Constitutional change could be catastrophic
Politicians seek constitutional reform to expand their power, not serve the people
8 August 2022
The Albanese government has revived the push for a republic in Australia. Labor’s surprise push comes 23 years after the electorate rejected a republic in a referendum, followed up by a lack of enthusiasm among many (even among Labor voters) for a second referendum on the subject.
Regardless, republicans believe that their moment has come, spurred on by fashionable causes and a push for republics in Commonwealth nations which has seen Barbados become a republic last year.
The Australian people have every right to be cynical about any renewed push for a republic, or any form of constitutional change. The slogan, ‘No to the Politicians’ Republic!’ resonated in 1999 and it still resonates today. Neither is it uniquely Australian for voters to suspect that the agenda behind constitutional change is never in the interest of the people and the nation, but purely in the interests of politicians and lobbyists who agitate for them.
In Ireland in 2013, voters rejected a proposal to abolish the upper house, the Seanad, which the government was in favour of doing. They may well have suspected that, as with the republic push in Australia, it was an ill-considered and dangerous idea that was far more for the benefit of politicians than the general public. Voters in Italy also rejected constitutional reform in even more auspicious circumstances in 2016.
Radical constitutional changes and the abolition of monarchies are by no means guaranteed to win the support of a majority of the electorate when proposed. Most Commonwealth nations that became republics did so without the political class asking the people at a referendum if they wanted it.
Sri Lanka, whose government and economy is in a state of collapse, is a case in point about the dangers of fashionable constitutional reform. Apart from the change of the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972, the change to a republic under a new constitution that year began a grim process of increasingly abusive and authoritarian governance. This continued, with another new constitution in 1978 creating a powerful executive presidency. Those constitutions were designed for the benefit of those in power, following what was then fashionable in the postcolonial atmosphere. And Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity and religion, are today paying the price for the self-interest of politicians and the degradation of governance resulting.
In South Africa, the National Party’s push for a republic succeeded in 1960 only after a quite narrow referendum win, and a determined anti-republican campaign, especially in mostly English-speaking Natal (dubbed the ‘Last Outpost of the British Empire’). The campaign played to fears that the NP was taking South Africa in an increasingly authoritarian direction and would further isolate the country. When PW Botha enacted a new constitution in the 1980s, he followed the Sri Lankan case of transforming a parliamentary system into one with an executive presidency, even as his reforms were to lead to the dismantling of Apartheid. Post-Apartheid South Africa adopted a highly idealistic constitution, far from reflective of the realities on the ground in what is also becoming a failed state.
It is inevitable that any plans to replace Australia’s current constitution will be influenced by trends among our elites which will bring a dose of Woke idealism. And such will have dangerous implications for our democracy, freedom, and rule of law – and if they’re successful, could create a grim precedent for other Western democracies and especially English-speaking ones.
Constitutional tinkering is rightly met with cynicism from electorates who believe they are not being told the truth, that the push for new constitutions masks an agenda tied to political and cultural fashion, political and lobbying self-interest as opposed to the needs and interest of the nation and its people.
David Votoupal can be found writing here.