Federation Week: An Australian Mosaic - Tim Fischer

Visions for a Nation

Notes for the speech delivered by the Hon Tim Fischer for Visions for a Nation

Tim FischerTim Fischer was born in Lockhart in southern New South Wales in 1946 and was educated at the Boree Creek Public School and Xavier College, Melbourne. He entered the Army in 1966 graduating from Officer Training Unit and served as a Platoon Commander and Transport Officer with the Royal Australian Regiment both in Australia and Vietnam.

In July 1970 he was Australian Country Part pre-selection for the State seat of Sturt and was elected in September 1970. In 1984 Mr Fischer contested and won the Federal seat of Farrer. After the 1990 election Mr Fischer was elected to the Leadership of the National Party and accepted responsibility for the portfolio of Energy and Resources. After the election of a Coalition Government in 1996, Mr Fischer was appointed Minister for Trade and Deputy Prime Minister as well as being re-elected Leader of the National Party. On 30 June 1999, Mr Fischer announced his retirement as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Trade and Leader of the National Party. Mr Fischer is married with two sons.

The Process of Change: The People's Purple Option

Corowa Shire Council has convened a Constitutional People’s Conference to be held at Corowa on 1 and 2 December 2001 in liaison with Sir Zelman Cowen PC AK, Richard McGarvie AC and Jack Hammond QC. It is to be held on an inclusive basis and loosely patterned on the Corowa Conference of 1893, which re-railed the Federation process at that time.

This is a summary discussion paper to help open up some lateral thinking and debate on the best way forward and follows some consultation and research on the issues. The Parliamentary Library has also efficiently assisted my research and I thank them and others who have been involved.


In preparing for Corowa I have proceeded along a pathway excluding plebiscites for the time being, the reason is that whilst they can give a good indication of what people want, plebiscites formally have no powers to change anything. They are absolutely no guarantee of a successful referendum end process.

I recognise some others prefer a plebiscite process but it could lead to immense frustration. It is far better that a specific and legally tight referendum process be employed in my opinion, and one within the Westminster system throughout.

To this end many widely diverse options have been considered including the Green option as one way forward. It asks the people if they want another referendum on the republic with a one off multiple choice for selecting a President.


In the event of no one model emerging to contest the status quo: to find a fair, legally secure and concise way forward for the people to consider constitutional change relating to a republic, should this be their wish.


It is not necessary to hold referendums separate from general election polling days and precedent exists to put forward more than one referendum question on a Federal polling day. This greatly reduces the cost of holding a referendum.


The Australian people have over decades demonstrated their aversion to strongly disputed change and are always suspicious of elite driven change, this tends to rule out several options where there is a leap of faith involved.

On balance I favour two options depicted as green and gold for detailed consideration, taking into account the following:

  • The people of Australia by 55% to 45% rejected an option to form a republic involving the Federal Parliament electing the President.
  • It is not for the structure of the referendum to give one side or the other a leap up or head start. In other words the way forward should not be unduly helpful to the republicans and their tactical no voting camp from last time. Deferring method of selection to a decision proposed by Parliament would fall in this category. Equally the monarchists cannot expect undue leverage off the status quo bias, in other words exaggerated phrasing of the referendum questions to create an easy scare campaign should not be utilised.

Therefore a broadly neutral approach, which is clear-cut, should be utilised.

  • The question of title of the Head of State can be done as a freestanding extra referendum question, simply saying that from 1 July next if the question is carried all references to Governor-General are replaced by the term President. In fact this could be the case even if we remain a constitutional monarchy but it would be somewhat untidy. The McGarvie model stayed with the term Governor-General and to avoid confusion, at a subsequent Federal polling day, this question could be put to rename the office from Governor-General to President.

At the last Constitutional Convention in early 1998 I agreed with Prime Minister John Howard and others that if we became a republic the term President should apply, preferably from day one, but it does not have to be from day one.

  • There remains near unanimous support for Her Majesty the Queen to remain Head of the Commonwealth and for Australia to remain a diligent member of the Commonwealth and therefore no alteration is proposed in this regard.
  • There are those who want the separate republic question back on the agenda to ensure a fair approach and a more mature approach to testing the agenda with an element of choice.
The Green Option

This is a new approach which involves a procedural referendum followed by a multiple choice referendum.

It is tempting, as the people decide if they want the basic question of a republic brought forward and with a one-off multiple choice as mentioned before.

The first referendum question under the Green Option could read as follows:

Are you in favour of the holding of a referendum for Australia to become a republic by amending section 128 to provide a preferred multiple choice in relation to the method of selection of the President?

It is perhaps a novel approach but sustainable, given recent High Court rulings. It is suggested the proposed law simply state that section 128 of the Constitution be amended for purposes of this one referendum, to offer a multiple choice on the matter of the method of selection of the President. If carried under existing majority requirements this would lead to a subsequent referendum question and multiple choice along the following lines, to be submitted on the same ballot paper on a day to be nominated:

  • A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with a President with the same powers as the Governor-General.

