The Republic Debate: Capitalism vs Democracy

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The debate over whether or not this country should have an Australian as head of State is being presented as a narrow, technical question. In fact, the February Constitution Convention has the potential to spark momentous political change in this country. The Howard government has been dragged kicking and screaming into this debate, and has done all it can to head off the possibility of constitutional change.

            An issue of this magnitude is too important to ignore. For the first time, the whole population – including women and Indigenous people – has the opportunity to shape the country’s political future. This calls for the widest possible debate. Yet what is emerging is an anti-democratic consensus aimed at keeping government out of the hands of the community. In order to choke off the possibility of real change, it is proposed that the politicians appoint the new President! Instead of an unaccountable wealthy English woman, we would be saddled with an unaccountable wealthy Australian.

            A mood for change. Clearly, the republicans have won the Constitution Convention Election (CCE). Clearly, too, republicans are a majority, even among John Howard’s appointed delegates. As Convention Chair Ian Sinclair commented, the most likely outcome is that the Convention will recommend a referendum on an Australian Head of State. Despite the fact that only about 52% of ballot papers were returned, the government apparently abandoned its policy of discrediting the Convention as “unrepresentative.”

            The mood of the electorate is clearly for change. The monarchist camp claims that the relatively low voter turnout means that electors are “not interested” in the issue. The government, on the other hand, seems to have drawn another conclusion: that this “silent minority” believes that the abolition of the monarchy is inevitable, and will vote accordingly in a formal plebiscite. The results certainly tend to support that view.

            The CCE vote revealed three trends in community attitudes to the issue. Firstly, when the question is put to a formal referendum, the monarchy will almost certainly be abolished. A sample consisting of half the population is a pretty good basis for prediction. Provided there is no last-minute scare campaign by the monarchist rump, a referendum on dumping the queen would easily be passed by a majority of voters in a majority of states, satisfying constitutional requirements.

            Secondly, people are thinking about the debate. Despite its slick campaign, the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) commanded only 60% of the republican vote. Even though groups such as Victorian Real Republic were subjected to a virtual media blackout, more than one-third of republican delegates are from so-called “secondary” tickets or independents. Tellingly, some candidates were elected because voters ignored the ticket and inserted their personal preferences “below the line.” This pushed ARM candidate Hazel Hawke into a winning position in New South Wales and also got the Republic 4U’s Misha Schubert and independent Phil Cleary elected in Victoria.

            Thirdly, 40% of republican delegates were elected on a broader platform than that of a simple name change at the top. This means that the so-called “minimalist republic” model is in difficulty. The community does not trust its political “representatives.” Any referendum giving federal Parliament the power to appoint the Head of State would almost certainly not succeed. More broadly, the electorate has signalled that there are other issues, such as a Bill of Rights, that should be part of the debate about the country’s Basic Law.

            Big Business adopts anti-democratic consensus. The possibility of real debate about the country’s political institutions has Corporate Australia worried. Ian Sinclair’s job is to keep the argument within “acceptable” bounds. Sinclair is an arch-conservative National Party head-kicker, but he’s no fool. The ruling class has also read the mood for a change in the way Australia is governed. Even Western Australian Premier Richard Court, whose pedigree is as conservative as they get, has “come out” as a minimalist republican.

            This mean that big business will drop the monarchy, sooner rather than later. Monarchist delegates like Kerry Jones, from Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, and Bruce Ruxton, from Safeguard the People, are already irrelevant to the debate. But it also means that if the debate is not broadened, the working and Indigenous peoples of this country will be no better off. The anti-democratic consensus is all about keeping big business in control of Australian government.

            On the surface, the ruling class appears divided over the question of the Republic. In reality, their differences are merely over tactics. Business knows that ushering in any kind of change is a process, which holds potential danger. They could lose control – the Republic debate could go off the rails and in an “undesirable” direction.

