Tag Archives: referendum

Cabinet papers 1994-95: How the republic was doomed without a directly elected president



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Queen Elizabeth signs the visitors’ book at Parliament House, while Prime Minister Paul Keating and Parliament House officials look on in February 1992.
National Archives of Australia

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

Not long after defeat in the 1999 referendum, Malcolm Turnbull, a leading republican who had chaired the Republic Advisory Committee (RAC) appointed by Paul Keating, was licking his wounds.

“We must not let the desperate desire not to be ‘elitist’ lead us into imagining that the voters always get it right,” he reflected. “They don’t. Sometimes nations vote for the wrong people or the wrong propositions … There is nothing disrespectful in questioning the judgement of 55% of the Australian population.”

Like many republicans, Turnbull laid much blame at John Howard’s feet. But cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia suggest a very different story: the republic was doomed from the moment the Keating government rejected the idea of a directly elected president.


Further reading: Cabinet papers 1994-95: The Keating government begins to craft its legacy


The submission, considered by cabinet’s Republic Committee on March 22, 1995 (and by cabinet on June 6, 1995) warned:

Public opinion polls … suggest that any mechanism for appointing a head of state short of direct election will be controversial.

The document, unusually couched in the first person with Keating as narrator, is haunted by the ghosts of 1975. The risk of direct election, it explained, was:

… that the head of state might be tempted to assume, or presume to take moral authority from, a popular national mandate … and exercise the powers of that office in a manner which could bring the office into competition with the government of the day.

Here, in a nutshell, was the problem republicans faced. They wanted to present Australia’s constitutional arrangements as deficient enough to justify reform, yet they refused to countenance change that might lead to any but cosmetic changes. A bunch of politicians wanted to prevent an outbreak of politics.

Direct election of a president, we are told:

… would in time fundamentally change the character of Australian Government and could well move our parliamentary democracy towards an executive presidency, where power is no longer diffuse and representative and where substantial national power is vested unalterably in one person for a set period.

“This matter,” the submission went on to explain, “needs to be handled sensitively so that public understanding increases as the debate continues”.

In other words, it was the public’s ignorance that led it to support direct election. If only citizens better understood their political system, they would realise that selection by a joint sitting of parliament, with a two-thirds majority required to endorse a prime ministerial nomination, would make it impossible for a partisan figure to become president.

Prime Minister Paul Keating makes a parliamentary statement on the republic in 1995.

The paradox was that election by politicians was supposedly needed to avoid a politicians’ republic. Years passed, but no-one ever found a way to work through this conundrum of the republicans’ making. In the meantime, Keating faced another problem: even if parliamentary selection was accepted, what should the powers of that president be?

The governor-general had many roles and powers, some of which the Constitution defined. Some were exercised by convention on ministerial advice, and some were in a third, murky and controversial category known as reserve powers. The submission dismissed complete codification of the reserve powers as politically impossible:

An acrimonious debate on this issue would have the potential to derail the whole republic initiative.

It then went on to consider other ways of dealing with the problem. Eventually, the full cabinet would opt in June 1995 for a formula to be included in the constitution asserting that the president would “exercise his or her functions in accordance with the constitutional conventions which related to the exercise of the powers and performance of the functions of the governor-general”.

However, the conventions would not be regarded as “rules of law”, nor would the provision prevent “further development of these conventions”.

The attention that the reserve powers received underlines how powerfully 1975 preyed on the mind of Keating, who had been a young, recently appointed minister in the Whitlam government at the time of the dismissal. He pointed to the risk that:

… without codification, every half century or century the nation could suffer a wilful or misguided head of state who exercises political judgement against the interests of one of the parties or without due regard to historical conventions.

The priority was to avoid another Kerr. Indeed, he is even mentioned by name, as one whom few thought “benign to begin with – and he did not have to run the gauntlet of parliamentary approval, but he did suffer subsequent admonition by a large section of the country”.

