Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the British Queen’s representative as the head of state. On November 6, 1999, Australians were asked to vote the monarchy out of existence.
By a large margin, we said no, rejecting the so-called minimalist proposal to replace the monarch with a President appointed by Parliament.
Yet less than five percent of the population actively supports keeping the English royals, and more than 60 percent want a President directly elected by the people!
But after three decades of government assault on living standards, nobody trusts career politicians and their big business sponsors, the main forces behind the referendum. The real message of the proposal’s failure is that workers and the poor are fed up with unaccountable governments, wholesale destruction of services, and attacks on unions. And passage of the referendum would not have changed any of that; in fact, we would have wound up with an even less democratic system than we have now.
So, gritting our teeth, we wrote “no” on our ballot papers — and vowed revenge on the politicians who had given us no other choice.
Colonial hangover. The monarch has no role at all in Australian government. In fact, recognising the country’s century-long progress toward independence from Britain, our High Court recently ruled that the Queen is a “citizen of a foreign power.” This means that, constitutionally, the supposed Queen of Australia is barred from holding office in Australia because she’s not a citizen!
A powerless, meaningless figurehead, all the British sovereign now represents is the faded glory days of colonial expansion by marauding European powers.
And that is a key reason the referendum was held. The smarter capitalists realised that in a place where European rule has meant five centuries of racist plunder, the Queen is bad for business. Forty-seven of Australia’s top 49 CEOs supported the Yes case, as did all of the media proprietors.
But corporate chiefs also knew that, given an opening, the population would demand genuinely democratic reforms, such as a Bill of Rights and restrictions on government power. So they initiated a vote limited to a scheme allowing for an appointed sovereign — a President who could be tossed out at the whim of the Prime Minister and who would therefore stay in line, keeping the country safe for capitalism.
New recipe for tyranny. It is a common complaint in Australia that politicians treat electors, or voters, like subjects — but few people realise that this sorry state of affairs is the legal reality.
In order to settle the English Revolution four centuries ago, the monarchy relinquished supremacy over the people to the Parliament, the representatives of the emerging capitalist class.
The elected Australian Parliament is based on this “Westminster System,” and so is the centre of political authority, royalty or no royalty. However, there is a counterforce under the Constitution — the Governor General, the monarch’s representative, who has draconian but rarely used powers over Parliament.
If the November referendum had been approved, Australians would not have lost our status as subjects. We would have shed the monarchy — but at the cost of giving unprecedented, sweeping powers to the Prime Minister. Electors were alarmed at the prospect of a despotic Prime Minister using a compliant President to impose a dictatorship, which, as the No supporters pointed out, was how Hitler usurped control of Germany.
Supporters of the Yes case tried to capitalise on popular distrust of the political elite by alleging that their model would prevent professional politicians from becoming President. They claimed that the alternative — direct election — would be “unstable.” Australians understood that “unstable” meant “too democratic.” Most voters are not Constitutional lawyers, but as the saying goes, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Economic crackdown creates backlash. Ungracious in defeat, the Yes advocates rushed into print to portray the electors as stupid and reactionary, warning of an upsurge in rightwing populism and a chasm between urban and rural residents. Nothing of the sort!
The most strident champions of the Yes position are the same people who are foreclosing on family farms and desperately trying to undermine the gains of working people. With friends like these, the Yes cause was doomed from the start.
The resounding rejection of the referendum showed that both workers and small-business owners are thoroughly disgusted with “economic rationalism” — the privatisation, speed-up, layoffs, deregulation, and lowering of work standards carried on in the name of boosting the competitiveness of Australia in the global capitalist dog-fight.
Outside the State capitals, only one voting district backed the referendum. Voters in eight of the 10 urban areas where the Yes case gained the most support have incomes far above average. Region by region, the Yes vote declined in direct proportion to the severity of service cuts, job losses, and the effects of globalisation on rural industries, all imposed to protect “shareholder value” and triple-A credit ratings.
Reconstituting Australia. The monarchy is moribund; popular pressure will probably result in another referendum in the next decade. It’s time to turn the debate around and focus on what a democratic constitution must contain.
For a start, the people must prevail, not the Parliament. Our rights and freedoms must be mandated and affirmative action clauses enacted to redress past injustices. Treaties need to be negotiated with Indigenous nations and inserted in the basic law.
It’s fine for society to elect a First Citizen. But there is a precondition: the people must rule.