            On the other hand, business is very aware that Australia’s constitutional ties to the monarchy have become an inconvenient anachronism. The perception of a pro-British and pro-monarchy Australia is out of step with the country’s contemporary economic relationships. Australia’s main trading partners are now in East Asia, and the country’s links to the monarchy are used by its competitors, particularly Malaysia, to exclude Australia from key economic forums.

            For this reason, none but the most diehard monarchists would be too unhappy if the outcome is a minimalist republic, where the only changes to the Constitution are editorial. This substitution of the word “President” for “Queen” would leave the rest of the reactionary colonial Constitution intact.

            John Howard, a monarchist, is well aware of the main game. Almost until the ballot closed, his main contribution to the debate was to keep as many of the people out of it as possible. But in the final week he, too, commented that the best outcome of the Convention would be a proposal for an Australian head of State. Unlike Sinclair, Howard is a fool, and a dangerous one at that. But he can count. After spending 1997 lurching from one inept decision to the next, Howard is looking decidedly shaky. Standing in the way of the bourgeois consensus may well be the trigger for his ouster. Peter Costello, his chief rival, is a minimalist republican.

            A just republic or just a republic? The present Constitution is a narrow, legalistic and racist document, which enshrines the rights of the wealthy and leaves the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, unprotected. The State is able to abrogate our freedoms at a stroke of the Governor General’s pen.

            The Constitution permits genocide. It is only necessary to look at the High Court’s ruling in the Kruger case, involving stolen Indigenous children. Kidnapping, false imprisonment, detention without trial, suppression of religions, forced migration and forced labour were all deemed to be “constitutional.”

            Civil conscription is supposedly illegal, yet the government is press-ganging the unemployed into forced labour programs. Who were the guinea pigs for this economic rationalist experiment? Indigenous Australians, who have been made to work for the dole for years!

            The same basic law, which permits striking workers to be jailed, is the one which permitted wealthy graziers to pay Indigenous stockmen with tea and flour! The Constitution provides for just compensation for confiscated property, but permits employers to shed workers at will. The rights of state governments are spelled out, but women rate no mention at all.

            The so-called minimalist republicans want to retain all this! And the constitutional monarchists would not object too much if all that happened was that an Australian-born member of the ruling class took over Elizabeth Windsor’s throne.

            Any republic based on the present Constitution would simply perpetuate injustice and oppression. The debate over the Constitution needs to be a catalyst for comprehensive social and political change.

            A Constitution for all the people! It is clearly time that this Asian/Pacific country cut itself loose from European imperialism. Abolish the monarchy! The new head of State must be elected by direct universal vote of all the people. It doesn’t matter whether or not this person is Australian-born. This is a country built on the backs of poor immigrants from all across the globe. Isolationism and nationalism are obstacles to the elimination of oppression and injustice.

            A future Constitution must:

  • Recognise the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations
  • Enshrine affirmative action as a means of redressing past injustice
  • Guarantee the right to political participation, permanent residency and equal treatment in social life to all people, regardless of race, sex, gender identity, sexual preference, disability, ethnicity or age
  • Provide for a living wage for all
  • Mandate free, quality, universal education and childcare, healthcare and housing
  • Guarantee the right to organise and the right to free speech
  • Guarantee women’s reproductive freedom and the right to free, safe abortion on demand
  • Include provisions for the protection of the environment
  • Stipulate that all public offices by filled by popular votes, that all elected officials be subject to recall by the electors, and that all votes be free and equal.

Of itself, the abolition of the monarchy and the re-writing of the Constitution will not improve living standards or redress injustices. However, the current legal and political system obstructs social change and perpetuates injustice. This historic debate may well open up opportunities for a much deeper transformation of Australian society.

Addressing the many injustices of the Australian political system requires much more than a redrafting of the capitalist Constitution. It requires independent organising and struggle to rid ourselves of government by the few for the few. The many injustices of this society will only begin to be redressed when we have a government of the people, for the people and by the people – all of the people. Here’s to a Socialist Republic of Australia.

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