Australian republicanism

From Academic Kids

Australian republicanism is a movement within Australia to replace the country's existing status as a Commonwealth realm under a constitutional monarchy with a republican form of government. This would sever the historical ties with the Monarchy.


The current constitutional structures

Missing image
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia

Australia's constitutional structures are 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 Realms.) But each Australian 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 of Australia, where she is represented by the Governor-General.

This is further complicated by each state having a separate constitution, while the Commonwealth possesses a complex mix of a written constitution 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.)

The Australian Constitution is a creature of British law, namely the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900. Thus, it was previously technically possible for the UK Parliament to unilaterally amend or even abolish the Australian Constitution, although this never happened in practice (and would have been unthinkable). However, since the passage of the Australia Act, 1986, the British Parliament has no power at all to amend the Australian Constitution, this being solely the prerogative of the Australian people and the Australian Parliament.

The role of the Queen and the Crown

Symbolic role

From European settlement to the present day, the Queen or King has been the personification or embodiment of the state. Similarly the word Crown is a concept used pervasively throughout the legal and administrative system to refer to the executive government and used pictorially in the insignia of many branches of government, especially by the police and military. A relief of the Queen appears on Australian coins.

Constitutional role

In the Australian constitution, the Queen's principal role is to appoint the Governor-General and there is an equivalent role in each of the states for the appointment of state governors. Once appointed, the Governor-General or Governor acts independently of the Queen. The constitution allows the Queen to exercise a number of powers which are rarely used, with some legal commentary suggesting some powers cannot be used at all. As in most constitutional monarchies, the Queen is obliged to follow the advice of their democratically elected ministers. During a royal tour of Australia the Queen may perform certain functions of the Governor-General, such as the opening of parliament. Republicans propose that the constitution be amended to remove references to the Queen.

Cultural role

In colonial times and after federation, the King or Queen was integral to Australia's position as part of the British Empire. In the mid 20th century, this position evolved such that the Queen was representative of the extensive cultural, social and economic ties between Australia and the United Kingdom. The republican view is that, over time, these ties have become less important and that the United Kingdom should be regarded as any other Commonwealth country.

Arguments for change

Representing Australia

The main argument made by supporters of an Australian republic is that it is inappropriate for someone in a distant country to be their head of state. They argued that a "foreigner" 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.

Monarchists respond that the Queen of Australia maintains close ties with Australia. She is neither a foreigner nor a citizen of foreign nation. Furthermore, the Governor-General, who acts as Head of State, does an able job of representing Australia domestically and to other nations.


Australia had changed culturally and demographically, from being "British to our bootstraps", as prime minister Sir Robert Menzies once put it, to being increasingly multicultural. For Australians of Italian or Chinese origin, the idea of a Monarch of Australia who is also the Monarch of Britain was an anomaly, while even for some of those of British origin, it was an anachronism. Aborigines saw it as a symbol of British imperialism, as did Australians of Irish origin.

Monarchists argue that immigrants who left unstable republics and have arrived in Australia since 1945 have welcomed the social and political stability that they found in Australia under a constitutional monarchy.

Social values

It has been argued that several characteristics of the monarchy are in conflict with modern Australian values. The hereditary nature of the monarchy is said to conflict with Australian egalitarianism and dislike of inherited privilege. The laws of succession are held by some to be sexist and the links between the monarchy and the church inconsistent with Australia's secular character. To back up such claims, reference is made to Australian anti-discrimination laws which prohibit arrangements under which males have precedence over females, or under which becoming or marrying a Catholic invalidates any legal rights.

Monarchists claim that the succession of an apolitical head of state provides a far more stable constitutional system compared to one involving appointing or electing a president who is likely to have a political agenda. Also, laws surrounding the line of succession, those that stipulate the eldest male is first in line, etc., are merely law and can be altered without removing the Australian monarchy.


Whitlam era

The election of a Labor Government in 1972 marked the end of a period where Australians saw themselves principally as part of the British Commonwealth. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam instituted a number of reforms, including establishing Queen Elizabeth as Queen of Australia, and creating a domestic system of conferring civil and military honours. It was also during this time that Australia's preferred economic status with Britain was dropped in favour of Britain joining the European Economic Community.

The Whitlam Government ended in 1975 with a dramatic constitutional crisis in which the Queen's representative, the Governor General, dismissed Whitlam and his entire ministry, appointing Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser in his place. This particular incident raised questions about the value of maintaining a supposedly "symbolic" office that still possessed many key, and potentially dangerous, political powers. It is notable however, that the monarch herself was not consulted in the decision to use the reserve powers.

The Australia Act and other reforms

In 1986, the Australia Act was enacted with the United Kingdom to eliminate the remaining, mainly theoretical, ties between the legislature and judiciary of the two countries. It was later determined by the High Court in Sue v Hill that this legislation established Britain and Australia as independent nations sharing a common sovereign.

