A World of Republicans

Australia: Against the Monarchy But Not Ready for a Republic

Seventy-five percent of them wanted to be rid of the monarchy, according to opinion polls. In the words of one writer in the Sydney Morning Herald they wanted to dump a queen who is "living a life that’s a joke for most of us." Yet in the 6 November 1999 referendum Australians voted 55 to 45 percent not to change the constitution to allow the people to choose the head of state.

Explanations for this setback have been various. Here are the main ones.

The partisanship of monarchist Prime Minister John Howard

No referendum in twentieth century Australia has succeeded without the support of the country's political leader. And leading republicans put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the monarchist Liberal Prime Minister John Howard for the loss of this one. Former Labour Prime Minister Paul Keating wrote following the referendum that "John Howard … manipulated the referendum to ensure its defeat."

Republicans blamed him in particular for having the referendum worded in a way that many thought would make voters less likely to vote for the constitutional amendment. Howard removed a reference to the new president being an "Australian." And he added one that drew attention to the proposal that the head of state be appointed by a two-thirds vote of parliament. Supporters of an indirectly elected president complained that this did not make clear that the Australian people would be able to make nominations.

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The ministers in Howard's government were divided between the three main factions in the pre-referendum debate, monarchists, indirect election republicans and popular election republicans. Three of his ministers went so far as to warn that a republic would make Australia vulnerable to military coup or fascist dictatorship.

The day after the result was announced the republican Sydney Morning Herald declared that Howard "should reflect on his place in Australian history." The newspaper predicted a backlash against the Liberal leader. The Herald thought that division in his party had been widened by the referendum and could threaten its chance of re-election in 2001.

The proposal that parliament appoint the president

This was the model pushed by the Australian Republican Movement as likely to win the broadest support. Maybe it did that. But it certainly split the republican vote. Many who preferred a popularly elected president voted with the monarchists against a constitutional amendment that would have given the Australian parliament the power to appoint the nation's head of state and the Prime Minister the right to sack the president. Advocates of voting "yes" argued that there would be safeguards and that the critics’ fears were not soundly based. Labour's Paul Keating expressed the anger of indirect election supporters by characterising these popular election opponents as "naïve or self-serving." But Australians who wanted a president who could check the power of the government or who saw the proposed constitutional amendment as adding to the power of the politicians, were among the "no" voters.

If republicans had been united it is almost certain that the vote would have been carried. A vote on the principle of a republic, that did not define how the head of state should be elected, would likely have created that unity. Supporters of a popularly elected president certainly thought so.

Anger at politics and politicians

Most support for the monarchy came from Australians with lower incomes. The headline in the republican Australian newspaper following the vote was "One Queen, two nations." There was stronger support for the constitutional amendment in Liberal areas than in Labour ones, despite the Labour party's unambiguous support. Some saw this as a sign that those doing less well economically blame politicians and politics in general for their disadvantages . Consequently they voted against a president who would be appointed by the politicians, not by the people. These voters also seemed to have been turned off by the yuppie image of the Australian Republican Movement, which is headed by an affluent lawyer.

Disloyal British migrants

Many of the several hundred thousand immigrants from Britain who arrived in Australia before 1984 and who have not become citizens of their new home were suspected of supporting the retention of the constitutional link with their country of birth.

Australian lack of self-confidence.

Republican Paul Keating declared that the referendum result "tells the world we don't trust ourselves and are ambivalent about who we are." It implied, he said, that Australians were not capable of managing their own affairs.

Australian self-confidence

To the Guardian newspaper far away in Britain however, it seemed clear after the referendum that Australia "is a cosmopolitan and . . . increasingly Asian power, sufficiently relaxed about itself to keep as head of state an emblem of part of its past."

Whatever the explanations, monarchist satisfaction with the result had to be tempered with the realisation that reverence for queen Liz is a minority pastime among her Australian subjects. The day of the referendum Ms Windsor had to hand the rugby world championship trophy to the republican captain of the Australian team. And within days, even the monarchist prime minister of Australia felt bound to announce that he could not ask her to open the Olympic games next year, although the Olympic charter says she should.

