing political parties.

By adopting an avowedly anti-politician stance by opposing Australia becoming a republic, Howard intended to win over previous Australian Labor Party (ALP) voters who had opted for the One Nation Party in the 1998 federal election over to the coalition when the next federal election was held. ARM should therefore be careful not to become complicit in the future with regard to again unwittingly supporting a Lasch political strategy.

To avoid again falling into this trap, the leadership of ARM should signal to the Abbott government that should there be another constitutional convention it would not support a possible ACM backed proposal to be put to referendum that the Governor-General become Australia’s Head of State.

With regard to the recent past concerning the processes of constitutional change, the ‘No’ campaign in the November 1999 referendum on a republic did not run on a monarchist platform! That the ‘Yes’ vote did not therefore garner between 70% and 80% of the vote but instead lost with 55% of the electorate voting ‘No’ was due to the love and respect that so many Australians have for Elizabeth II. ARM shrewdly did not attack the person of Elizabeth II or the institution of the British monarchy during the 1999 referendum. For had ARM insulted the Crown during the 1999 campaign, then the ‘No’ vote may have risen to have been between 65% and 75%.

There was an erroneous claim made by direct electionist republicans that their strategic advocacy of a ‘No’ vote ensured the defeat of the proposed republican constitutional amendment. However, an electorate as inherently conservative as Australia’s would have intuitively realized that having a directly elected president entailed a radical overhaul of the Constitution which too many people were hostile toward.

Resisting the Re- Application of a Lasch Political Strategy

Advice to republicans of good will is to not to fall into the traps which were previously set in the 1990s by again applying a Lasch political strategy. The first step which the Abbott government may seek to manipulate the constitutional change process is to have another constitutional convention. Professor Flint and Jai Martinkovits in an article in The Australian (‘Heeding The Peoples’ Voice’, Page 12, 4/12/14) advocated having a constitutional reform process via an elected and unpaid constitutional convention producing ‘real constitutional reform’.

Prime Minister Abbott may feign naivety by making it look as though he instigated the formation of a future constitutional convention at the behest of ACM when it was his intention all along. An important reason why the prime minister seeks carefully controlled constitutional reform process is to engineer the ultimate abolition of Australian states.

A future constitutional convention will probably not facilitate the holding of a referendum on the recognition of local government in the Constitution because the outgoing Gillard government in 2013 already authorized a constitutional referendum to be held on this issue. However, there is a distinct danger that some of the constitutional delegates at the behest of a would-be centralist elite will subsequently advocate a ‘No’ vote on local government recognition so that they can then conduct such an ineffective “No” campaign to ensure that such a proposal actually prevails.

There is also the distinct possibility that future pro-centralization constitutional convention delegates will try to generate a consensus and a momentum in favour of the Gillard government referendum proposal that local government be constitutionally recognised.

It will therefore be imperative that bona fide pro-state delegates at any future constitutional convention utilize such a gathering as a strategic networking opportunity to assemble a high powered, effective and genuine ‘No’ campaign regarding the referendum proposal to recognise local government in the Constitution. Genuine pro-state rights delegates, as well as monarchists and republicans, should also oppose any proposal to be put to referendum which recognises the Governor-General as Australia’s Head of State so as to avoid having a future politicians’ republic* in which the Australian president will be appointed by the serving prime minister.

While it is a laudable referendum proposal that Australia’s indigenous people be recognised in the Australian Constitution, it should be appreciated that Prime Minister Abbott is exploiting this issue for his own ends. Prime Minister Abbott could use his advocacy of constitutional recognition of the nation’s indigenous people as a pretext to call for broader reform via having a constitutional convention which will probably contain a proposal to make the Governor-General Australia’s Head of State.

Prime Minister Abbot could also succeed in making it more challenging with regard to campaigning against making the Governor-General Australia’s Head of State and against recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution if there if there is a positive and worthwhile proposal constitutionally recognising the nation’s indigenous people.

If there are Australian politicians who want to prevent concentrating power in the position of prime minister in a future politicians’ republic and who want to prevent massive fiscal imbalances by not having Australian states eventually replaced by a balkanized new regional tier of government, then genuine ‘No’ campaigns on these respective issues will need to be conducted. However, an even better course of action would be for sincere pro-state federal politicians, monarchists and republicans to exercise critical judgement and personal courage by preventing the Abbott government from ever establishing another constitutional convention. Furthermore, coalition MPs should prevent Prime Minister Abbott from holding referenda regarding formally making the Governor-General Australia’s Head of State and recognising local government in the Constitution.