Future presidents, unlike Kerr, would be constrained through their manner of selection by a super-majority of the House of Representatives and Senate sitting as one. The president would need to have the confidence of both parties, and so was likely to be non-partisan and of high calibre. However, if they proved “misguided or aberrant”, they could be removed via a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting convened by a simple majority vote of either chamber.

The psychology of this minimalist position is epitomised in how the submission dealt with the issue of what to call the republic.

It opted for keeping “Commonwealth of Australia” – not, it seems, because there was anything valuable or resonant in this title, but because it “would reflect the (minor) extent of the changes sought to the Australian system of government and would avoid the need for numerous consequential changes to the Constitution and other areas of official life”. An example of this would be the national anthem’s reference to “this Commonwealth”.

Leaving aside the absurdity of the last point, to argue for a change while also telling people that little would change was a balancing act beyond the republicans’ powers. At a time of populist revolt – the Hanson outbreak occurred in 1996 – it became even easier to cultivate hostility to “elites” out of touch with ordinary Australians.

I voted “yes” in 1999. I would vote “no” today if offered a reheated minimalist republic.

The arguments in the cabinet submission suggest a failure of imagination and, more seriously, of trust. They grossly exaggerate the fragility of Australian parliamentary government, which is sufficiently entrenched to avoid the spectre of a well-designed scheme for direct election leading to a US-style executive presidency.

Australian Republican Movement chairman Malcolm Turnbull speaks after the referendum was lost in 1999.

The late historian John Hirst, the Australian Republican Movement’s Victorian convener in the 1990s and an RAC member appointed by Keating, warned a Canberra ARM audience in 2011 that parliamentary selection would never win public support. The ARM therefore should support direct election.

Hirst also warned against a consultative two-step process that invited voters to consider the principle of a republic, followed by a further vote for a specific model.

The first of these votes would permit a potent “no” campaign around such tried and true themes as change is dangerous, republics are bad, we already have an Australian head of state, politicians cannot be trusted, and voters should not issue a blank cheque.

The recent same-sex marriage survey provides Hirst’s warning with ample vindication. Opponents of a republic would be no more likely to campaign directly for the monarchy and against a republic than opponents of same-sex marriage campaigned explicitly against homosexuality. Red herrings would be the order of the day.

The ConversationBut in contrast to same-sex marriage, if the principle of a republic were to be defeated in a popular vote, like Sleeping Beauty it would have a restful century or so while it waited for a reviving kiss from a handsome prince.

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Fifty years on from the 1967 referendum, it’s time to tell the truth about race



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‘We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.’
3CR

Chelsea Bond, The University of Queensland

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, in a sunset ceremony in central Australia, approximately 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across Australia delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Convened by the Referendum Council, the statement put forth an Indigenous Australian position on proposed constitutional reform, rejecting constitutional recognition in favour of a treaty.

Through the establishment of a Makarrata Commission (a body that would oversee agreement-making between governments and Indigenous groups), the Uluru statement expressed Indigenous peoples’ “aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia”.


AIATSIS

Yet, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians voted in favour of what they believed would be a “fair go for Aborigines” in supporting the amendment of two clauses within the Constitution.

Fifty years on, there remain some uncomfortable truths about what those amendments did to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus have argued that the “yes” vote did little to change the administration of Indigenous affairs; nor did it grant Indigenous peoples citizenship rights, voting rights or put an end to racial discrimination.

The constitutional amendments attended to what appeared to be racially discriminatory clauses, which excluded Aboriginal people. The result may well have made Australia appear less racist, but it did not address the inherently racist nature of the constitution.

One example is the amendment to Section 51 (xxvi), referred to as the race power, which excluded Aboriginal people from the Commonwealth’s special powers to introduce laws affecting “the people of any race”.

The original intent of this clause was to enable the Commonwealth to “regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races” in restricting immigration of non-white non-British populations.

In 1901, the Commonwealth’s power was put to work with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, and was rationalised by the then prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton. He said:

I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.

