All of a sudden referendums to alter Australia’s Constitution are being proposed left, right and centre. There has been the push now for nearly a decade to recognize Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. But this has been constantly delayed because Indigenous activists have always increased their demands at every consultation phase.
Now in the wake of multiple Australian politicians not bothering to check if they were eligible to run for parliament under Section 44 of the Constitution, the political class and media elites have been demanding we have a look at reforming the Section.
Then last weekend Bill Shorten claimed he had secured support from Malcolm Turnbull to introduce fixed four-year terms (we are unsure if this will mean eight-year terms for the Senate). This would also require a referendum to change since the current maximum three-year terms for the House of Representatives is set out in the Constitution.
Now Labor leader Bill Shorten has vowed to put the proposition of an Australian Republic back on the agenda. He outlined his proposal to hold in an address to a Queensland Labor conference in Townsville today. One vote to ask Australians ‘Do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state?’ And then if the Yes vote wins he would hold another referendum asking Australians what type of Republic model they wanted.
Shorten is also the keynote speaker at the Australian Republican Movement’s annual Gala Dinner tonight (Malcolm Turnbull was its speaker last year) where I’m sure he will elaborate on his plans. It is Labor Party policy to support an Australian Republic while in the Liberal Party it is subject to a free vote, which is why Malcolm Turnbull can be a supporter of Republic while his predecessor Tony Abbott was a Constitutional Monarchist.
Malcolm Turnbull is taking a more cautious approach to achieving a republic since he was the head of the Australian Republican Movement at the failed 1999 referendum. He believes another vote shouldn’t be held until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
The most recent polling on an Australian Republic by the ANU Australian Electoral Study in late 2016 reported a wafer thin majority of 53% of Australians support an Australian head of state. Newspoll had support at 51%, an actual referendum would likely be much closer (polling in the lead up 1999 showed strong support for a Republic).
Turnbull’s reasoning to wait until Queen Elizabeth II dies before having another Republic vote is based on the logic that Prince Charles, given all his scandals over the years, is not as beloved by the Australian people. However, this reasoning falls flat in that if we do have King Charles (he could abdicate given his unpopularity) the next in line is Prince William who is adored not just by Australians but worldwide. He and his wife Kate Middleton and their two children George and Charlotte cover the front pages of Australian magazines and are featured regularly in Australian newscasts.
Polling for recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution indicated 85% support among the Australian population. However, this is only for the general prospect, since this poll was taken in 2015 we have had the Uluru Statement from Indigenous activists which has demanded an Indigenous advisory body to be enshrined in the Constitution that Parliament would have to consult with. A much more radical change to our constitution than Australians thought would be occurring.
Polling has not been done on fixed four-year terms, however given that the State of Queensland recently voted via a referendum to introduce fixed four-year terms the Australian people might be more receptive to it, but the sticking point is the possibility that Senators would have eight-year terms. Australians, given that voting is compulsory, appear to resent having to go to the polls often so hence why longer terms are appealing.
Polling has not been done on whether a referendum to amend Section 44 of the Constitution to allow dual citizens to sit parliament would succeed. But given Australians are already suspicious of politicians being under the influence of foreign interests, one suspects they would hardly want politicians who had an allegiance to a nation other than Australia. The people’s message to politicians would be do your due diligence to check if you are eligible.
A more radical constitution change which has never been considered by the major parties but pushed by cultural elites such as Gillian Triggs is a Bill of Rights. This would be unlikely to ever pass as Australians could not agree what rights should be in there, and there would also be concern about empowering the courts to override the will of the parliament, as happens in other nations.
Australians are very sceptical about changing the constitution, only eight of forty-four referendums have been successful and the last time Australians voted Yes (which requires a double majority of states and the popular vote) was 1977. It has been suggested all these referendum proposals could be rolled into one referendum to get it all done with. This was tried previously in 1988 and all of the referendum questions failed.
It is easy for the political class and media elites to dream up what changes they want to the Constitution, but they seem to be forgetting those who have the final say on whether we should change our Constitution: the people. Australians don’t really feel that their Constitution is broken and worry any change might empower politicians more. The proposals to change the constitution should come from the people, not pushed by the political class wanting to espouse some grand vision.