the australian constitutional thingy

rc-am rcollins at
Tue Nov 2 13:24:15 PST 1999

> >speaking of ideologies, which one are you going to be caught in this
> >saturday: the xenophobic merchant capital patriotism of the 'yes'
> >or the hokey de tocquevillian populism of the 'no' campaign?

doug asked:

> Ok, could the Australians on the list brief us on what this is all about?

this coming saturday, australia is having a constitutional referendum. bascially, two questions: should the british regal be replaced by a pres elected by two-thirds of the parliament? should this preamble (see below) be included?

the aust constitution has no preamble as such, and as catherine pointed out, a preamble would have something like the force of a bill of rights: defining the citizenry as sucjects endowed with certain, well, in this case, traits. and, australia is constitutionally part of the brit empire. but culturally, politically and economically this connection waned after WW2, and was put to rest with the passage of legislation in 1986. currently, the PM appoints a Governor-General who takes on the reserve powers of the Queen.

Major contentions:

a) the preamble, despite nice words about Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders "having a special relationship to the land", would effectively put to an end land rights in this country. opponents of the preamble were arguing for the inclusion of words to the effect of "custodianship", etc. indigenous land rights have been one of the most contentious issues of this decade, beginning with the High Courts' historic voiding of the principle of terra nullius (ie., "empty land" which legitimated the theft of land without compensation as would have been required under british common law), and ending with the passage of the so-called Ten-Point Plan that overturned both the High Courts' ruling and the Racial Discrimination Act, and re-legitimated pastoral and mining leases. the preamble would give this constitutional force. indigenous groups have been split over the issue of the preamble after some stupid politician decided that "something was better than nothing", and that therefore a cultural gesture was sufficient. most indigeneous groups, however, and all the left oppose the preamble for this and other reasons.

b) by far the largest contention on the republic question is that most people want a directly-elected pres. this ranges from a directly-elected pres (DEP) with a ceremonial role a la ireland; a DEP with executive powers a la the US; a DEP with more or less the current reserve powers of the GG. mostly, this insistence on a DEP comes from a deep distrust of the parliament and a ragy populism which seems unimpressed with the fact that a DEP would be more likely, not less, to result in a politicisation of the role of the pres relative to the GG's current ritualistic demeanour. moreover, the opposition is a result of the process by which the proposal was drafted, with 'mainstream' republicans leaning to their right in order to endeavour to come up with a compromise proposal acceptable to the current Liberal PM -- who has used the shortcomings of the proposal to in fact campaign for a 'no' on the republic and a 'yes' on the preamble (which he for the most part wrote himself). eg., there is no mechanism for impeachment, the PM can just sack the pres in this proposal.

the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns.

the 'no' campaigners are an alliance of some of the direct-electionists and the monarchists. the direct-electionists range from independant liberal democrats to populist socialists. since the only really effective slogans this campaign can run (the brit royals being for the most part highly unpopular) is that "this republic will deliver a politician". when the monarchist side loses the advertorial plotline however, they go on a rant about how the monarchy is a stable political system, republics are dangerous, just look at the weimar republic, this is ripping up the constitution and we're heading for a revolution and civil war. hence the contradiction of de tocquevillian populism.

the 'yes' campaign for the most part was headed by a junk bond merchant banker and their big slogan is "we don't want a foreigner as our head of state". one could easily say that the combination of xenophobia and finance capital is effectively the framework of a renewed hyper-nationalism in the context of the world market, with no contradiction: rosa luxemburg would have had a field day. much time was spent in the lead up to the referendum sidelining both the Labor Party (since it was seen as making the issue a "partisan" one) which has historically been the most consistent republican party (all those irish catholics and brit socialists) as well as the liberal democrats (who were seen as "maximalists" in their constitutional demands) in order to offer a "safe" proposal. this has been the achilles' heel of the 'yes' campaign -- the populace in fact desires more not less changes. more recently, sections of the govt coalition (Liberal-National) have thrown their weight behind the campaign, arguing that unless there is a 'yes' vote on the republic, the dissonance between an outdated constitutional arrangement and cultural/economic realities will result in the formation of more excessive demands for constitutional reform. (of all the spin, this is the most accurate assessment of the mood and possibilities: a 'no' result will mean a swift move to a consideration of wider constitutional reform.) the left is split on the issue of the republic, but since everyone knows that the proposal is more or less crap, it comes down to what the political rather than technical results of any vote will be. by now, everyone on the left knows that they were marginalised in the process of developing the constitutional proposal, so it becomes an assessment of whether or not a 'no' vote will put an end to constitutional reform for a long time or whether it will in fact begin it.

Angela _________

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