Campaigning on the 1967 referendum.
AAP/National Library of Australia

It is hard to imagine how our inclusion as a raced people within this racially discriminatory clause would be emancipatory. In being raced, we were not just named – we were claimed.

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 on the land of the Gadigal people, it did not just bring convicts, marines, seamen and civil officers. It also brought with it “the Aborigine”, and our racialised construction as Aborigines has served the colonial project well.

Being an Aborigine has circumscribed our being, our relationship to this place and to the state. In being raced, we have become known by the state and through our relationship with it. It has cemented a relationship of power over us, physically, morally, intellectually, politically and legislatively.

Racism is not just echoed in the words of right-wing commentators or the jokes of professional football players; it is ingrained in our society, enshrined in our institutions and our legislation. Race is inescapable and it has been central to the colonial project.

We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.

As a racialised subject, I have been subjected to lies dressed up as racialised truths that insist upon our inferiority. Every day, we are forced to contest these lies while having to live with them. In order to get by and get on in a social world that discounts us, we create for ourselves other lies.

I remember the words of my father growing up, insisting that if I worked ten times harder than them, that I would “make it” – that it was possible to rise above my station, to rise above race. These were lies that we lived with in order to make the injustice of the world seem less insurmountable.

But I cannot be blinded to the ways in which my presence is read racially, regardless of how hard-working I am, how articulate I might be or how acceptable my presence might appear.

It does not inhibit the surveillance by police who perceive my presence as a predisposition to an unknown criminal act.

It does not inhibit a rendering of me as an Aboriginal mother or my husband as an Aboriginal father being deemed at risk of not being able to look after my children properly.

It does not prevent colleagues from seeing my presence as a scholar as an equity act, as an accommodation of my intellectual incapacity or as a cultural broker to white knowing.

The lie I can no longer live with is the insistence that our racialised being can be remedied through our own efforts: that if we just acted better, if we just articulated ourselves better, that if we were recognised better, that our lives would be better.

I don’t know if we can overcome race completely, but I do know that we cannot minimise the power of race by ignoring the power of race. Race was the foundation on which this nation was built and it continues to structure our society, its institutions and social life.

We cannot build a better nation by simply piling new bricks or new clauses to cement over the reality of race and the way it manifests interpersonally and institutionally.

While it was a remarkable feat that, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians supported in principle the idea of a fair go for Aborigines, we cannot get too swept away with the idea that the attending to the power of race is unfinished, or that it is confined to a constitutional clause or two.

At every turn, conversations about race are downplayed, dismissed or booed into submission. It would appear that more effort in this country is spent on not looking racist than on not being racist. The danger of the next step (in whatever direction that might be) is that we will fail to tell the truth about race.

We can only hope that the federal government and the Australian people will heed Indigenous peoples’ call for a “fair and truthful relationship” through a fair and truthful conversation about the power of race in maintaining power over Indigenous peoples’ lives and lands.


The ConversationThis essay is an excerpt from Chelsea Bond’s keynote address at the State Library of Queensland’s 50 Years and Counting event.

Chelsea Bond, Senior Lecturer, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit (ATSIS Unit), The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


‘Right wrongs, write Yes’: what was the 1967 referendum all about?



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At a demonstration, Faith Bandler (right) and her daughter Lilon (2R) appeal to national unity as grounds for constitutional amendment.
Aboriginal Studies Press

Russell McGregor, James Cook University

On May 27, 1967, campaigners for Aboriginal rights and status won the most-decisive referendum victory in Australian history.

The referendum attracted more than 90% of voters in favour of deleting the two references to Aborigines in Australia’s Constitution. Campaigners for a “Yes” vote successfully argued those references were discriminatory and debarred Aboriginal people from citizenship.

Ever since, and as we approach the 1967 referendum’s 50th anniversary, it has been popularly remembered as the moment when Aboriginal people won equal rights – even the right to vote. In fact, the referendum did not secure those outcomes.

By 1967, all Aboriginal adults already held the right to vote in federal, state and territory elections. Racial discriminations had been removed from the statute books at the federal level and in all states and territories except Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. And even those three laggards were moving toward legal equality.

