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Australian republicanism

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Australian republicanism is a movement within Australia to sever ties with the monarchy and replace them with a republic.

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The Current Constitutional Structures

Australia's constitutional structures are quite complicated. The commonwealth as a federated unit is a constitutional monarchy with a non-resident monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, the 'Queen of Australia'. (Queen Elizabeth is, of course, also the Queen of the United Kingdom and several other Commonwealth nations.) But each state itself is also a constitutional monarchy, with a dual relationship to the Queen - individually (the Queen being represented by a governor) and through the Commonwealth, where she is represented by the Governor-General. The complexity is further complicated by each state having a separate constitution, while the Commonwealth possess a complex mix of a written constitution (the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1920) alongside convention, tradition, reserve powers and Letters Patent. (The scale of the complexity is shown in the fact that though the Commonwealth has always had a prime minister, the office doesn't feature in the Constitution Act.)

The Role of the Queen and the Crown

In practice, the monarch has no real power in Australia: the Crown's powers are generally vested in the Governor-General who acts in the name of the Queen frequently but without consulting with her or she having any role in their exercise. Her principal role is formally appointing the Governor-General and state governors; this she does on the advice of the Prime Minister or the relevant state premier. Australian republicans, notably through the Australian Republican Movement have sought to abolish the Crown, governor-generalship and the monarchy, replacing all three by a selected locally resident head of state.

The Move Towards a Republic

Toward the end of the 20th century the Keating Government put forward plans to prepare a revised constitution to take effect on the centenary of federation: January 1, 2001. The preparation of the proposal by a part-elected, part appointed constitutional convention in February 1998 was hurried and (according to critics) bungled. Many republicans claimed that incoming Prime Minister John Howard, in his own words an "unashamed royalist", sabotaged the preparation process deliberately: a claim he indignantly denied.

Arguments For Change

The key argument made by virtually all supporters of an Australian republic was (and is) that it is inappropriate for the citizen of a country at the other end of the world to be our head of state. They argued that a foriegner whose main job is as the head of state of the United Kingdom, and spends his or her life there, cannot represent Australia, not to itself, nor to the rest of the world. As Frank Cassidy, a member of the Australian Republican Movement[?] put it in a speech on the issue:

In short, we want a resident for President.

Furthermore, it was widely argued that several characteristics of the monarchy were in conflict with modern Australian values. The hereditary nature of the monarchy was said to conflict with Australian egalitarianism and dislike of inherited privilege. The laws of succession were held to be sexist and the links between the monarchy and the church inconsistent with Australia's secular character.

Supporters of a parliamentary appointment model also claimed that, contrary to monarchist views, the stability of Australia's liberal democracy would not be imperiled and would in fact be enhanced by such a change, because the Prime Minister, whilst retaining the ability to sack the (effective) head of State, could not alone choose their replacement and would thus have no incentive to do so. Additionally, wider involvement in the choice would ensure that the backgrounds of the appointees would be more thoroughly scrutinized.

The 1999 Referendum

For years, opinion polls had clearly suggested that the majority of the electorate favoured severing ties with the monarchy, but the November 1999 republican referendum was soundly defeated even so. There were two main reasons for this. First, Australians have traditionally been very suspicious of proposed constitutional changes of any kind: only 8 out of 43 referenda since 1909 have been approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states (as they must be to succeed).

In Sir Robert Menzies' words, "to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules."

The Divisions Among the Electorate

Second, public opinion was not (and still is not) divided in a simple yes/no manner. The major opinion groups were:

  • Traditional royalists who held their beliefs largely on sentimental attachment to the monarchy, in part based on associations with the United Kingdom and a personal identification with Elizabeth II and her family. Many were older or from rural rather than urban areas.
  • Pragmatic royalists who maintained that, whatever the perceived absurdities of the current system, it had served the country well and it would be foolish to change a practical, working system to one whose workings would be unpredictable.
  • Minimal change republicans who aimed to replace the monarch with an appointed Australian head of state, but otherwise maintain the current system as unchanged as possible.
  • Moderate change republicans who aimed to replace the monarch with an elected head of state.
  • Radical republicans, who saw the minimal change option as purely cosmetic. This was easily the smallest major group, but prominent in the debate.
  • The Uncommitted - as in all electorates, a large proportion of the electorate remained unattached to either side. (Uncommitted 'swinging voters' are often the decisive force in shaping referenda results and election outcomes in democracies worldwide.)

Alternative Methods for Selecting a President

  • Election
    • by Parliament alone
    • by Parliament + state assemblies
    • by a popular vote

  • Selection
    • by the Prime Minister
    • by consensus among the Government and Opposition

Different groups within the republican cause expressed views as to which one was preferable. Some were committed to one exclusively.

Why the Referendum was Defeated

On the face of things, with republicans of one form or another in the clear majority, it might have been expected that the republican referendum would pass comfortably. However, few mainstream republicans were wholly agreed about the proposed mechanisms for replacing the monarch with either an appointed head of state (which was widely criticised as being undemocratic), or with an elected head of state (which was widely criticised as moving Australia away from the Westminster System toward an American-style presidential system).

The former model (with an appointed head) was the one endorsed by the constitutional convention and put forward at the referendum. It was broadly supported by both minimal-change and moderate republicans, including almost all Labor and a majority of conservative politicians, and opposed by royalists of both kinds, and the radical republicans (who reasoned that a simple cosmetic removal of the monarchy would make more far-reaching and substantial changes impossible).

The 'Yes' side

The "yes" campaign was divided in detail but nevertheless managed to present a fairly united and coherent message, and was notable for unlikely alliances between traditional opponents - former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave joint statements, for example.

The 'No' side

The "no" campaign was much more divided in its messages, and several times produced the extraordinary spectacle of hard-core conservatives sharing a podium with far left radicals. Some campaigned to 'keep the Crown'. Others argued 'yes to a republic, but not this version'. For all their differences, they were united in their central message; vote no.

Who Voted How

The result of the poll was clear: roughly 55% of the nation voted "no" and in only one territory, the ACT, was there a "yes" majority. This was broadly as expected: the real surprise was the distribution of the votes. As expected, traditionally conservative states and rural areas were strongholds for the monarchy; but wealthy city electorates mostly voted "yes", and blue-ribbon Labor seats in working-class suburbs voted "no".

The outcome was met with angst by the republicans. Some, notably Australian Republican Movement president Malcolm Turnbull[?], spoke bitterly in the aftermath, blaming Prime Minister Howard in particular for their defeat. Most monarchists were content to accept the victory and keep a low profile. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy leader Kerry Jones[?], for example, called for citizens to accept it and go forward "as a united nation".

It was left to radical republican leader Phil Cleary[?] to explain the unexpectedly strong "no" vote in the inner suburbs that ultimately tipped the balance: it was not, in Cleary's view, "a vote for a foreign head of state or some crumbling hereditary family. It was a vote for participation in the political system."

The Unsolved Issue

It is widely expected that a further referendum will take place eventually, although public agitation for such a move has faded away in the years since the referendum was defeated. The media have conducted and interpreted a number of opinion polls to suggest that a majority of Australians favour some form of republic. In any case, it appears certain that the debate will not really begin in earnest again until John Howard leaves office.

See also: Republic Advisory Committee, Constitutional law, Australian Constitutional History

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