RIGHT WING forces celebrated last weekend as they heard the result of the Australian referendum on whether the queen should remain the country’s head of state. Australian voters narrowly rejected a proposal to establish a republic, headed by a president, by 54 to 46 percent. In Britain the vote was enough to convince many of Prince Charles’s advisers that he can look forward to renewed public support in this country if he becomes king.
But the referendum result says more about the way such votes can be manipulated than it does about the willingness of ordinary Australians to be ruled over by such an archaic institution as the monarchy. Opinion polls in Australia show slight support for maintaining the queen and her successors as head of state. They all show that less than one in ten of Australia’s 18 million people positively support the monarchy. Over 50 percent of voters have consistently said that they want to replace the queen with a directly elected president. So how did the referendum result go the other way?
The republic was voted down because people who are against the queen were not convinced of the merits of what was to replace her. The proposed new head of state was a president who would be chosen by the prime minister with the backing of two thirds of MPs in parliament. Tory prime minister John Howard, who is a staunch monarchist, rewrote the question on the ballot paper to ensure that this description of how the president would be elected was included.
That allowed the anti-republicans to run an incredibly dishonest campaign. They did not call on people to ‘vote to keep the monarchy’. Instead, their central slogan was ‘Vote no to a politicians’ republic’. They were able to tap into the widespread cynicism of millions of ordinary people towards mainstream politicians. The republican campaign was unable to counter that cynicism because it portrayed itself as the voice of big business rather than any sort of radical movement in the interests of workers and the poor.
IT SEEMED to many working class voters that the yes and no campaigners had more in common with each other than with ordinary people. The chairman of the Australian Republican Movement is Malcolm Turnbull. He is a millionaire barrister and a partner in the multinational finance company Goldman Sachs. A millionaire, Kerry Jones, also headed the pro-monarchy campaign. The republican campaign played up the support it got from Peter Costello. He is the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Howard’s Tory government. Costello’s attacks on welfare and workers’ living standards have made him a hate figure.
The republican campaign told voters that they should vote yes in the referendum because it would not really change anything! Its image of a ‘modern Australia’ was about Australian big business having control over the head of state in the same way as it has replaced British firms as the dominant force in the Australian economy. Rupert Murdoch, whose papers in Britain back the monarchy, thought the proposed Australian republic would offer him greater opportunities to expand his empire in Australia and east Asia. He urged a pro-republican vote.
All this deepened people’s cynicism as they asked what the point was of spending £50 million on a referendum which would change nothing. The referendum campaign excited few people and the turnout in many areas was low, even though voting in Australia is compulsory. Major left wing forces did back a republic. Kim Beazley, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, is solidly anti-monarchy, as are the overwhelming majority of Labor voters.
But the official republican campaign was so right wing it alienated these people. Many Labor voters and left wing republicans were so disgusted at the model they were offered that they voted no in the hope they would get a chance to vote for more radical constitutional change in a second referendum.
Howard is increasingly unpopular. The vote over the monarchy is no endorsement for his policies. He attempted to deny Aboriginal people a claim to land rights in a referendum which took place at the same time as the one over the monarchy. Howard called for a yes vote in this referendum as part of his campaign to water down Aboriginal claims to land. He was roundly defeated.
THE DEBACLE of last week’s referendum on a republic holds important lessons. It shows how such votes are not the highpoint of democracy. Right wing politicians can choose the form of question, influencing the vote to such an extent that the result leads in the opposite direction from what people actually think. The referendum result also reveals the dangers of looking for allies among a section of bosses over any political question.
We are often told in Britain that the way to win particular campaigns is to water the message down to attract the support of a section of the rich – particularly when the bosses are deeply split over an issue, as they are with Europe. The Australian vote shows the bankruptcy of that approach.
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