Constitutional and legal stuff

The Voice to Parliament

David Crowe, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, reports that Voters back the Voice – but there’s doubt over what they’re backing. The promising news is that when people were presented with a simple yes/no choice about the Voice, the result was 64 percent “yes”, 36 percent “no”. But when people were given an “undecided” option, the “yes” case fell to 53 percent, with 19 percent opting for “undecided”. Such softness in opinion means that many voters may be subject to influence by a strong “no” campaign, particularly if it is run by the opposition.

The article also reports on opinion state by state. The outcomes are based on small samples, but it’s a reminder that for the referendum to succeed it must succeed in four of the six states.

There seems to be general support for the government’s priority for running a Voice referendum before running a republic referendum. But there is still some confusion about just what a Voice will achieve. Many people seem to be sceptical about the symbolic importance of the Voice.

The meaning of a Voice to indigenous Australians is captured in a one-minute video History is calling. The history is about “363 languages and no voice”, and the referendum is about fixing that situation. It’s professionally produced laden with symbolism. For example it includes a couple of blokes sitting on the tray of a ute, clad in fluoro vests, and they are clearly enthusiastic about the idea. (The republicans have a thing or two to learn.)

An Australian head of state: inertia is on the side of Australians attached to Britain

If website design were crucial to a movement’s success, we won’t have an Australian head of state before the next geological era. The website for the Australian Monarchist League shows professional design, even if the League’s argument for a system with a foreign head of state is rather weird, the supposed benefits being stability, sovereignty, tradition, and continuity. The League’s explanations read like a cut-and-paste from something prepared by the Buckingham Palace bureaucracy, with the word “Australian” substituted for “English”. But their website does have colour: the British monarchy is good at colour.

By contrast the Australian Republican Movement website looks uninspiring. In fact it could be described as an absence of colour in all senses, because its background photographs could have been taken in the Coogee RSL Club in 1962. Not an Indian, Chinese or even an obvious Aboriginal Australian face to be seen.

Not a good impression.

Even the ARM’s merchandise is uninspiring – T-shirts and tote bags. Nothing that stands out and says “Australian”. The monarchists at least offer a badge.

But the ARM’s website has substance on governance, including a clear presentation of necessary changes to the Constitution. For the most part the ARM simply replaces the word “governor-general” with “head of state”. In places it prescribes the power of the “head of state” more tightly than the governor-general’s powers are presently prescribed. For example, the governor-general presently has the power to veto legislation or to delay it for two years. That is removed. And importantly it includes a new provision “The Head of State shall not terminate the appointment of a Prime Minister who holds the confidence of the House of Representatives”.

Those who seek a head of state with strictly-limited powers, like the king of England, the king of Norway, or the president of Germany, should be satisfied with this wording. In fact one may ask whether the constitution could retain the term “governor-general”: that would at least represent a saving in stationery and calm the nerves of people who worry about the naming of positions.

The ARM model proposes that there be a national election to choose from a shortlist nominated by Commonwealth and state parliaments. This is presumably to appease those who voted “no” in 1999 because they objected to the idea of indirect election by parliamentarians. One may wonder why there is a need to hold a national election to appoint someone with such limited powers. If the ARM and others can get across to the community the similarity of the powers of the head of state with those of the governor-general, perhaps demands for direct election would dissipate.

As Tory Shepherd points out in The Guardian“The Elizabethan era has ended”: what is the path forward for Australia’s republicans? – the task for the ARM is to challenge the notion that “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”. This may be a default position for anyone for whom the events of November 1975 are about something that happened in another era. But anyone who digs into our constitutional arrangements will realize that they are is fragile and open to exploitation by people who will do whatever it takes to gain or retain power. It ain’t broke, but it’s fragile, partly because it has rarely been pushed to its limits.

Another contribution to the republican debate is by James Curran, in an interview on the ABC’s Between the Lines. Curran, co-author of the 2011 book  The unknown nation: Australia after empire, discusses with Tom Switzer the relationship of Australia to the UK.

Contrary to the general belief that that relationship changed with the fall of Singapore in 1942, Curran believes that it remained strong and reached a peak with the visit of the Queen of England in 1954. But from an official perspective, the relationship became more distant in the 1960s, when Britain applied to join the European Economic Community and when it asserted that it had no policy concerns east of Suez. While he is sympathetic to the ARM’s cause, he suggests that it has to assert an identity that is distinctly Australian, quite separate from any British identity. In this regard re-building Australia’s relationships in our region (relationships badly damaged by the Morrison government), could be important in projecting a distinctly Australian identity. (The interview is in Between the Lines from 22:30 and 41:00.)

An anti-corruption commission – now for negotiations

Between now and the end of the year there will be many learned, and some not-so-learned, comments on the Commonwealth’s anti-corruption commission.

For those who want to dive straight into it, the bill is on the Parliamentary website: National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. Part 9 deals with public hearings, but there will surely be many other issues debated in coming weeks.

An initial response from the Centre for Public Integrity generally welcomes the bill, but it is uneasy about the “special circumstances” provision. It also finds that the bill lacks the necessary jurisdiction to investigate third parties properly. The Australia Institute is also generally in support of the bill. Its short statement includes supportive comments from judges who are members of the National Integrity Committee. But the Institute expresses concern that the threshold for holding public hearings is unreasonably high.

On the ABC’s PM Independent Member of Parliament Zoe Daniel, elected on a platform of public integrity, has misgivings about the bill, particularly its “special circumstances” provision, and its inadequate protection for whistleblowers. The bill has the appearance of a deal between Labor and the Coalition, who up to now have been weak on exposing corruption but they seem to have had a Pauline conversion around May this year.

The ABC’s David Spears, in a political analysis of the situation, speculates that the Coalition’s conversion may be more about Coalition-Teal relationships rather than Coalition-Labor relationships, or even a manifestation of Dutton’s genuine concern about corruption. As a Queensland cop he would have been familiar with some of Australia’s worst police corruption.