If only Tony Abbott had been on hand to counsel his British counterpart about the correct way to run a plebiscite, the possibility that Scotland might vote for a vague and ill-defined secession would be a good deal more remote than the polls suggest
”One thing the English don’t like is to be told that a former colony knows better,” the Australian diplomat warned Tony Abbott, who had found himself under fire after speaking in favour of Scotland staying in the UK. Now he was giving some more advice to David Cameron.
“Dave, I know you Brits don’t like us telling you how to do things. But, mate, with this Scottish business, you should see how Aussies do referendums.”
”Very interesting, no doubt, Tony,” Cameron replied. Hoping to deflect the issue with a spot of old-time duchessing, he added: ”Was it a knighthood you were wondering about? ”
”No, mate, it’s this vote north of the border. George Brandis gave me some pointers. He’s a QC, you know.”
Abbott began reading from some crumpled notes.
”This is not what we or, for that matter, the Swiss would call a referendum. It is just a Bonaparte-style plebiscite. The difference is this. In a referendum, all the detailed consequences are on the table and have been vigorously debated before the vote. In a plebiscite, the politicians fill in the details later – a blank cheque.’
”Both Napoleon I and his nephew, Napoleon III, were past masters at using them. Others followed, not least provincial politicians who see this as the way to become national leaders who get to speak at the UN, mix with presidents and kings.
”Some even make the question so vague people think it means the opposite.”
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Cameron, who was due in Brussels to hear a score of EU leaders announce some or other initiative they had already decided behind his back, shuffled his feet.
Abbott continued: ”The question in Quebec was: ‘Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?’ ‘
”A poll before, and an exit poll, found almost a third of voters thought that if they voted yes, Québec would still be part of Canada.”
”Don’t tell me about the frogs, Tony.! You don’t have to deal with Hollande!” Cameron blurted out, fearing the antipodean visitor’s lecture would never stop. ”Anyway, fear not. We’re onto this! Trick questions aren’t allowed, and the one on the ballot is very fair: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
”Upping the duchessing, he added: ”By the way, Tony, er, Tone…” – he had been given to understand that Australians like diminutives — ”…let’s talk about your peerage.”
Abbott ignored the inducement. ”When they lost the 1999 referendum, our sore-loser republicans accused John Howard of rigging the question. They forgot it was approved unanimously by both houses, where two-thirds of members leaned toward a republic. To change our Constitution, there has to be a bill setting out all – and I do mean all – the proposed changes. Furthermore, that information must be sent out with the Yes and No cases before the vote. ”
Cameron silently what Margaret Thatcher had told him about how much of a pain in the neck that other Australian PM, Malcolm Fraser, had been, ”He’s the reason why Rhodesia, er, Zimbabwe is such a mess,” she would say.
”Tony,” Cameron said. ”We’re letting the Scots decide their own future. What more could we have done?”
”Much more, mate, ” the implacable Abbott insisted. ”If they vote Yes, the Scots won’t be deciding the real questions. Their politicians will. The the independence movement succeeds it will leave more major matters unresolved than just about any other plebiscite I can think of.
”EU membership, the defence forces, intelligence sharing, the nuclear deterrent, the national currency and national debt and so much more. Nobody has the foggiest idea what will happen, or could happen, once he politicians start making deals. Mate, don’t risk your nuclear deterrent, your seat on the Security Council and influence in the UN, with the Commonwealth and the US. Mate, this vote puts at risk your status as a great power.”
This wasn’t the sort of stuff cameron wanted to hear, so he tried to turn the problem back on the Australian.
”But Tony, just what would you do if the Tasmanian government wanted a vote on becoming independent?”
”Dave, we’ve been through that. There was a plebiscite in Western Australia in 1933 that saw 66.45% vote in favour of seceding. They sent it to London and you lot didn’t know what to do with it. The Poms – sorry, Dave, the Lords – realised it had nothing to do with London and should have gone to Canberra., where an MP or senator had to introduce a bill authorising a referendum – this time with the details and all the consequences on the table.”
”You see, Dave, secession is a matter for everyone. What happens in Scotland is about the national debt, the nuclear deterrent and remaining a great power. Surely this matters concern every Briton, not just the Scots.
”Dave, the reason you don’t have real referendums is that it suited some of your predecessors not to tell the people too much. It suited Ted Heath not to tell them that the Common Market was a step towards a centralised state with a democratic deficit — as the Treaty of Rome euphemistically puts it, ‘an ever-closer union’. Had you Brits known what was ahead, you would never have agreed.”
I shouldn’t have taken notice of what all those journalists have been saying about Abbott, thought Cameron. This man was evidently nothing of the fool his detractors in the press insisted.
”Tony,” he said at last, raising his glass,” I get what you’re saying. Pity it’s too late. I still think secession will be defeated. But if I’d known more aboput what you’re telling me, secession would have been buried by a landslide. Golly, I could have been lauded as the saviour of the Union, our very own Abe Lincoln! You know, Tone, you really deserve that peerage. Baron Abbott of Bondi! How does that sound?”
An aide whispered into the British PM’s ear. ” I know he looks manly,” was Cameron’s de sotto reply. The aide rolled his eyes and tried again, this time eliciting a nod of affirmation from his boss. ”Tony, I think that should be Baron Abbott of Manly….”
The aide whispered yet again. ”Of course, as you’re a Prime Minister already, we should be talking about something more than a barony. The Earl of Manly. Now that certainly has a ring to it.”
”Don’t come the raw prawn, mate.” Abbott grinned. Cameron wondered what on earth he meant. Was it to be part of the title? Lord Rawprawn?
David Flint is co-author with Jai Martinkovits of Give Us Back Our Country, now in its second edition and published by Connor Court