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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 32

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:42 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table the explanatory memorandum and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


This Bill provides for a plebiscite to be held to give the Australian people the opportunity to vote on whether Australia should be a republic. The Bill sets out one simple question: Do you support Australia becoming a republic? It requires a simple yes or no response.

The Bill sets out provisions for a plebiscite or advisory referendum. The purpose of the plebiscite is to determine the will of the Australian people on this question with a simple majority.  Its purpose is not to change the Constitution, but rather to ascertain the will of the Australian community on the republic question as the first step in the process. If there is not majority support for a republic, the question is decided clearly and without confusion. If the majority supports Australia becoming a republic, the specific details of the most suitable model to adopt can then be worked out in a context of that certainty.

The question set out in this Bill determines if Australians want an Australian as head of state? It does not attempt to determine what model should be adopted, what powers the head of state should hold or other operational or governance issues.

The question of whether Australia should be become a republic has been close to the hearts of many Australians since Federation. In recent times it culminated in the referendum of 1999.

This followed the Constitutional Convention in 1998, a public forum in which the participants, a mix of elected members of the public and appointed representatives, debated a range of issues. These included different models for choosing a head of state such as direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, or election by Parliament. The delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of a new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The Convention supported in-principle the resolution that Australia should become a republic. It recommended that a referendum be held to decide on a ‘bi-partisan appointment of the President model’ and other related constitutional changes and the enabling legislative package was passed into law in August 1999.

In the referendum held on 6 November 1999, Australians voted on the republic in a question which conflated support for an Australian head of state with the model by which the head of state should be elected:

“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

In addition, there was a vote on a separate question about changing the preamble to the Constitution.

Opinion polls consistently showed that the majority of Australians supported an Australian republic, but polls also showed most people wanted popular, not parliamentary election of the president. In the referendum of 1999, 54.87 per cent to 45.13 per cent of Australians voted ‘no’. All six states votes ‘no’ and only the Australian Capital Territory voted ‘yes’. The Constitutional requirement that constitutional change be supported by a ‘double majority’ vote, that is, the majority of votes nationally, and the majority of votes in the majority of states, was not achieved.

Academics and other commentators have provided useful analysis of the outcome of the 1999 referendum, generally agreeing that the republic question was too complex and technical.  Combining it with a question about changing the preamble confused and split the vote.

It has been suggested that the way the question was worded highlighted to the controversial election process, emphasising the division between republicans who supported direct election of a President and those supporting appointment by the Parliament.

Professor Ian McAllister from the Australian National University observed in research published in 2001 that “the Australian electorate was asked to make a complex, technical choice about the system of government, in the absence of clear partisan cues. How did voters resolve this dilemma? Although those in favour of replacing the Queen as head of state made up three-quarters of the electorate, they were divided on the method of election for the head of state, effectively resulting in three separate groups of voters.” He found that “Overall, the interaction between compulsory voting and lack of political knowledge among large sections of the electorate served to divide republicans, and caused the proposition to fail. Pairing the republic with an unpopular change to the preamble of the Constitution also depressed the ‘yes’ vote.”

It is important that in revisiting this issue, Australians are given the opportunity to express their will without the overlay of technical complexity and procedural confusion.

In providing a legislative framework for a plebiscite, this Bill adopts one of the key recommendations of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee 2004 report ‘The road to a republic’. The report recommends a ‘first plebiscite’ to get the process of an Australian republic back on track. The majority report found that it is essential that the first step in the process should be to seek from Australians their view on the fundamental question of whether Australia should become a republic; notes that opinion polls show majority support for an Australian republic, and supports the argument that before expending substantial resources it is important to first test this proposition in a full national non-binding plebiscite.

The report states that the importance of this question for the future of Australia calls for a requirement that all Australians should have their say and therefore supports compulsory voting in a threshold plebiscite and that the result of the plebiscite should be determined by a simple absolute majority of voters nationally.

The cost of conducting a referendum or plebiscite is significant and it is imperative that money spent on this produces a result that accurately reflects the desire of the majority of the electorate. There is a compelling financial argument for holding the plebiscite in conjunction with the next federal election. According to information from the Australian Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Library, the 1999 referendum cost $66.8 million. The statistics section of the library calculates this at approximately $87.5 million in current (2008) dollar terms. The general federal election held in 1998 cost $61.7 million, suggesting that the cost of holding a discrete referendum or plebiscite is approximately the same as the cost of an election. When a referendum or plebiscite is held in conjunction with a general election, the cost is approximately one-eighth of the total cost. For example in 1984, the total cost of the election was $31.7 million, with the referendum component of $4 million. The Statistics section of library calculates that amount at $8.9million in current terms.

Almost a decade since Australians were last asked to consider the question of an Australian republic, the time is right for a new opportunity to vote on this fundamental issue. The government has a longstanding policy commitment for an Australian republic as well as an election promise to hold a new referendum in 2010. This Bill is to  enable that process to test the will of the people on this important matter again.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.

Senator BOB BROWN —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.