An Australian Republic – to remain ‘crowned’ or not?
The issue of Australia becoming a republic has arisen again, following a statement of support for the change by seven of Australia’s eight premiers and chief ministers.
The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is an avowed republican and led the previous push for a republic to a “heroic defeat”, as he recently described it, in the referendum of 1999.
A Constitutional Convention to debate the issue, and make recommendations, was held in Old Parliament House over two weeks in February 1998. The convention resulted in the referendum.
On the face of it, the issue is simple: we sever the constitutional link to the British monarch and have an Australian citizen as our head of state. But constitutional change is never as simple as it seems.
Supporters of change make an emotional appeal when they argue for having ‘one of our own’ as head of state, and speak against having a ‘foreigner’ in that role. The argument goes that having an Australian rather than a foreigner will provide for greater inclusivity and social cohesion in the nation. Eminent historian, John Hirst, has argued the case for a republic from this conservative point of view.
Of course, conservatives also argue for the status quo and groups like ‘Australians for Constitutional Monarchy’ are among those who say that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it! They contrast the civil chaos of some republics to the relative long-term stability of Australia with the monarch as titular head of state. They argue that Australia’s independent status in the world is not diminished by this.
On the republican side, there are those who draw on distaste for the inherited privilege of the hereditary monarchical system. Some republicans argue that this is incompatible with Australians’ egalitarian ethos. However, there has been a significant shift in Australian attitudes to the monarchy.
Public opinion polls show a significant decline in support for a republic and an increase in sympathy for the monarchy. In November 2008, a poll found 50% support for a republic and only 28% for the status quo (with 22% undecided). In 2014, only 42% favoured a republic and 51% opposed it
The Constitutional Convention of 1998
The Constitutional Convention of 1998 allowed for the best advocates of both sides to have their say in debate. The debate revealed that the issue is not straight-forward. Republicans were unable to agree on the basic question as to how the President would be established. Would it be by direct election? Other republicans wanted the President appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. Yet another group argued that the President should be appointed by a two-thirds vote of the federal parliament.
It was the latter model that went to the referendum in 1999 – and was rejected by 55% of the voters.
Senator Neville Bonner, Australia’s first Indigenous Senator, argued against change, at the 1998 convention. He said: “I cannot see the need for change. I cannot see how it will help my people. I cannot see how it will resolve the question of land and access to land that troubles us. I cannot see how it will ensure that indigenous people have access to the same opportunities that other Australians enjoy”.
English revolutionaries and the ‘crowned republic’
The English, in their revolution in the mid-C17th, had to deal with a King – Charles 1st – who clung to the notion of ‘divine rule’. The pro-parliamentary forces defeated his armies, beheaded him, established the sovereignty of parliament, and became a republic under Cromwell – who more or less became just another despotic ‘king’.
Monarchy was restored following the collapse of Cromwell’s republican Commonwealth but the rule of the old kind of monarch was ending. The period of Restoration (of monarchy) from 1660 ended with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 that established Constitutional Monarchy under William and Mary.
Essentially, that is the system we have to this day: Constitutional Monarchy in which the monarch may reign, but never rule, over us. It is also known as a ‘crowned republic’ and, in the absence of a tyrant or major scandal, makes the republican campaign difficult to win.