A win for reaction
The defeat of the republic referendum on Saturday was a victory for reaction. It was not an unmixed victory, however, and need not be a major one, provided progressive-minded people understand the reasons for it.
The result of the vote undoubtedly politically strengthens John Howard, and therefore his agenda of re-establishing an ultra-conservative ideological climate. Fortunately, this result will be partially offset by the overwhelming vote against the constitutional preamble, with which Howard had identified himself.
Howard understood that there was and is no way in which a majority of Australians would vote to retain the monarchy if that choice were clearly presented to them. He therefore ensured that they would be presented with a quite different question.
This was arranged through the constitutional convention held in February 1998. With half of the convention delegates appointed by the government, it was a foregone conclusion that it would not produce any proposals that Howard couldn't live with. Even so, only a large number of abstentions made it possible for the convention to pass the republic "model" that was defeated in last week's referendum.
It was thus arranged that the republic referendum could be approved only if voters answered "yes" to two questions instead of one: "Do you want to replace the monarchy with a republic?" and "Do you want a president appointed by politicians like John Howard and Kim Beazley?"
This model was favoured by Howard because it was opposed by a majority of the public, who wanted to elect a president themselves. Thus a Herald AC Nielsen survey in January found that three-quarters of those who planned to vote "no" in the referendum said they would be more likely to vote "yes" if the president were to be directly elected.
The same model was favoured by Australian Republican Movement (ARM) leaders like Malcolm Turnbull because they are part of the ruling elite, which always fears that even the tiniest amount of democracy will "get out of hand". As they openly stated, their "minimalist" republican proposal was a purely symbolic move that would not affect the real life of any human being, with the possible exception of the individual selected as Australian president.
The ARM thus ensured itself of favourable coverage in the establishment media and the votes of some small l liberals who usually vote big L Liberal. It had all bases covered — with the sole exception of working-class voters, who were naturally suspicious of a change presented with the promise that it wouldn't change anything that mattered.
It might still have been possible to carry the vote, despite Howard's rigging of the question, if all those in favour of doing away with feudal rubbish had united to say that this was a necessary first step. It isn't hard, after all, to make a case that the choice of a head of state by an elected parliament is superior to selection by heredity.
But Howard's rigging of the republic question was also intended to play a section of the republicans for suckers. The latter obliged by rushing to throw themselves into the trap that Howard had laid for them. The direct electionists who urged a "no" vote, led by Ted Mack and Phil Cleary, provided the margin for the reactionary success. It would be hard to find a clearer example anywhere of people shooting themselves in the foot.
There is an important lesson to be learned here, and we are lucky that we have the opportunity to learn it at a relatively small cost. Australian working people's distrust of the political establishment is real, well founded and potentially a base for progressive change. But that distrust can also be used by the right. Populist appeals to dissatisfaction that fail to present a clear progressive alternative end up strengthening reaction.