What's Next

Even indirect election republicans such as Keating were able to see an encouraging message in the referendum. He wrote that "It tells the Queen that the institution of monarchy is irretrievable broken and that in future she will not be a unifying symbol in Australian life."

Popular election republicans saw the defeat of the indirect election proposal as confirmation of the strength of support for their approach. One such, Phil Cleary, told readers of the Sydney Morning Herald that the referendum result "has now ensured that very soon Australians will have the republic they want."

But some Australians are saying that the issue has proved so divisive that it will be dropped or at least down played until after the 2001 general election.

Three of the four of the leaders of the ruling Liberal party federal coalition are republicans, though none favour a popularly elected president. Prime Minister John Howard is a monarchist. These political partners have to minimise their differences if they are to win the election. The party has won the last two elections and winning a third is expected to be tough going at best. And as long as monarchist Howard is prime minister there is probably not much mileage in the issue for the other leaders.

Only the government can call a referendum in Australia. John Howard has said he will not do so again. It is doubtful therefore that Australians will have another chance until the Labour Party wins a general election.

The Labour Party is united in wanting a republic. It's divisions are over the form that republic should take. And like the Liberals, party activists may fear the electoral penalties to be paid for thrashing them out in public.

Labour leader Kim Beasley, who has shown signs of being sympathetic to a popularly elected president, has been reported to be looking to holding a plebiscite on the principle of a republic in 2004 if his party wins the general election in 2001. Another plebiscite would follow in 2007 to agree the type of republic that is best for Australia. There would then be a referendum after the next general election to change the constitution. However, some commentators question whether Beasley would really countenance a popularly elected president who could be a competitor for public favour.

What is lacking is an approach which would unite both types of republicans. Liberal supporters have shown a desire to free Australia of monarchy. What they seem not to want is an American style presidency. If they can be persuaded that a popularly elected president need not threaten Australia's parliamentary model of government, unity with direct election supporters may be possible. Ireland may offer the model that will persuade both the Liberals and Labour supporters who disdain professional politicians.

Meanwhile and elsewhere in the Commonwealth

While attention was focused on Australia other nations in the British Commonwealth were moving towards republican constitutions with less fuss. Already two-thirds of the Commonwealth countries have their own head of state, not the queen.

The prime minister of Jamaica has said that he wants to see his nation join them as a republic by 2001. The three main parties in that country are in agreement on that objective. They disagree, however, about the role the new head of state should have.

In Barbados an official commission has recommended that the island end its allegiance to the monarchy. The plan is supported by both the ruling and oppositions parties. Voters are divided.

A campaign for a republican New Zealand by 2005 has recently been launched by New Zealand republicans. But in Canada the prime minister has told Maclean's magazine that a Canadian republic is not a priority for him as long as he faces the problem of separatism. "But it is a legitimate debate," he said.

The Australian poll intensified the questioning of the monarchy in Britain also. The popular tabloid Sun expressed doubt that "a monarchy can exist as part of a democracy." It praised the USA where "there is no us and them … (and) great families come and go." Charlie Windsor, eager to take the throne from his mum, let it be known that he thought the time right for a referendum here also.

Despite the protestations of the British Labour Party that the recent ejection of most hereditary legislators from parliament does not undermine the monarchy, Liz Windsor must know that it does. In the nineteenth century queen Victoria was troubled by the wish of some Liberals to remove the hereditary legislators from office. Prime Minister Gladstone shared her fears. "Organic change of this kind," he wrote, "may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken the foundations even of the Throne." Soon Liz will stand alone in the government of Britain as one who has inherited that position.

Pointer Ed's Story: How a Canadian lost his job when he would not bow to Liz Windsor

Pointer Australian Republican Movement

Pointer The New Zealand Republican Movement

Pointer The British Republicans

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