Grasp the nettle

David Welch david.welch at
Fri Nov 5 11:07:03 MST 1999

Weekly Worker           #311     November 4 1999

The constitutional referendum in Australia looks set to be a cliffhanger.
Recent polls suggest a slim majority nationwide will vote ‘yes’ to the republic
on offer on November 6. Unfortunately for the ‘yes’ campaign this will be
distributed unevenly amongst the country’s six states. As well as requiring a
majority of voters, successful referenda in Australia also require a majority
in a majority of states.

Polls are putting the ‘yes’ vote at around 49% with the ‘no’ camp recording
about 47%. However, while the most heavily populated states of New South Wales,
South Australia and Victoria are likely to vote ‘yes’, the peripheral and more
conservative Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia look set to vote ‘no’.

Importantly, the question is not whether Australia should be a republic, but
whether you approve a republic model with a president with reserve powers
appointed by parliament. Polls suggest that if the republic model on offer was
for a president directly elected by the people, then more than 60% would vote

This situation has split the mainstream republican camp, with a significant
minority advocating a ‘no’ vote. The question, set by monarchist - and Liberal
Party - prime minister John Howard, after recommendations from a partially
elected constitutional convention, has been cynically designed to split the
republican camp.

However, in all debates, what has been lacking is the third choice in this
referendum. It can, though, still be created, using the referendum as a
springboard. While voting is compulsory in Australia, the ballot is secret.
Each elector may do what they like to their ballot paper.

On November 6, Australians are being offered a false choice. They are being
asked to choose between the unelectable and the unacceptable. No one who
cherishes genuine democracy wants anything to do with the monarchy, an
institution which symbolises privilege, inequality and unaccountability. Yet
what a ‘yes’ vote would mean is a continuation of a monarchical system in
presidential form. Such a minimalist constitutional change is designed to keep
ordinary Australians as removed from the real political process as they are
today. It will be change to prevent further change.

Most Australians recognise the false debate taking place. From the monarchists
who refuse to mention the monarchy, the republicans who refuse to discuss what
sort of republic, to the supposed ‘radical republicans’ who, amazingly, will
vote for the continuation of the status quo - the entire debate has been one of

The ‘no’ republicans at least realise that there is a stitch-up. Yet they are
making themselves indistinguishable from the monarchist ‘no’ camp. Ted Mack,
Phil Clearly and the other ‘no’ republicans hope that by defeating the
establishment of an undemocratic republic, they will force a vote on a
democratic one. Yet their ‘no’ votes will be indistinguishable from John
Howard’s and other monarchists’ come November 6. They have no way of making
their voice heard. They will force nothing.

Democratic republicans cannot vote ‘yes’ either, as this will be endorsing a
most undemocratic form of republic. Hidden in this campaign is the fact that
the president will retain the powers of the royal prerogative. For instance:

      The president will have the power to sackg the government of the day and
      call elections without the approval of parliament or the prime minister.
      The constitution has a proposed new section 70a. It reads: “Continuation
      of prerogative: ... in particular, any such prerogative enjoyed by the
      governor-general shall be enjoyed by the president.” Ultimate political
      power will be in the hands of the president, not the people. The proposed
      section 59 of the constitution, ‘Executive power’, makes it clear: “There
      shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the president in the
      government of the Commonwealth, and the members of the Council shall be
      chosen and summoned by the president and sworn as Executive Councillors,
      and shall hold office during the pleasure of the president.” Legislation
      cannot become law unless passed through this presidential royal court.
      The president will be able to reject parliamentary bills. The president
      will be able to reject laws passed by parliament.
      There is no power to impeach. Only the PM can sack the president ... if
      the reverse doesn’t happen first. An indirectly elected president who
      retains ‘reserve powers’ is the worst of both worlds. With both the
      president and the prime minister retaining power to sack each other, in
      the event of a constitutional crisis it will be a case of who draws

In this referendum there is, however, the inkling of the third choice that
establishment politicians dare not mention. Voters are being urged by the
Campaign for a Real Republic to refuse to answer a loaded question and instead
write ‘democratic republic’ across the ballot paper.

