Yes or No? The 1988 Referenda

Last week most of us got a fascinating little package in the mail—the government mailout on the upcoming Referenda (although apparently we proles can't understand the "da" suffix, so it's "Referendums" on the cover). Inside in the form of the "No" cases is enough misinformation and propaganda to ensure they all get rejected come September, as they no doubt will. On the off-chance that some of you may vote "Yes", I'd like to say a bit about the proposed changes to our Constitution.

Bob HawkeActually, what first needs to be said is that the Constitution is a total anachronism which should be assigned to the depths of Lake Burley-Griffin where it belongs. As this is unlikely to happen for another 200 years or the collapse of civilisation as we know it (whichever comes first), we'll have to look at tinkering with what we have.

Not that most Australians are even aware that it exists. An article in Time Australia in May this year said that a recent survey showed that barely half of all Australians knew whether or not we had a Constitution. Amongst young Australians fresh out of school the figure was less than a third. Most people knew more about the US constitution than our own. And yet all adult Australians are expected to vote on any changes! No wonder referenda always get chucked out.

Mailouts such as this one in front of me aren't much help either. The "Yes" cases all go along the lines of "This is real beaut—vote yes", and the "No" cases are all "Stop Canberra's power grab—keep the Labor socialists at bay—this will be the end of Australia and anarchy will reign if you even contemplate voting yes to anything, in fact I wouldn't even read the ballot paper if I were you because you'll go blind—vote no".

Take question three for example—recognition of local govemment. This is where the nay-sayers really have a field day: Labor is threatening the future of Local Government with this proposal. It will give Canberra an interfering foot in the door, and... give more power to the Federal Government at the expense of the States. It could pave the way to regional government responsible directly to Canberra, not the States.

Compare this to the actual wording of the proposed addition (my emphasis): Each State shall provide for the establishment and continuance of a system of local government, with local government bodies elected in accordance with the laws of the State and empowered to administer, and to make by-laws for, their respective areas in accordance with the laws of the State.

This seems diametrically opposed to the "No" case account of the changes, wouldn't you say? They seem to be living in some fantasy world. Myself, I'd argue that the states shouldn't be given any more power, not the other way round. In fact local government itself tends to behave in a right ratbag fashion most of the time. Look at what they're doing to Hobart—and you should see the post-modernist architectural nightmares going up at the moment in Huonville, cleared by our local council. If anything there should be a clause in the constitution saying "If local governments must exist at all, they'd better lie pretty bloody low, or else".

But seriously folks... the only way to really tell whether you think the changes are worth it is to read the proposed changes themselves (pp 27-31 of the mailout). Take as another example the fourth question—the one on trial by jury and freedom of religion, all lumped together so a vote for one is a vote for all (and vice versa). Again, the "No" case is a prime example of scare-mongering, dwelling on the freedom of religion clause while trying to resurrect the state funding of private schools debate. Yet the grounds for a more sensible "No" case, in the form of the trial by jury proposal, are ignored.

John Howard"At present, a person charged with any serious offence has a right to a jury trial", goes the "No" case, ignoring the fact that the Constitution only guarantees this right for Commonwealth laws and not State laws. So in that respect, there is certainly a need for a change. But the proposed change goes: The trial of a person for an offence, where the accused is liable to imprisonment for more than two years or any form of corporal punishment, shall be by jury... (my emphasis). That means there will be the potential (that is, if either the states or the commonwealth so legislates) for offenders facing less than two years in jail, or even a fine of any amount, to be denied a jury trial. This seems to be some attempt to enable the court-process to be sped up, but think how you would feel if you were facing 18 months imprisonment, or a $100,000 fine, with only one judge to decide your fate? This on its own would for me be enough to justify a "No" vote on the entire fourth question, and yet the "No" case hardly mentions it. It's just like all the other "No" arguments—all hot-headed emotion, all loaded phrases, no cool logic, even when they may be seen to have a case.

Questions One and Two seem to have attracted the most attention—especially the first, which proposes 4 year terms for the House of Reps and the Senate, instead of 3 and 6 respectively. The "Yes" case is fairly complete, except slightly misleading—even with this change, we'll have the possibility of an early election hanging over us. The "No" case makes a big fuss about this (Early Elections! End of Australia as we know it!!!). God knows why. More frequent elections give the people more opportunities to boot out the government. If they really hated early elections so much, they'd boot out the government giving them.

The advantage of this first change is not that it gives governments an extra year to play with (they probably wouldn't use it anyway), but that it gives simultaneous elections of both houses and a Senate which reflects the mood at the time a government is elected. Surely, what is more fundamental than that—and yet somehow we're expected to believe that this "erodes" the Senate's powers, that it allows "manipulation of the Senate" by governments. How can they "manipulate" the Senate when they're at the same time putting their own necks on the line?

As for the "stability of the six year term", would you want to allow someone a full six years of unquestioned power (let alone eight, which is what the Opposition wanted)? Six years ago from now was mid-1982, when nobody had heard of AIDS, Mikhail Gorbachev, the hole in the Ozone layer, the October Crash or the Hawke Government. As for eight years ago, add to that list the Franklin, Robin Gray, Ronald Reagan and the Space Shuttle. That many years and that many changes without the chance to update your senators to reflect those changes—no thanks.

Finally, to question number two, the "fair elections" question. Let me run an amusing little proposition by you. If a government were to rig the boundaries of electorates in a sufficiently cunning and precise manner, it could stay in power with only 25.4% of the nationwide vote—and that is assuming all electorates are worth the same number of votes!

To stay in power, a government needs to retain 75 of the 148 House of Reps seats, or 50.67%. To retain those 75 seats, they need a bare majority of the vote for each one of those seats, say 50.1%. The other 73 seats we're assuming are lost, and in that case you wouldn't need a single vote in any of them (as they're lost anyway). So if you arranged your boundaries so most of your opponents' voters are concentrated in those 73 seats, and all yours are spread over the remaining 75, all you'd need to retain power would be 50.1% x 50.67% = 25.4% of the nationwide vote.

Of course this is all really a load of rubbish, you could never get that exact a distribution; but the general idea is the same as that which powers all the gerrymanders of the world, and to a much lesser extent is what kept the Hawke government in office in 1987.

Now if that's the sort of thing that can go on in electorates of equal value, imagine what can go on when you rig the numbers of voters in each electorate as well! No, sorry, you don't need to imagine it... we've got a great example here in our own Legislative Council, and of course that's ignoring dear old Queensland. The second question in the referenda doesn't eliminate the potential for gerrymander, but it does go a long way to fixing the numbers problem, and surely some correction is better than, as presently exists, none.

So there you have it. The beginner's guide to the four questions—vote Yes, Yes, Maybe and No. You'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were there in 1988 voting in the last ever referenda, after which they gave up trying to change the Constitution because it was damn-near impossible, and threw it in the bottom of Lake Burley-Griffin instead.


First published in Togatus, 4 August 1988.
This page: 27 February 2000; last modified 8 May 2018.

©1988, 2000 Rory Ewins