Friday, 12 December 2003


Labor leader Mark Latham's processes for an Australian republic will fail before it gets off the ground.
Mucking around with "indicative plebiscites" is a dangerous game to play when dealing with matters that should be addressed only by s128 of the Australian constitution. There are two things that Mr Latham would be wise to consider before going down this path.

Firstly, there is an aspect about the conduct of a plebiscites that should be considered carefully. That is, if a plebiscite shows that a majority of Australians wish to have a republic, Latham's Labor could be faced with the prospect of their republic being rejected at a subsequent referendum. This situation could occur because an indicative plebiscite to give the government approval to proceed with a referendum may only be passed by the smallest of majorities i.e. 50.01%. However, a referendum itself, which will also require a majority of states to approve, may not be endorsed. This would present a predicament of Gilbertian proportions to the rest of the world as well as embarrass those who seek the establishment of a republic. 

Noting that all of the 8 referenda passed to date have achieved more than 54.38% Australia-wide, 4 additional proposed referenda, which achieved more than 50% overall, did not gain the necessary majority of states in each case. Sustained polling on the republic issue to date doesn't appear to guarantee endorsement by the Australian people. While it is acknowledged that a referendum could be passed with the smallest of margins it may require that each of the 6 states approve the referendum. Historically, this seems an unlikely event.

Another and more sinister scenario is that if a plebiscite indicates that a majority of Australians support the general concept of a republic then constitutional change could take place without the will of the Australian people. In his book "DEMOCRACY choosing Australia's republic", the late Richard McGarvie correctly asserts that: "With the power from the Australia Acts, the Commonwealth Parliament, by Acts supported by the state Parliaments, can amend the provision in the Statute of Westminster that precludes it from amending the Commonwealth Constitution , the covering clauses or the preamble".

Clearly, and with the "moral" support of a successful plebiscite, the combined Australian parliaments could alter the Australian constitution to convert Australia's current stable form of government to that of a republic without further consulting the Australian people. This may not seem so crazy if Latham's Labor wins the next federal election; that could see all of the Australian states and the Federal government under control of Labor. It should also be remembered that the Australia Acts were, principally, a child of the Hawke Labor Government. There is nothing in law that prevents constitutional change in this manner.

Australians should be very wary of any plebiscite that seeks opinion on any proposed constitutional change. See "Is Our Constitution Safe?" for further reading on this subject at

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