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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 140

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (6:05 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am very proud to speak to this Legal and Constitutional References Committee report The road to a republic tonight. It represents the culmination of the work of the committee's inquiry into an Australian republic. The inquiry, I am proud to say, was an initiative of the Australian Democrats dating back to November 2002 when our leader, Senator Bartlett, made the announcement at the Constitutional Futures conference in Brisbane that we would move to establish such an inquiry. However, the Democrats have long recognised that it is vital that the movement towards an Australian republic or an Australian head of state transcend party political boundaries. So, having announced that we wanted to establish such an inquiry, we undertook extensive consultation with others regarding appropriate terms of reference. After finalising the terms of reference a motion to establish the inquiry was passed by the Senate in June last year. The underlying objective of this inquiry was not only to give momentum to the campaign but also to ensure right from the outset that the process to achieve an Australian republic was a democratic one. As Ms Allison Henry, the National Director of the Australian Republican Movement, said in her evidence before the committee:

... the move to an Australian republic should be driven and owned by the Australian people. The republic should suit the temperament and traditions of our democratic, egalitarian culture. The Australian people should be consulted every step of the way in the making of it.

Now this is imperative for two reasons. Firstly, as was the case with Federation, it is the collective will of the Australian people that will provide legitimacy to any Australian republic. Secondly, from a strategic point of view, in order to guarantee the success of such a campaign, it is fundamental that we get the wider Australian community on side before we get to the final referendum stage. There must be a sense that the process is fair, that it is inclusive, that it is democratic and that any model which eventually emerges has the support of the community or a majority of that community. In other words, there has to be a sense of ownership.

I know that there were some critics of the last referendum campaign—the fifth anniversary of which we celebrated the weekend before last—who would argue that perhaps there was a perceived lack of inclusivity and that was one of the reasons for the lack of success of that campaign. But, as we all know in this place, it is notoriously difficult to effect constitutional change. Of 44 proposals to alter the Commonwealth Constitution only eight have been successful. So, by allowing Australians to participate as early as possible in this process, hopefully we will eliminate the reasons that they may otherwise have for voting against a republic. This is one of the common criticisms made of the 1999 referendum campaign. While it was an honour to participate in the Constitutional Convention in 1998, and while the debates during the convention were lively and certainly unconfined by party politics, the fact remains that half the delegates who participated were appointed and not elected. Some people have expressed the opinion that the Constitutional Convention was perceived as an elitist event—one over which they had very little influence. I thought it was a glorious event and I think it was one that did effectively involve not only the participants on the floor but also the people who tapped into the web site, who attended through the gallery and who viewed the deliberative processes and issues on television. I think it was quite an inclusive process; however, perception is very important, as we know.

Whether or not those perceptions are accurate, the point is that the process towards a republic needs to be not only democratic but also perceived as being democratic. This is not without its challenges. A truly democratic process is one which is not only accessible, in the practical sense of having the opportunity to participate, but also intellectually accessible. People need to have access to information in order participate meaningfully. The difficulty with the republic debate is that it has the potential to alienate those who may be unfamiliar with our current constitutional arrangements and therefore may have some difficulty or even a lack of interest in understanding the proposed changes.

A 1987 study found that 47 per cent of Australians were unaware that we have a Constitution. A later study by the Civics Expert Group in 1994 reported that only 18 per cent of Australians demonstrated some understanding of the content of the Constitution while only 41 per cent knew how the Constitution could be changed. That is despite the fact that a large majority who participated in that survey had actually voted in some form of referendum.

While the 1999 republic referendum and the debates surrounding it helped to increase community awareness, its impact was not as significant as we like to think. Two years after the referendum campaign, the IEA Civic Education Study found that only half of Australian students had a basic understanding of the ingredients for a properly functioning democracy. Therefore, one of the challenges that confronts us, and certainly the Senate committee, is to increase the community's understanding of and interest in constitutional issues, so I am glad that one of the recommendations arising out of this report includes a strong focus on community education.

I believe that the first step must be to reach an agreement that we do want to become a republic. Having actively participated in this initial decision, more Australians are likely to want to engage in the process of working out the details. While not all Australians may understand the complexities of constitutional law, they do understand the concept of an Australian head of state and they do have strong feelings about Australia's independence and national identity. I think it is those sentiments, reflected in polling over recent years, that are the reason we have such a high percentage of people indicating that they support the notion of an Australian head of state. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that a majority of those in this place would support the move to an Australian head of state.

This inquiry has been made possible because politicians from every political party decided to work together constructively and, in an attempt to gain consensus, we put our political allegiances aside for the sake of this important issue. I pay particular tribute to Senator Payne and Senator Bolkus and of course the secretariat for their work on this issue. It reflects our view that the republic should be put back on the political agenda. We need to keep building the momentum for change that the majority of Australians want. As Victor Hugo once said:

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.

There is no doubt that the time for an Australian republic has come. But, as we know, gaining popular support for the republic is not the major hurdle that we face. The bigger challenge is trying to reach a consensus or, more realistically, majority support in a majority of states for a particular model.

That is why it was so important that the Senate inquiry examined not only the issue of alternative models but also the process for working towards achieving a republic. The process will be crucial if we are to gain the Australian community's support for a particular model. In this respect, the committee has recommended an initial plebiscite, asking Australians whether Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state, separating it from the British monarchy. It is proposed that compulsory voting apply in this particular plebiscite and that it should be determined by a simple majority vote.

Should this plebiscite be resolved in the affirmative, the committee recommends that a second plebiscite, providing five alternative models and asking Australians to nominate their preferred model, should be conducted. It is proposed that this plebiscite should be determined by preferential vote and that, once again, voting should be compulsory.

A further recommendation of the committee is that this plebiscite should include other relevant questions, such as the preferred title, for example, for an Australian head of state. Following this plebiscite, the committee recommends that a drafting convention be held to finetune the details of the preferred model. It is envisaged that this convention would involve constitutional experts and others with relevant skills appointed by the parliament, with special consideration being given to ensuring that the make-up of the convention reflects the diversity and difference within the Australian community. Finally, the proposed change to the Constitution should be put to the people of Australia at a referendum.

Although not everyone will necessarily agree with this proposed way forward, it is important to recognise that, in making these recommendations, the committee has taken into account the incredibly diverse range of views presented to us throughout this inquiry. More than anything, the inquiry represents our commitment to ensuring that the process towards an Australian republic is an inherently democratic process. This is vital if people are to have true ownership of and pride in our changed Constitution. It is my privilege to have been a participant in this inquiry and I take the opportunity to thank all my colleagues, the hardworking committee secretariat and the hundreds of Australians who participated in that process. I look forward to us moving the process forward.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.