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British citizens living in Australia may vote in constitutional convention; Director of Sydney Institute says people who have taken a prominent role in the public debate, and been nominated by Government as appointees to the convention, are monarchists

PETER THOMPSON: You'd have to say the republican debate was thrown a life jacket last week by way of the Senate's decision to accept the terms set down by the Government for a constitutional convention next year. Dutifully, John Howard responded this week, naming the 36 non-parliamentary members of the convention, calling them an outstanding cross-section of the Australian community - that is those who will be nominated, rather than elected. Well, not everyone agrees it's a big cross-section. Certainly a look at the small print regarding just who's entitled to vote when the voluntary postal poll comes around, too, makes for very interesting reading.

Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute. Good morning, Gerald, how are you?

GERARD HENDERSON: Good morning, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, it's a voluntary postal vote - that we know. What don't people necessarily know about this?

GERARD HENDERSON: Well, I think a basic principle should be that Australians should decide whether Australia has an Australian head of state. At the moment, there's somewhere between 200,000, possibly up to a million, British citizens living in Australia, who are not Australian citizens on our electoral rolls at the Federal and State level, and will be on the rolls for this plebiscite to elect delegates to the constitutional convention. In other words, delegates to the constitutional convention that decide whether Australia should have an Australian head of state will be voted in by British residents living in Australia, who have consciously chosen not to become Australian citizens.

PETER THOMPSON: Why do they have that right?

GERARD HENDERSON: They had that right in 1949 and that right continued up to the time that it was taken from them by the Hawke Government with effect from Australia Day, 1984, but the Hawke Government did not make this retrospective. So therefore people who ... British residents living in Australia who had a voting entitlement in 1949 and were still on the rolls on Australia Day in 1984 were not taken off the rolls. Now, the Australian Electoral Commission has identified at least 200,000 of these. The British authorities say there are 600,000 British passport holders living in Australia. So, it's somewhere between 200,000 at the minimum, and up to a million at the maximum, but probably somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 British residents living in Australia, voting in Australian elections who have chosen not to become Australian citizens.

PETER THOMPSON: That is remarkable. Is there a mechanism to exclude them?

GERARD HENDERSON: No, there's not, and nor has the Coalition or the Opposition expressed a wish to do so, but in normal elections they're compelled to vote because of our compulsory voting. Here is a voluntary vote and the Government hasn't decided to take them off, which it could have done in this circumstance, but neither the Government, nor Kim Beazley's Opposition, has made a case on this, but in my view it's quite reprehensible that people who choose not to become Australian citizens should determine our future, especially when you remember that there's no negative side to becoming an Australian citizen whilst retaining your British citizenship. So there's no down side to it. These are people who don't want to become Australians, but want to vote in our elections.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, what about the convention? Is it stacked? Are the nominees the Government's nominees, half the delegates? Is it a fair representation?

GERARD HENDERSON: Well, you can argue that it's fair, but if you look at the people who have taken a prominent role in the public debate over the Constitution over the last three or four years, of those nominated by the Government, overwhelmingly they're monarchists, and I'll give you some names. The Government nominated, chose: Geoffrey Blainey, Greg Craven, Bill Hayden, Digger James, Leonie Kramer, Sir David Smith - and Dame Leonie Kramer, I should say. They're all on, they're all prominent monarchists, all nominated by the Government, all been heavily involved in the constitutional debate over the last two to three years, plus Lloyd Waddy. And, on the other side of the Government's nominations, only George Winterton is the only prominent person in the debate who's a republican, been nominated by the Government.

Now, to get to this decision, the Government knocked back a number of nominees, many of them, but I just give you some examples from the Federal list. The Government knocked back the applications made on behalf of Ron Casten (?), the Melbourne lawyer, Hilary Charlesworth, Helen Irving, Gough Whitlam, Nancy Viviani, Robert Mann, and Malcolm Fraser. So the Government said....

PETER THOMPSON: Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser?

GERARD HENDERSON: Bill Hayden's okay, but not Malcolm Fraser, and I think that's pretty hard to argue, that one.

PETER THOMPSON: What about the young delegates?

GERARD HENDERSON: Well, of the young delegates - there are eight - six are studying law, one's studying medicine, which leaves just Moira O'Brien from a Northern Territory cattle property who's the only person who would vaguely have the chance of being classified as one of John Howard's young battlers. I mean, these are elite students from the elite universities in Australia, and that's very unbalanced.

PETER THOMPSON: Gerard, thank you. Gerard Henderson there from the Sydney Institute.