Shortcuts / 20 January 2022

Calls for Australia to become a republic

This year is Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the British throne. To kick it off, the Australian Republican Movement has outlined its preferred model for appointing an Australian head of state. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at Australia’s place in the Commonwealth and our relationship with the British monarchy; the push for a republic and the defeated referendum in 1999; and how this new proposal for a republic might work in practice. 

I have the feeling this is gonna involve some high school history…
And you’d be right. Let’s start in the late 1800s, and at that time, the country was divided into 6 separate colonies. A series of meetings were held to thrash out the idea of officially transforming into a federated nation. And long story short, there were enough people in the colonies who voted ‘yes’ to becoming one nation.

What happened then?
The draft constitution was taken to London so it could be passed by the British Parliament. There was a bit of debate, but it was passed, and on 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed.

Hello, Australia…
Indeed. And we became a constitutional monarchy.

What that means is that we elect our government, but our official head of state is the British monarch. And that monarch is bound to act in accordance with the way our constitution says we should be governed.

Which is what?
The monarch does not exercise political power. That power resides within the Australian Parliament.

So what happened after federation?
Sir Edmund Barton became Australia’s first PM, and his government got cracking on setting up new national institutions, including the military.

And that’s important because…
World War I broke out in 1914. And despite being thousands of miles away from the politics of Europe, Australia lined up with Britain, and off to war we went.

And that happened again with WWII, right?
Yep. That conflict started in 1939, and Australia again came to Britain’s aid in its fight against the Nazis. But for the first time, the Australian mainland was in danger from an advancing Japan.

Britain couldn’t help us there…
No. So PM John Curtin turned to the US for help and got it. It was the start of a long and deep relationship. 

But what about Old Blighty?
It was left utterly drained by the 2 world wars despite being on the winning side. And its position as a dominant world power was starting to dim, as the US was on the up.

So we ditched the Brits?
In the 1950s and 60s, Australia maintained close ties to the US, but in our heart of political hearts, we were still well and truly aligned to the British Empire. And at the core of that was Robert Menzies.

He’s only our longest-serving PM… And it’s fair to say he was a monarchist.

And Aussies were getting royal fever, too…
They sure were. Queen Elizabeth II became monarch in 1952 and she became the first reigning sovereign to visit Australia in 1954. They say nearly one million people were on Sydney’s foreshores and streets when she arrived – and the city’s population then was 1.8 million.

So it’s smooth sailing for our relationship with the monarchy?
Pretty much, until 1975 when we experienced one of the biggest shocks in our political history.

I know what you’re going to say…
There are no points for guessing – it was ‘the dismissal’. That was when the Governor-General Sir John Kerr – the Queen’s representative in Australia – dismissed Gough Whitlam and his government. Kerr broke all the conventions.

What do you mean?
Well, sure, he was allowed to sack the PM, but it wasn’t a power that was meant to be used unless in the most extreme of constitutional crises. And in this case, critics said Kerr’s actions were OTT. 

I’m guessing that fuelled the Republican movement?
It did, but it wasn’t until 1991 when the Australian Republic Movement – the ARM – was officially formed. And in those days it was run by a little known lawyer and businessman named Malcolm Turnbull.

Very funny…
[Insert winky face…] And around that time, a little known wannabe politician named Tony Abbott headed up the opposition – an organisation known as Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy.

Some familiar names there… Was the push for a republic getting any traction?
Then-Labor PM Paul Keating said he thought Australia should be a republic in time for the Centenary of the Federation in 2001, but the Liberal Party leader at the time, John Howard, didn’t want to change our system of government. And he won the 1996 election…

So was that the end of it?
You’d think so, but in 1998, Howard facilitated a big convention of pro-republican and pro-monarchy delegates to talk it out over 10 days. Specifically, they were charged with answering 3 questions: whether or not Australia should become a republic; which republic model should be put to the voters; and when should this happen.

And what answers did they come up with?
The first answer was ‘yes’, Australia should become a republic. On the 2nd question, they said there should be a president selected via a bipartisan appointment supported by two-thirds of the Federal Parliament. And as for when – they said it should be put to the people in a referendum in 1999.

So Australia voted?
On 6 November 1999, Australians were asked to vote on 2 questions.

What were they?
The first question asked if the voter agreed “to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.” And don’t worry too much about the 2nd one – it was whether the Constitution should be altered to insert a preamble. 

And the answer to both was no?
That’s right. On the key question of becoming a republic, the final vote was 45% in favour of change, and 55% voted no.

Was that result a shock?
It was, especially given the polling going into the vote showed Australians were supportive of becoming a republic. Former PM Bob Hawke concluded on the night that we did want to become a republic but were confused by the model for how we’d install a head of state.

And since then?
It isn’t exactly a top-order issue… An Ipsos poll last year showed that support for a republic is as low as 34%. And amongst 18-24yos, that figure was just 26%. And it’s not had a lot of attention until a new proposal was floated a fortnight ago.

Talk me through it…
The ARM says each state and territory would nominate someone, and the Federal Government would also chuck in 3 names – so that’s a shortlist of 11 names. That list would then be put to the people with the winner scoring a 5-year term and the current Governor-General’s workload.

So what’s next?
The ARM wants their model put directly to a referendum. No more committees or delegations – just a vote that would coincide with this year’s federal election. That’s not going to happen… 

Right. So what do the critics of the proposal say?
The Australian Monarchist League said it “is just putting more power into the hands of politicians” by giving them the right to select candidates. And former PM/republican Paul Keating is not onboard – he says it would bestow the president with a popular mandate and political authority that would disrupt the good government of the nation.

Aren’t some other Labor figures supportive?
Well, it’s official Labor policy to support Australia becoming a republic.

What about the Coalition?
The Liberals and Nationals leave it to individual MPs and senators to support whatever side accords with their personal views.

So the debate is far from resolved…
You got that right. 

Squiz recommends:

Australia says no to a republicSydney Morning Herald

Queen Elizabeth’s ‘wattle gown’ portrait from 1954, painted by Aussie artist William Dargie.

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