The republic: Has Labor got the perfect wedge?
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
Liberal Party politicians probably only have two or three years to decide what to do about the republic issue before the federal government puts it firmly on the agenda. If they want to avoid being completely alienated from their support base, they will need to support a republic with a directly elected president.
Until now coalition politicians-at least the federal ones-have generally been either monarchists or have favoured a republic where the president would be selected by the members of federal parliament. Of all the federal coalition politicians at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, only one (Christine Gallus) voted for the direct election model. Gerard Henderson recently warned the Australian Republican Movement that ‘there is no support-or almost no support-within the coalition for a directly elected head of state.' If those who vote for the coalition think like those who represent them in parliament, and if Kevin Rudd wants support from across the political spectrum for a republic, then the government, it seems to follow, will have to offer something rather like the model that was rejected in 1999.
However, the best available evidence- the Australian Referendum Survey conducted in 1999-shows exactly
the reverse. The preferences of coalition voters as to a republic are totally different from the leading coalition politicians' preferences. A majority of coalition voters want a republic, and a clear majority among those republicans want to be able to elect the President directly. As the Americans would say, there is a ‘disconnect' between the politicians and the voters on that side of politics.
Table 1 looks at how first preferences, as between direct election, Parliamentary selection, or keeping the monarchy, varied between the supporters of the various parties. (Parties with small numbers of supporters, and a similar distribution of answers, are grouped together.)
Of course there are differences between the followers of the different parties, but they are not quite the differences you might expect. A majority of the supporters of every party is republican, and in each case the majority of the republicans favour direct election. Table 1 is organised in increasing order of support for monarchism, and it is clear that as support for monarchism increases, the proportion of directelection
republicans only fluctuates in a small range while the ‘parliamentary selection' vote-not high to start with-crashes dramatically.
This should not surprise. A defining characteristic of those who can be called, loosely, conservative, is a reluctance to give too much power to politicians. Politicians who get elected to represent the Liberal or National parties may learn to love power, but those who have sent them to Canberra remain uneasy about it.
The left wing icons Clem Jones and Phil Cleary may have led the campaign for direct election in 1999, but many of those who were listening to them were from the other side of the political divide.
The first-preference figures do not translate directly into predictions of ‘yes' or ‘no' votes on either republican model. What is important is how dogmatic the supporters of a republic are-would those who prefer one model accept the other model as second preference, if it is the only republic on offer, or would they prefer to keep the Queen if they can't get the republic they want? In brief, while only about half of the direct-electionists were happy to vote for parliamentary selection in 1999, nearly all parliamentary-selectionists (except some very vocal ones among their leaders) would be prepared to vote for direct election. Table 2 shows a summary of the results.
The ‘predicted' vote for a PS model agrees exactly with the actual ‘yes' vote in 1999. This confirms what everyone ‘knew' in 1999-that supporters of collectivist parties had voted ‘yes' but those of the ‘right' had not. It also, however, reveals that if a sensibly-drafted direct-election proposal is ever put to a referendum, it will likely be supported by a majority of voters from every party. Among the supporters of the Liberals and Nationals those who vote ‘yes' because it is their first preference will not quite be a majority, but add those who will accept it as their second preference, and you have a majority across the political spectrum.
To date, federal politicians from all parties have been wary about direct election-those who drafted the Labor Party's policy refer to a future time ‘when a [community] preference has emerged'. But the evidence presented here shows that a clear one already exists. No doubt the new prime minister's political strategists will recognise this. When they do, Kevin Rudd will have the perfect opportunity to drive a very sharp wedge between coalition voters and coalition politicians, unless those politicians are paying attention to their supporters.