Plebiscites 7

THE TEMPTATION: CHANGE THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

This is a plan to circumvent the Constitution by the use of cascading constitutional plebiscites, which are designed to soften the people up before a final referendum. This is constitutional change by stealth and by fatigue. It irresponsibly invites a vote of no confidence in our Constitution so as to create a vacuum during at least a decade. This might be the sort of tactics that political parties might adopt over some minor issue. It is not the way to deal with something so fundamentally important as the Constitution.

Apart from the sheer irresponsibility of this approach, there is nothing in it for any of the political parties. It is a folly of monumental proportions beside which the Millennium Dome will appear as a minor glitch. There is nothing in it for the Labor Party -- that was clear from the way in which so many safe Labor seats voted. The issue is even less attractive to the Liberal Party, where it has already embittered a significant portion of the membership and supporters. And both the members and supporters of the National Party are overwhelmingly anti-republican. There is a new factor which results from the federal election in 2007. For the very first time in the life of our nation, all governments are formally committed in their platforms to republican change.

Since 1986, the powers of the state and federal parliaments, acting together, seem to be absolute and without limit. It is not so much that they can they raise the GST - the  Federal Parliament could do this alone if it so wished, just as it could change the Flag without a popular vote. (Mr. Keating and Mr. Beasley planned to do precisely this before they lost office, and Mr Howard’s subsequent amendment to the Flag Act could be repealed by a determined government with the numbers and the requisite discipline.)  

On one view, our seven parliaments acting together could not only bring in any sort of  republic without a referendum, it could also abolish the Senate, turn the states into regions, extend the terms of the  politicians to five or seven years or more, subvert the judiciary and gag the media. Legal advice is divided, but if the parliaments decided to act together, only a determined High Court could stop this, and there is no guarantee of that.
Now no one is saying the seven parliaments are going to attempt all or even any of this. But there could be a temptation at some time in the future to use a plebiscite to justify  an attempt to circumvent a referendum. Such a temptation should not be put there.

There is one way, and only one way to undertake responsible constitutional change here. That is by the referendum. And this is not there to prevent or indefinitely resist change. It is there, as our great founders, Sir John Quick and Sir Robert Garran said, to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion, and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.

 
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