In late 1999 Australia went to the polls to decide if we should become a republic. This proposition was defeated with a margin of 55% to 45%. Eighteen years on and Australia is a starkly different place, instead of an ardent monarchist for a Prime Minister (John Howard) we have Malcolm Turnbull, the man who chaired the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) leading up to the referendum. One would think that with such a prominent republican as Prime Minister we would be all the closer to holding another referendum, this is not the case. Turnbull has stated he would not seek another referendum until after the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. With the ARM having relaunched in 2015 and their active campaigning this year, the question of a republic doesn’t appear to be going away, and it’s clear they want a republic before Charles (or William) take the throne.
Why should they either? As said by others, surely we would want a beloved monarch being the last, rather than leaving with a bitter taste in our mouth. Further, a republic surge in a post-Elizabeth era would surely place her successor under large amounts of scrutiny, seeing a collapsing Commonwealth. Becoming a republic will not sever any emotional ties Australians have with Elizabeth, nor the United Kingdom, and I anticipate the feeling of loss within an Australian Republic will be no less heartfelt than if it were to occur under the monarchy. Claims that we should wait until after the reign of Elizabeth are merely a delay on a debate that we should be having right now.
A thing to consider with the path to a republic is a clear requirement to involve leaders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations. A treaty must be signed, and the shape that the republic takes must be reached through discussion and consensus with the First Australians. The Uluru Statement from the Heart released earlier this year, following a 3-day convention of First Australians, made a rejection of empty recognition and called for a representative body in which a First Australian voice would be heard. The Statement calls for constitutional recognition and a treaty. Whether this treaty ultimately leads to a republic, the adoption of a new constitution, or is the first step in ensuring their voice is heard during the republican debate is not for me, a white Australian, to decide. A First Australian voice must be involved in the debate, whether it be dissenting to the republic, indifferent, or in favour.
Following the 1999 Referendum many speculated it was the wording of the question that led to the failing of the referendum. A referendum must be posed as a yes or no question, not an open choice of preference. This meant that the question put forward by the constitutional convention, one that would see the Parliament appointing a head of state (a model known as minimal change republicanism) rather than the public voting. The ARM was comprised of multiple factions that supported different models of republic, roughly split between 4 different camps, radicals, progressives, minimalists and McGarvie-minimalists. Ignoring the semantics of the differing models of republicanism, the face that a minimal change model was put forward is seen to have turned many who would have supported a republic away from supporting the referendum. This has led some to claim that support for a republic is much stronger than the result suggested.
The ARM appears to have learnt its lesson, promotional material this year has shown their “republic timeline” detailing they would want a plebiscite on what model should be used – this being a departure from the Constitutional Convention that we had prior to the ’99 referendum. This could foreseeably allow a greater involvement in the choice for which model of republic (or monarchy), the country wanted. This would present a consensus candidate to be put forward at a referendum. This could still lead to divisions within the republican movement and easily result in yet another failing at the ballot box due to a feeling that they would rather a monarchy than a republic they don’t support the model of.
The debate about an Australian Republic is not going away any time soon, and is likely to be a recurring feature of Australian Political discourse until either a successful vote is had, or the movement falls apart due to infighting. My hope is for a republic to be attained in my lifetime, with a strong First Australian voice, and one that strengthens our democracy.
Words by Mike Anderson
Mike is a member of the Australian Republican Movement, but he does not represent the ARM, and his views do not reflect the views of the ARM.
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 5 HOME