So what was achieved?

Constitutionally, the 1967 referendum secured the amendment of Section 51 (xxvi) and the deletion of Section 127.

The former section specified the federal parliament could make laws with respect to the:

… people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

The words “other than the Aboriginal race in any state” were deleted.

The latter section stipulated that in:

… reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

Neither section prevented Aboriginal people from exercising the same legal rights as other Australians. The rights of Aborigines were abridged not by the Constitution, but by laws enacted by federal and state parliaments.

Two days before the referendum, the Sydney Morning Herald published this photograph.
above the caption: ‘Racial discrimination – what’s that?’

Sydney Morning Herald

How was the campaign run?

Campaigners for a “Yes” vote, however, told a different story. They insisted constitutional change was a necessary precondition for Aboriginal equality.

Yet the campaigners’ ambitions went beyond legal equality. They sought the inclusion of Aboriginal people as respected members of the national community. This had been a principal goal of Aboriginal and pro-Aboriginal activists since the early 20th century.

The 1967 referendum was the culmination of a long struggle for rights and respect, for social esteem as well as equality before the law.

Accordingly, publicity material for the “Yes” campaign did not focus narrowly on the legal implications of constitutional change. More often, it exhorted Australians to welcome Aboriginal people into the fellowship of the nation. As the opening line of a popular campaign song ran:

Vote “Yes” for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too.

Effectively, the proponents of a Yes vote transformed what could have been a dry, legalistic tinkering with the Constitution into a plebiscite on Australian nationhood.

In achieving this transformation, the campaigners held an unusual advantage. Uniquely among Australian referendums, for the 1967 question on Aborigines there was no campaign for a “No” vote. And even the government broke with convention by providing, in the official advice to voters, only the case for “Yes”. Consequently, campaigners could talk up the importance of the changes they advocated virtually unrestrained.

New South Wales campaign director Faith Bandler told voters:

When you write Yes in the lower square of your ballot paper you are holding out the hand of friendship and wiping out nearly 200 years of injustice and inhumanity.

Hyperbole of this kind is not unusual in political campaigns. What was unusual is that there was no organised opposition to contest the claims of the Yes campaigners, or to counter them with equally extravagant rhetoric for the negative.

Much of the publicity material for a Yes vote was couched in broad terms of rectifying past wrongs.
Gordon Bryant Papers/NLA

The lack of a “No” campaign undoubtedly boosted the “Yes” vote. It was equally important in shaping remembrance of the referendum.

Lacking an opposition, the “Yes” campaigners had a virtual monopoly on the narratives about what the referendum meant. Their expansive conception of the referendum as a plebiscite on nationhood prevailed.

A symbolic win

The triumph of the “Yes” vote was primarily a symbolic victory. It did not win rights for Aborigines, and the government of the day did not utilise the extension of Commonwealth powers secured by amendment of Section 51 (xxvi). Nor did Gough Whitlam’s government after it came to power in 1972.

Whitlam did, however, invoke the resounding “Yes” vote of 1967 as a moral mandate for change in Aboriginal affairs.

Symbolic victories are important. Shortly after hearing of the massive “Yes” majority, veteran Aboriginal activist Pastor Doug Nicholls proclaimed it was:

… evidence that Australians recognise Aborigines are part of the nation.

As Nicholls knew from three decades of involvement in Aboriginal politics, recognition of his people as part of the nation was a hard-fought achievement.

Regardless of its slight legal consequences, the 1967 referendum was an important event in Australian history. It was a symbolic affirmation of Aboriginal people’s acceptance into the community of the nation.

The ConversationYet the referendum affirmed only the broad principle of national inclusion. On how that principle should be translated into practice – on the terms of inclusion – the referendum was silent.

Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: 16 May 1975


India Annexes Sikkim

On this day in 1975, following a referendum in which the people of the Himalayan country of Sikkim voted in favour of merging with India, India annexed the country.

For more, visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikkim


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