A mass of voters in Tasmania employed a similar tactic in 1982 when 38% of them
wrote ‘No dams’ across their ballot paper. The next year, the
Franklin-below-Gordon River wilderness area became a protected World Heritage

On the night of November 6, there will be three piles of votes counted: ‘yes’,
‘no’ and informal. Revolutionary democrats such as the CRR want to see the
highest possible informal vote; at the same time the CRR is campaigning for a
constitutional convention with full powers to abolish the monarchical system
and replace it with a genuinely democratic centralist republic.

If Australia is not a republic now, switching to an undemocratic form of
presidentialism will not make it a fully democratic republic later. A
democratic republic can only be a society where power is invested in the fully
mobilised people, headed by the working class, not a political or economic
elite. The current proposal is not a ‘step in the right direction’, as the
left of the ‘yes’ campaign suggests. It is more of the same truncated bourgeois
democracy in different form.

In an amazing display of short-sightedness influenced by worse theory, the left
in Australia is letting an excellent opportunity pass it by. The Democratic
Socialist Party and the rump of the Eurocommunists in the Search Foundation
have politically equivalent, yet separate calls, to vote ‘yes’ but, like Oliver
Twist, meekly ask for more. True to form, the DSP is capitulating to the
populist mood by actually endorsing a directly elected president - an anathema
for Marxists who oppose all presidential systems whereby one individual can
claim to speak on behalf of the whole country. The DSP campaign has even less
gumption than the ‘no’ republicans, who also favour a directly elected head of
state. The DSP pathetically calls for a ‘yes’ vote, alongside the plaintive
epithet, “elected by the people”.

The International Socialist Organisation advises a ‘no’ vote, lacking the
courage or imagination to call for an active informal vote. The ISO’s slogan,
‘Stuff the bosses’ republic: fight for real change’, isultra-left economism. It
crudely counterposes phoney political change from above with ‘real’ economic
change from below. The ‘official’ Communist Party of Australia is uncritically
calling for a ‘yes’ vote.

Trapped by economism and the Menshevik ‘theory’ of bourgeois democratic
revolution, the left has been content to leave the debate to the bourgeois and
political elite. A united left grabbing hold of this political chance could
have fought for and won a real place in Australian political life. Instead, the
sects seem content to remain on the fringe. As the Alliance for Workers’
Liberty’s Martin Thomas puts it so succinctly, “Why not vote ‘yes’ - on the
obvious grounds that we prefer a republic to a monarchy - while saying that we
want radical democratic reform?” But do we prefer this republic to a monarchy?
There is nothing concrete in comrade Thomas’s position, just poor Menshevik
theory. (‘We obviously prefer the tsar’s duma to no duma at all’.) We’ve heard
it all before.

Marcus Larsen

For a real republic

At the Australian High Commission in London the CRR has been distributing
leaflets calling for an informal ‘democratic republic’ vote. It has hit a real
chord among expatriate electors - 22,000 are expected to turn up at Australia

Individuals previously supporting either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ campaigns have been
so impressed by our arguments that they have actually begun to hand out CRR
leaflets instead. The response is extremely encouraging. The spokesperson for
the CRR in London, has been interviewed by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and
Brazil’s Falho de Sao Paulo. This week, campaigners will be leafleting at
Australia House and at the London performance of Yothu Yindi, Australia’s best
known predominantly Aboriginal band. Their hit song, ‘Treaty’, calls for a
democratic treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia - one of the
CRR’s demands.

People are genuinely relieved that there is a third choice, that they do not
have to be corralled into either of the mainstream bourgeois campaigns for ‘yes’
or ‘no’. It is the way to be heard through the ballot box. An informal vote is
not a wasted vote.

Democratic republicans in Australia campaigning around the CRR’s slogans will
be able to claim the informal vote as theirs and go on to cohere a fighting
organisation demanding real constitutional change from below.

To join the campaign contact the CRR at BCM Box 928, London WC1N 3XX. Or
telephone 0181-4597146, email realrepublic at

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