At broadly the same time, references to the monarchy were being removed from various institutions. For example, in 1993, references to the Queen were removed from the Oath of Citizenship sworn by naturalised Australians, who would now swear allegiance to the country and its people 'whose democratic beliefs I share and whose laws I shall obey'. The state of Queensland deleted all references to the monarchy from its legislation, with new laws being enacted by its Parliament, not the Queen, and 'binding on the State of Queensland', not the Crown. Barristers in New South Wales were no longer appointed 'Queen's Counsel' (QC), but 'Senior Counsel' (SC), as in republics like Ireland and South Africa. Institutions in Australia could no longer apply to have 'Royal' in their title, and British citizens residing in Australia could no longer enroll to vote in state or federal elections.

Many monarchists condemned these as being moves to a 'republic by stealth'.

Keating Government proposals

The Australian Labor Party first made republicanism its official policy in 1991, with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke describing a republic as inevitable. His successor Paul Keating actively pursued the republican agenda and established the Republic Advisory Committee to produce an options paper on issues relating to the possible transition to a republic to take effect on the centenary of federation: January 1, 2001. The Committee produced its report in 1993, and argued that a "a republic is achievable without threatening Australia’s cherished democratic institutions."

In response to the report, the Prime Minister proposed a referendum on the establishment of a republic, replacing the Governor-General with a President, and removing references to the Queen. The President was to be nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives.

1998 Constitutional Convention

Main Article: Constitutional Convention (Australia)

With change in government in 1996, Prime Minister John Howard proceeded with an alternative policy of holding a constitutional convention. This was held over two weeks in February 1998 at Old Parliament House. Half of the 152 delegates were elected and half were appointed by Federal and state governments. Convention delegates were asked whether or not Australia should become a republic and which model for a republic is preferred.

At the Convention, a republic gained majority support (89 votes to 52 with 11 abstentions), but the issue of what model for a republic should be put to the people at a referendum produced deep divisions among republicans. Four republican models were debated: two involving direct election of the head of state; one involving appointment by the Prime Minister - the McGarvie Model; and one involving appointment by a two-thirds majority of Parliament.

The model involving appointment of the head of state by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament was the model eventually successful at the Convention, and was the model put to referendum the following year. The Convention also made recommendations about a preamble to the Constitution, and a proposed preamble was also put to referendum.

According to critics, the two-week timeline and quasi-democratic composition of the convention is evidence of an attempt by John Howard to frustrate the republican cause. Although he admits to being an "unashamed royalist", the claim is one he adamantly rejects.

The 1999 Republican referendum

Main article: 1999 Australian republic referendum

The 1999 Australian republic referendum was a two question referendum held on 6 November 1999. The first question asked whether Australia should adopt a model of a minimal change republic, a model which had previously been decided at a Constitutional Convention in February 1998.

Under the referendum proposal, the Governor General and Queen would be replaced by one office, the President of the Commonwealth of Australia. The President could be appointed by the Australian Parliament to a fixed term. The existing powers of the Governor General were to be transferred to the President by reference, meaning that they would continue to be unwritten.

Supporters of the republican model claimed that, contrary to monarchist views, the stability of Australia's liberal democracy would not be imperilled 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 referendum was held on 6 November 1999, after a national advertising campaign and the distribution of 12.9 million Yes/No case pamphlets. The question on a republic was defeated. It was not carried in a single state and attracted 45 per cent of the total national vote. The preamble referendum question was also defeated, with a Yes vote of only 39 per cent.

Many opinions were put forward for the defeat, some relating to perceived difficulties with the model, others relating to the lack of public engagement.

The 2004 Senate Inquiry

On 26 June 2003, the Senate referred an Inquiry into an Australian Republic to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee. During 2004, the committee reviewed 730 submissions and conducted hearings in all state capitals. The Committee tabled its report called Road to a Republic on 31st August 2004.

The report examined the contest between minimalist and direct-election models and gave attention to hybrid models such as the Electoral College Model, the Constitutional Council Model and models having both an elected President and a Governor-General.

The bi-partisan recommendations of committee supported educational initiatives and holding a series of plebiscites to allow the public to choose which model they preferred, prior to a final draft and referendum.

Current status

The Opposition Labor is pro-republic as a matter of policy. The former leader, Mark Latham, had pledged a series of plebiscites to resolve the issue. However, with John Howard's success at the most recent federal election, a change in the status quo appears unlikely for some years in the future.

Republicans expect that the plebiscite process and eventually a referendum will take place when either the Labor Party returns to power or when a pro-republican Liberal obtains the Prime Ministership. In the meantime, both the Australian Republican Movement and opponent monarchist groups remain active despite a narrowing of public interest in the issue. This reduction in interest is characterised by a survey showing that only 48% now feel an imminent need for a republic [1] (,5478,12002535^2862,00.html).

Party political positions

The Australian Labor Party, the Australian Democrats, and the Australian Greens all support a move towards a republic as a matter of policy. The Nationals are the only party to be anti-republican as a matter of policy. The Liberals do not have an official stance on the matter, with some Liberals, such as Treasurer and Deputy Leader Peter Costello, playing a prominent role in the yes campaign. This has led to speculation that if Costello ever became Prime Minister he would move for the adoption of a republic.

See also

External links


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