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1999 referendum on a republic of Australia and the Constitutional preamble

Gordon, M. in The Age

They are two questions that will help define Australia as it enters its second century of nationhood, but they were finalised in just a few days of high drama in the nation's capital in August.

When the nation's politicians returned to Canberra after the winter recess on 9 August, they had just four days to pass legislation to enable the questions to be put to voters on 6 November.

Most of them expected just one question, on the republic. Most believed there was no chance of a second question, to insert a new preamble into the constitution recognising Aborigines as the first Australians. They were wrong.

The key player was, of course, the Prime Minister, John Howard, who opposes a republic but promised Australians a vote on the subject, and who supports a new preamble. For several weeks, a parliamentary committee had been reviewing the legislation on the republic, with only one matter causing serious concern: the wording of the question on the ballot paper.

The original legislation asked voters to say yes to a republic with a president chosen by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Several witnesses to the committee argued that this wording made a no vote more likely, because it concentrated on only one aspect of the appointment process and ignored the result: that the president would replace the Queen as Australia's head of state.

Why not mention that the public would get the chance to nominate the president, they asked. Why not say that the Prime Minister makes the choice and must have the backing of the Leader of the Opposition before Parliament approves the appointment?

The committee accepted this concern and proposed a question that dealt only with the result, asking voters to vote on a republic "with the Queen and the Governor-General replaced by an Australian president."

As late as Sunday 8 August, the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, insisted there was no need to change the original wording. "You only change something if what you've got at the moment is defective – and what we've got at the moment as far as the question is concerned is not defective," he said.

But like all astute politicians, Mr Howard gave himself an out, saying the Cabinet would take a look at the issue and he was not going to pre-empt the outcome. Cabinet met the next morning and the Prime Minister, as chair of the meeting, sought the views of his colleagues around the table before declaring his hand.

It soon became apparent that only a small minority agreed with his argument that the original question should stand. Most backed a compromise, which referred to both the process of appointment and the outcome.

Around lunchtime that day, Mr Howard convened a news conference and took the highly unusual step of saying that he argued strongly for the change. "I wanted to put beyond any doubt the fact that the question had not been loaded and that it was fair", he said.

We will never know what would have happened if Mr Howard had refused to bend, but it is safe to assume that the referendum question would have been jeopardised.

The new question, Mr Howard emphasised, was not negotiable, and although the Australian Democrats tried for an even simpler question – simply asking voters if they wanted a republic – it was passed by the Thursday deadline.

And while this legislation was making its way through the Parliament, Mr Howard was involved in intense negotiations with the Australian Democrats on the preamble, having met the newly-elected Aboriginal senator, Aden Ridgeway in Sydney the previous Friday.

Over the weekend, Ridgeway attempted to sum up how he thought Aboriginal people should be recognised in the preamble in a poem and he handed it to one of Mr Howard's advisers on Sunday night.

Mr Howard had previously declared there would be no preamble if the Democrats insisted on referring to Aboriginal "custodianship" of the land and on removing the reference in his original draft to mateship.

The next morning, Senator Ridgeway arrived for his first week in Parliament and bumped into Daryl Melham, Labor's spokesman on indigenous affairs at Aussie's coffee shop. "Don't do the deal!" was the advice from Melham, who argued that it was important to wait for the outcome of consultations on the wording of a draft document of reconciliation.

In the end, however, Ridgeway and the Democrats considered it more important to have a preamble they could support than to wait for another opportunity, which could be years away.

After a series of meetings between the Democrats and the Prime Minister and his office, Cabinet met on Tuesday night to consider a preamble that bore no resemblance to the one originally drafted by Mr Howard and the poet, Les Murray.

The document had been completely rewritten, with a new reference to the Aborigines' "deep kinship with their lands" and no reference at all to mateship. At the suggestion of Senator Jocelyn Newman, whose late husband Kevin was a former army officer, Cabinet added a new reference to the sacrifice of those who defended "our country and our liberty in time of war".

Even this change was cleared, and slightly amended, in negotiations with the Democrats before Mr Howard called a press conference on Wednesday and announced the new words.

He didn't want to lose "mateship", he said, but to have passed up the opportunity for a new preamble because he couldn't get his way on one word would have been the wrong thing to do. "And I wasn't willing to do it."


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