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Having a Plan
The 1999 Referendum
The Republic referendum campaign we were subjected to in 1999 was not a pleasant experience. More unpleasant was the exposure to dubious and simplistic advertising by the campaigns on both sides.  However, the recriminations are dying down, the Queen has completed her visit, six months have passed, people are beginning to talk about the Republic again, and the Olympics are still far enough away to allow for other matters to be discussed. It is time to analyze the experience and suggest where Australia should go in constitutional reform. Polls suggest that 90% of us think that constitutional reform is overdue.
Before I get into details, let me disclose my background.  I work in Information Technology (IT), and have done so since 1963. One skill required of IT professionals is to be able to manage the high levels of process complexity in computer programs. A second is to be comfortable with change. A third important skill involves listening to people with vaguely expressed goals and aspirations, and trying to translate these into actual IT implementations and practices. This area is sometimes called systems engineering or business process re-engineering. Neither term seems to sit comfortably with the recent Referendum, but they are actually spot-on in concept. We have vaguely expressed aspirations to become a Republic, and we need to translate them into a set of rules embodying our Constitution. It is against this background that I write this proposal as to how we can achieve an Australian Republic in our lifetime.
What happened at the 1999 Referendum? Technically and accurately, the Australian people decisively rejected the Republic model on offer. Not enough of us were convinced that this was what we wanted. I expected that this would be the outcome many months before the poll, because I observed that the lead-up process failed most of the tests of classic systems analysis and change implementation. Firstly, the proposed solution was identified much too early by Prime Minister Paul Keating, as a `minimalist republic'. Then we went into a period where the new Prime Minister, John Howard, was not sympathetic to the problem let alone the proposed solution. And finally, the Australian Republican Movement stuffed it up totally by forcing a closure of debate at the Constitutional Convention when we needed another two or three conventions and a year or two of talking. Talk about a classic case of systems change engineering bungling and you've got it. It could be used as a warning case study in Australian universities for years to come.
Systems Engineering
Let me put my analyst's hat on and look at the 1999 Referendum outcome. The ballot paper question asked us to endorse a particular republic model. Not enough of us wanted it and that was resolved. We didn't vote for a monarchy, nor for direct election of a President. In the following weeks we were told that because of the overwhelming defeat of the proposition there will be no revisiting of the republic issue for ten years. Others have promised a non-binding `plebiscite' to find out whether we really want a republic, and then a non-binding selection of options.
Since I am not involved in the party political process nor work in the media, I can step a bit back from the immediate reactions and shallow analyses and offer you my considered opinion on where we ought to go from here. At least I can give you a plan with a possibility of achieving the desired outcome.
Let me start with my observations about several things that I believe most people would accept:
   80% to 90% of Australians want to terminate the last links with the British monarchy;
   most Australians are wary of politicians as individuals, though they are prepared to accept the general performance of politicians in the mass;
   when faced with replacing the Governor-General and the Queen by a parliamentary-appointed President, the majority of Australians rejected the proposal;
   the rejection of this republican model was sufficiently comprehensive that there is no point retrying it any time soon;
   we want a Republic that we can feel we own, and is in some sense `Australian';
   there has been a lot of talk about `direct-election' of a President, and this is assumed to be the only alternative model having any support; and
   politicians generally dislike the direct election model (and we can't get any model they won't pass).
As a systems analyst, the first two points are so overwhelmingly held that I am forced to take them as constraints. The third one is a fact, and the last four are opinions quite strongly supported by polls. So where do I go from here?
Well, again as an analyst, there has not been enough talk. There should have been and there should be much more before a preferred model is chosen (or several options prepared), after which we test the model or models in a few areas before exposing them for general adoption. Translating this Business Process Re-Engineering  talk into plain English:
   We (the people and the politicians) should accept that most of us want to get to a republic. Plebiscites to simply determine that this is so simply waste time and lots of money that could be better spent.
   We need several conventions and debate forums (how about some democratically virtual ones across the Internet?) before refining a couple of models that might achieve national support. These forums should not be dominated by politicians (actual or aspiring) or by lawyers.
   One or two trial non-binding plebiscites (vote for any option that you would accept) in two or three of the smaller states that would be critical in a republican referendum might be carried out to test support for the models before actually proceeding to a referendum on a republic. If none of them are going to pass in these states, we may as well save our money.
   A next republican referendum should be scheduled and agreed by all political parties, to be held on a date to be agreed. Later I suggest the year as 2007.
The Reform Plan
But before we even get there, there is an important lot of business to get out of the way first. As an analyst, I take one look at the Australian Constitution and think `Yuk!'. It has not been substantially revised since 1901. It is full of rubbish which constitutional lawyers tell me is no longer operative. Almost no-one knows anything about it. It does not mention the Prime Minister anywhere. Many of the clauses are designed to handle the transition to Federation 100 years ago and are now inoperative. We ignore some of its explicit provisions. And it is a Bill of the UK Parliament. Our first task should be to clean up the Constitution.
Here is my plan, to be elaborated over the rest of this series. All of the steps should be capable of getting support from all major political parties.
   We make a start on cleaning up the shambles of a Constitution by voting on a referendum at the next half-Senate election to eliminate only totally non-controversial and non-operative junk designed for transitional purposes from our Constitution.
   At the following half-Senate election, we tackle the elimination of obsolete clauses and powers involving the Queen and the Governor-General, probably also non-controversial but maybe giving rise to minor concerns. We also re-enact the Constitution as an Act of the Australian Parliament.
   In the third half-Senate election, we re-address the question of cutting the links with the British monarchy and establishing a republic.
There are several good reasons for adopting this plan.
Firstly, it maintains the momentum towards achieving an Australian Republic in our lifetime, without relying on some unknown charismatic person who might or might not carry all before him or her.
Secondly, Gough Whitlam was quite right when he said in the closing weeks of the Referendum campaign that the Australian people were simply not used to changing their Constitution, and this was a major problem for constitutional reform. Let us therefore start getting used to this process, and use the next two half-Senate elections to practice on long-overdue reforms that should not be objectionable to anyone other than the totally intransigent.
Thirdly, even if a republic question fails again in the Third Referendum, we will have an updated Constitution that can be read without embarrassment.
Why do I specify half-Senate elections? Well, holding a referendum at the same time as an election saves money, and the half-Senate elections are basically locked in unless we get a double dissolution. Under normal conditions, the half-Senate elections will also coincide with elections for the House of Representatives. Since the first two Reform Referendums especially are intended to be non-controversial, holding them at a normal election should ensure all-party support.
However, there is nothing essential about this particular timing. Politicians may be dismayed at the prospect of a referendum distracting from what they see as the real purpose of an election. They don't have high opinions of the electors' ability to separate issues.
The next three Parts in this series address each of these three referendums. The fifth Part addresses frequently asked questions about the particular republican model that I put forward for discussion and refinement; while the sixth Part wraps up, examines some peripheral issues, and explores what we might do past the last Referendum.
© Copyright  2000  AHJ Sale
Page last modified on 2001 July 5