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Monday, November 1, 1999 Published at 16:53 GMT


World: Asia-Pacific

Q & A: How does the referendum work?



Ever since Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney in January 1788 with his fleet of convicts and soldiers Australia has been ruled over by the British crown. The Australian People now must decide whether to continue this history or forge a new destiny as a republic.

What's this referendum about?
Australian referendum
On 6 November Australia votes in a referendum. The county's 12 million voters have to answer two questions: Should a new introduction or preamble be added to the constitution? Should Queen Elizabeth II be replaced with a president as the head of state? Click here to read the new preamble and the official referendum question.

How is Australia governed now?
At present Australia is a constitutional Monarchy (like Canada, Britain, and New Zealand). In theory the Queen holds all power but in practice this power is delegated through her ministers.

In modern Australia the Queen has very little to do. She appears on the coins and is sworn allegiance to by politicians and officials. But her day-to-day functions, for example giving the final "Royal Assent" needed for Acts of Parliament to become law, are carried out by the Governor General.

In theory he (and up to now it has always been a he) is appointed by the Queen, but as with everything else Her Majesty makes this appointment on the advice of her Australian prime minister. The Queen can also appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister - but only in accordance with formal advice from the Governor General.

How will things change?
If Australia votes Yes, Australia would become a republic. The Queen and Governor General's roles would be combined in the new office of president. In practice the republicans say it actually means very little redrawing of the constitution. The Governor General will keep the same powers as he has now, but will be re-named "president". There is no proposal to alter Australia's flag or for the country to withdraw for the Commonwealth of Nations.

How would the new president be chosen?
The prime minister would nominate the president after having agreed his choice with the leader of the opposition. The candidate would then need a two-thirds majority of parliament to be successful.

Supporters of the model say the level of cross-party support needed for a candidate to succeed means the president will be an eminent person above politics. But many republicans are unhappy with this model. They want to see a popularly elected president (as in France, the United States and the Republic of Ireland) not what they call a "stitch up" between the politicians. Several prominent republicans are working on the No campaign saying that the wrong sort of republic is worse than none at all.

How would the president be dismissed?
The only power to remove a president rests with the prime minister who would be able to sack him instantly. He would not need to give any reasons or any notice. The dismissal would be effective immediately.

Although The PM would need to seek the support of parliament for his actions, the president is not given his job back if parliament withholds its support. According to No campaigners this is a recipe for constitutional mayhem.

How will the President be able to safeguard Australia's Constitution with the threat of instant dismissal hanging over his head? In effect both the president and the prime minister would have the power to sack the other so long as they got their dismissal in first. At present the Queen can ask for an explanation before sacking either, so there is time for tempers to cool and a compromise to be reached.

Who's going to win?
If opinion polls are to be believed most people in Australia support the move to a republic.

However it's not all plain sailing for the republicans. The constitutional model on offer is not very popular - most republicans want to be able to vote for the president not leave it to the politicians to choose one for them.

To win the yes campaign doesn't just have to get more votes than the no campaign, it has to get a majority of voters in four out of the six states that make up Australia. If history serves as judge, that will not be easy. Of 42 referendums since Australia became an independent country only 8 have succeeded. At present South Australia, Western Australia and (appropriately enough) Queensland look doubtful territory for the Yes campaign

When will we know the result?
The official final result won't be announced until 13 days after polling day. This is to allow any stray postal votes to be rounded up and counted. In practice we should be able to tell two or three hours after the polls close.

If the Yes vote succeeds when with the changes take effect?
A new president would take over 1 January 2001, the centenary of the federation of Australia when the former colonies got together to form one independent country.

If the No vote wins will that be an end to the Republic debate?
No serious commentator believes that in 50 years time Australia will still have a British Sovereign. If this vote fails then republicans will re-group and push for another referendum, perhaps proposing a president elected by the people rather than appointed by parliament. That's likely to be far more popular with voters. Both the Opposition Labor Party and a large part of the ruling Liberal Party are committed to an Australian Republic.

The Republic Question:

Do you agree with "A Proposed law to alter the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a Republic with the Queen and Governor General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of members of the Commonwealth Parliament?"

Proposed preamble:

"With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of Government to serve the common good. We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution. Proud that our national unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries; never forgetting the sacrifices of all who defended our country and our liberty in time of war; upholding freedom tolerance individual dignity and the rule of law; honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nations first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country; recognising the national building contribution of generations of immigrants; mindful of our responsibility to protect our unique natural environment; supportive of achievement as well a equality of opportunity for all; and valuing independence as dearly as the national spirit which binds us together in both adversity and success."




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Internet Links


Young Australians for a Republic

Australian Government official referendum site

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Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy

Australian Republican Movement

Australian Monarchist League


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