Queen's visit revives republican debate

The recent trip to Australia by Queen Elizabeth II marked her 16th visit since 1954, when she was the first reigning British monarch to make the journey. The Queen is the Head of State of the United Kingdom and holds the symbolic position as Head of the Commonwealth. She is currently Head of State in 16 of the 54 Commonwealth member countries including Australia. Thirty-three Commonwealth countries (including the Fiji Islands which was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009) have a republican form of government. Each of the remaining five member countries has its own monarch as head of state. The Queen is also the head of each of Australia’s six states, and she is represented in Australia by the Governor-General.

The recent royal visit stirred a range of emotions amongst Australians, and inspired much reflection about the nature of Australia’s relationship with the British monarchy. It also reignited a long-running debate about whether Australia should replace the constitutional monarchy with a republican constitution. The idea of Australia becoming a republic has been around since the nineteenth century, but it remained on the margins of political debate until the last few decades of the twentieth century. The constitutional crisis in 1975 attracted intense public scrutiny of Australia’s constitutional arrangements, but it was during the 1990s that the republic emerged as a significant and controversial political issue. Australia was fast approaching its centenary of Federation as a nation in 2001, and it seemed that the time had come for a sustained examination of whether a republic was desirable and what it might mean for Australia.

The federal government established the Constitutional Centenary Foundation in 1991 with the aim of promoting public understanding of the Australian Constitution and system of government in the lead up to the centenary of Federation. High-profile figures came out in support of a republican model, whilst others mounted arguments in support of retaining the constitutional monarchy. In 1991–2, supporters rallied into organisations to promote their respective arguments, including the Australian Republican Movement and the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.

Paul Keating, who replaced Bob Hawke as Prime Minister in 1991, supported the republican argument and established a Republic Advisory Committee in 1993 to canvass issues and options for an Australian republic. The Committee report concluded that ‘the establishment of an Australian republic is essentially a symbolic change, with the main arguments, both for and against, turning on questions of national identity rather than questions of substantive change to our political system’.

In 1998 a Constitutional Convention (preceded by a Women’s Constitutional Convention) was conducted by the Howard government. The Convention outcomes included:
  • in principle support for the idea that Australia should become a republic (89 votes to 52 with 11 abstentions)
  • a proposed Bipartisan Appointment of the President Model (73 votes to 57 with 22 abstentions) and
  • a recommendation to the Prime Minister and Parliament that this model be put to a referendum to be held in 1999. If successful, the republic would come into effect by 1 January 2001.
The Convention's preferred model became the basis of the 1999 referendum proposal even though the Government as whole was not in favour of the change. The republic referendum was the only time that a referendum question has been put to the people without Government support. Australian voters went to the polls on 6 November 1999 to vote on whether Australia should become a republic and whether to insert a preamble to the Constitution. Both proposals were defeated, having failed to achieve a majority overall and a majority in any State.

The sense of urgency generated by the referendum diminished after the ballot was held, although the issues raised during the 1990s campaigns continue to surface. In the days before the 2010 federal election Prime Minister Gillard, a republican, responded to a question at the National Press Club by saying that the debate should continue, but warned that it needs to be led by the Australian community rather than by politicians:

...I genuinely believe that for this nation to become a republic, we need to see an organic coming together in the community, a sense that people want change.
The Queen’s most recent visit illustrated that the reigning monarch still commands widespread respect in the Australian community. It also sparked lively discussion about Australia’s current constitutional arrangements, particularly on the vexed issue of whether our head of state should be a British monarch or an Australian citizen. Other issues canvassed in the media during the Queen’s visit included:
  • the British government’s move to change the rule of succession to enable the oldest child, irrespective of gender, to ascend to the throne
  • reasons for the lack of momentum in progressing the republican cause, and what might happen when the current monarch ends her reign and
  • the monarchy as a symbol of stability and tradition for some, and a sign of Australia’s reluctance to move towards full independence and nationhood for others.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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