In the event of the first question being carried, to provide an additional alteration to the Constitution to detail the method of selection of the President from one of the options below, which obtains preferred nationwide majority support:

  • Option A (status quo: PM to select) - Prime Minister to select a Head of State who would be formally appointed by a Constitutional Council (pure McGarvie model).
  • Option B (middle course: special Electoral College to select) - An Electoral College to be established to elect a President which would involve all Members of the Federal Parliament, all Members of the State and Territory Parliaments and all elected Mayors or where applicable elected Shire Presidents. At the end of this process of selection by the Electoral College, the Constitutional Council would then formally appoint.
  • Option C (direct election: by the people) – This would involve all eligible electors in Australia voting by nationwide preferred majority for one candidate to be selected and who would then be formally appointed by the Constitutional Council. It would also involve a codification of the Head of State’s powers broadly in line with the 1993 Committee recommendations.

Explanatory Note: It is one way of providing a degree of multiple choice by amending section 128 of the Constitution. The first question of course would require an overall majority and a majority in a majority of States, under the previous procedural referendum amending section 128 et al only a preferred simple majority nationwide would be required for the winning option which would then be directly inserted in the Constitution in accordance with the people’s decision from the previous referendum.

*Electoral College – Federal 224, + States/Territories 598, + Local 700, Total = 1522.

The Gold Option

This is straight up and down, it would involve three bills and three questions being put on the same day to the people, namely the republic and the election of the Governor-General, and change of name of Office to President.

It is best explained by providing a preliminary draft of the questions involved with the first question being minimalist pure McGarvie.

There are three questions involved and it should be remembered more than this number of questions have been previously submitted on the one day.

  • Question One: Minimalist Republic
    Proposed Law: Are you in favour of a Republic of Australia with the Prime Minister selecting one person to present to the Constitutional Council who would then formally appoint that person as the Governor-General?
  • Question Two: Direct Election Edition
    Proposed Law: Are you in favour of electing the Governor-General by providing that the Prime Minister will nominate a person as the Governor-General who has attracted one thousand signatories constituting preliminary nomination and successfully contested an election to be conducted amongst the electors of Australia on a preferential basis to finalise the nominee to be made by the Prime Minister. Transitional provision to provide this proposal commence only on the Australian Constitution changing name from the Commonwealth of Australia to the Republic of Australia.
  • Question Three: Name Change to President
    Proposed Law: Are you in favour of changing the name of the Office of Governor-General to President. Transitional provision to provide this proposal commence only on the Australian Constitution changing name from the Commonwealth of Australia to the Republic of Australia.

Explanatory Note: Please note the Gold option could also include a fourth question on codification of powers of the Governor-General or President. All in all the Gold option separates out the various questions but in a set of referendums to be conducted on one day. By careful drafting each proposal is free-standing as required by the High Court of Australia under previous rulings. It should also be observed the original constitutional framers did not rule out a form of multiple choice prolonged over a number of years. This Gold option merely expedites such a process to a set of referendums on one day.


It is over to you the people for discussion and debate. At this time on the occasion of the Oddfellows reconstructed Hall reopening at Corowa, I lean toward the Green option subject to further refining and legal advice, however I present both the Green and Gold options.

I should explain the Corowa Oddfellows Hall in Sanger Street Corowa has been magnificently restored thanks to a Federation grant of $750,000 from the Federal Government and it is where the public meeting took place as part of the proceedings in 1893.

In relation to the constitutional situation of each State this is a matter for each State to determine in accordance with their provisions however, clearly, the decisions by the people of Australia at the Federal level will have some influence and point the way.

I respectfully present this paper as a citizen living nearby Corowa, I know it will draw ire and maybe some support. As the Corowa Conference is going to happen surely it is best to explore as many lateral thinking options as possible. To those who argue that Corowa 2001 and any option should not be given any time of day, I can only say it reflects an under confidence in maintaining the 1999 referendum result.

Finally can there be anything wrong in modernising the process of constitutional change in a cautious way, with the Westminster system still very much in place but the people have extra empowerment and choice. Asking the people if they want another referendum on the republic in the first place and if that want a choice between Prime Minister selecting the President or an Electoral College, or the people direct, is a fair, reasonable and realistic approach.

Table of Various Options Considered Relating to Process:
  • Option 1: Double referendum - Two bills (Dark Blue Option). This involves two incremental questions the first being McGarvie and the second within six months, but only if the first is carried. It would ask whether the people want direct election before the republic actually commences.
  • Option 2: Two incremental questions (Light Blue option). The same as Option 1 but an attempt being made to put them all in one Bill, providing for a second referendum on direct election.
  • Option 3: Parliament selects (Red option). This involves aspects of selecting the President being left to the Parliament to decide but initially for it to be by two-thirds of the Parliament.
  • Option 4: Direct election (Pink option). This involves direct election first up but again with the Parliament having the ability to decide say after ten years!
  • Option 5 (Green Option) and Option 6 (Gold Option) are as discussed above.

While the views presented by speakers within The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia, or The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: Strengthening our Democracy - Valuing our Diversity - Building our Future. The Hawke Centre reserves the right to change their program at any time without notice.