20 May 2024
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The Voice referendum: PM take note and Dutton, you have some explaining to do

Malcolm Mackerras
9 October 2023

In my Switzer Daily article “The 1967 and 1999 referendums are generally mis-described” posted on Friday 22 September, I concluded by writing that, in the current foreshadowed article, “I’ll give some friendly advice to Anthony Albanese”. So, here it is. Copy Bob Menzies who (as I reported in that earlier article) made an internal vow to himself in September 1951 following his loss of a referendum. Your variation on that should be: “There will never be another referendum while Anthony Albanese is Prime Minister.”

Don’t be a glutton for punishment. I know you and I will never agree about the republic, but I can assure you that the republic is dead, buried and cremated. Drop it. You can keep a minister for the republic if you like but I can assure you the next Liberal-National coalition government will abolish that ministry and Labor will eventually accept the reality. Australia will not become a republic during the lifetime of any present-day voter.

Meanwhile, I make my final prediction for the referendum vote. There will be 10 million votes for NO (58.8%) and 7 million for YES (41.2%). I would be delighted if YES won but I don’t expect it. I shall cast my first-ever YES vote at a referendum, which will surely be the only affirmative vote of my lifetime. For those who ask why I didn’t vote YES in 1967 the answer is that I moved from Sydney to Canberra in 1965. Consequently, I voted neither YES nor NO on two questions in 1967, two in 1973, four in 1974 and four in 1977. When I acquired the referendum right to vote, I found myself emphatically rejecting two questions in 1984, four in 1988 and two in 1999. For those in search of my reasoning I advise you to read my article “Why I am a monarchist” posted on Wednesday 14 September last year.

The 1999 referendum has been badly mis-described, though not as badly as 1967. Both those referendums were dominated by the first question. In 1967, the second question was so little discussed during the campaign that it passed overwhelmingly, mainly because there was a serious YES campaign, and no one of any substance publicly advocated NO. See my last article, cited above. In 1999, the second question went down notwithstanding that only one member of the House of Representatives opposed it. It went down because it was so ridiculous a proposal.

Take the republic first. The current mythology is that the people really did want a republic but not that model. In one way I agree. At the time, the House of Windsor was very unpopular. Consequently, it became very conventional to tell pollsters that “I would vote for a republic with a president elected by popular vote but not for this present politicians’ republic”. Likewise, it became ever so very fashionable to say that “I vote for Queen Elizabeth II to stay as Australia’s head of state but if Charles were on the throne I would vote for a republic.”

None of the above explains today’s situation. It is best explained by me that 6,410,787 votes (54.9%) were cast to keep Queen Elizabeth II as Australia’s Sovereign and 5,273,024 votes (45.1%) were cast for the republic. Those votes were cast in the full knowledge that King Charles III would soon be our King and Sovereign. And note this: the Australian head of state is David Hurley, our Governor-General. It is he who is the commander-in-chief of Australia’s armed services (section 68 of the Constitution), he who issued the writ for this referendum on Monday 11 September, he who dissolves the House of Representatives (section 28), issues writs for House of Representatives elections (section 32) etc. I don’t intend to waste space by giving further details to prove that the Governor-General is Australia’s head of state.

I come now to John Howard’s proposed preamble; the single most ridiculous proposal ever put to a referendum. Among other things it included these words: “. . . honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”. Anyway, the affirmative vote was 4,591,563 (39.3%) and the NO vote was 7,080,998 (60.7%).

The truly interesting thing about it was that, in the entire federal parliament, there was only one MP to oppose it, the late Peter Andren, independent member for Calare (NSW). He wrote the entire case for NO in the 1999 AEC referendum pamphlet. Thus, for YES, the case was described as: “The content of this argument was authorised by a majority of those members of the Parliament who voted for the proposed law and desire to forward such an argument. The text has been printed and presented without amendment by the Electoral Commissioner.” Meanwhile, the case for NO was described as: “The content of this argument was authorised by a member of Parliament who voted against the proposed law. . .” So, just “a member”.

Andren wrote the entire NO case himself and when it was published, I congratulated him personally, especially for pages 27, 33 and 35. On those pages are to be found the slogan “If you don’t know – VOTE NO!” In the context of Howard’s vanity proposal of a preamble (wanted by no one other than himself) that was a brilliant slogan. But the copycat Peter Dutton has stolen those words to apply to a proposal 30 years in the making, with many great minds participating, and with plenty of information around. There is none of Andren’s brilliance around today – just an assumption that voters are so lazy they won’t be bothered to find out. That is an insult to voters and encourages them to be lazy.

It is incredible that Albanese seems to have committed his government to a second referendum on the republic. It is, however, far more incredible that Dutton asks people to take him seriously when he proposes that Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution be placed before the people for a third time, that occasion to see a mere re-wording of Howard’s 1999 preamble.

This important question should be put to Dutton. Please explain how it is that politicians from the Liberal Party and the Nationals have for 50 years proclaimed that they are in favour of Aboriginal constitutional recognition only to tell us at 10 minutes before midnight that they never were in favour of such recognition! Please tell us the truth – that his party only ever wanted a history lesson to be placed in the Constitution, which I ridiculed in a recent article. Here is what I wrote in my Switzer Daily article posted on Tuesday 16 August with the title “Dutton’s Voice ploy kicks own goal”. I wrote: “A constitution is a practical thing. It sets up a system of government. It should not be a place where some pieces of history are included while others are thought to be too unimportant to be included.”

Since that article was published, I have noticed many other independent commentators have joined me in ridiculing Dutton for that suggestion. He opposes for the sake of opposing. In the process he and his supporters have invented so-called “principles” to cover up for the reality that he never had any principles in this matter. I await his answer and predict that he will blame former Liberal PMs Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, who were so foolish as to engage in counter-productive bipartisanship on Aboriginal affairs, placing Dutton in his present difficult situation.

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