The wrath of the plebiscites

A friend once told me that he opposed a referendum on Australia becoming a republic. If it were held he would vote “yes”, but he opposed holding it. I look back fondly to that nuanced political position, which many without thinking would probably dismiss as a contradiction.

Today I’m not a staunch republican – I am not personally bothered by the monarchy, anachronistic as it is. Had I been pondering the monarchist argument in depth, I suppose I might have imagined a studied discourse on the perils of populism. However, flicking through the articles on the website of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), the points made border on incoherent and the tone is very much that of populist politics.

Take the current poll question on the right of each page: “Should republicans be required to agree on precisely what changes to the Constitution they want before Mr Rudd calls another referendum?”

Potential for bias aside, the question is rather fatuous. Republicans are already required to spell out constitutional changes before they’re put to a referendum, because under the Constitution (which the ACM claims to vigorously defend) a referendum is binding. The whole referendum process, and by extension the Constitution itself, would be a sham if this were not the case.

As for the articles themselves, it’s equally difficult to follow their logic. Take this one, by one Professor David Flint (apparently the author of most of the site’s content): “A plebiscite with the next election? Sen.Brown’s irresponsible, wasteful bill“.

The premise, as best I can tell, is that Senator Bob Brown is committing an unforgivable sin by proposing a plebiscite (a non-binding pseudo-referendum) on the republic issue. Why would he do such a thing? Well, the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) has proposed holding three plebiscites: one to ask whether we should become a republic, one to ask what model we’d prefer, and one to ask what the head of state should be called (I’d go for “Wizard of Oz” personally, but that’s just me). Then, once all the details are sorted out, an actual referendum would be called. ACM wants Senator Brown to have all these details with him before the first plebiscite, and by the way it should be a referendum.

“The only reason Senator Brown and the republicans are not proposing a referendum is that they fear they would lose a referendum,” the article jeers cynically.

The logic here gets very tenuous indeed. In the end, no matter how many plebiscites are held, there still has to be an actual referendum before anything changes. If the republicans truly do not intend to hold one, then the monarchists win by default, and Professor Flint should be toasting to the Eternal Glory of Royalty by Birthright. But strangely, no. The point of having multiple plebiscites is to consult with the community on different parts of the issue before any irreversible decisions are made. A referendum based on community consultation is a lot more likely to succeed than one based solely on the whims of a politician. In essence, the people would be asked to confirm what they’ve already indicated support for.

ACM apparently can’t understand why the republicans need to be all democratic about the issue, and it’s angry (or, at least, Professor Flint is angry). The article points out, beneath a huge picture of Napolean, that there were “six plebiscites to entrench his dictatorial control over France and occupied Europe”. We are led to believe by the advocates of the status quo that plebiscites, which can’t change anything in Australia, are evil, but referendums are good. Got that? Thank goodness Napolean was removed and France became a republic. Oh wait, what was the point again?

The monarchist’s real problem is that there isn’t a terribly cohesive and convincing monarchist argument. All they can do is wait for the republicans to come up with a model and then knock it down with whatever convenient rhetorical devices they can find laying around. There’s not much they can do to thwart the general concept of Australia becoming a republic. Moreover, if ARM’s second plebiscite is held, I doubt there’s any single convincing argument that will hold against all five of ARM’s alternative republican models (with the possible exception of “How dare you change the Constitution!”). Professor Flint is agitated at the lack of detail in Senator Brown’s proposal not because it’s an issue per se, but because his opponent hasn’t given him any ammunition.

It’s worth noting that the first two plebiscites could be rolled into one. A single plebiscite – with one option for the status quo and five more for the various republican models – would be slightly fairer than two separate plebiscites, assuming that preferential voting is used. Like me, you might prefer only some republican models over the status quo, and you cannot convey this sentiment with two separate votes. But maybe that’s just too nuanced.