When Australia voted in November, 1999, against becoming a republic – despite polls showing majority support for the idea – Yes campaign leader Malcolm Turnbull wrote in his diary: “We are now in an impasse. A republican nation has voted to keep the Queen. What is to be done?”
As it turns out, not a whole lot. Despite support for a republic only growing since then, and promises by various politicians to hold another referendum, there has been no movement on the issue for more than 22 years. Even Mr. Turnbull, when he became prime minister in 2015, punted, describing himself as an “Elizabethan” and saying he would not push for a vote until after the Queen’s death.
Part of the problem is that while Australians support having one of their own as head of state, they do not agree on how to go about choosing that person. “The main reason the 1999 referendum failed was not because people wanted a monarchy but because there was a split in those who wanted a republic” – between having a directly elected head of state and one chosen by Parliament, said Anne Twomey, a constitutional law expert at the University of Sydney.
An “intractable problem” at the heart of the issue is that Australians want a say in choosing their head of state but don’t want that person to be a politician, “and if you have an election, you end up electing a politician,” she said.
This month, the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) attempted to thread the needle with a proposal for an elected head of state, but one chosen from a slate of candidates put forward by Canberra and the parliaments of Australia’s states and territories.
The move comes amid rumours of the Queen’s apparently waning health and blows to the monarchy’s popularity, after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle walked away from their royal duties, as well as ongoing attempts to hold Prince Andrew to account for alleged sex crimes linked to Jeffrey Epstein. Two weeks ago, Andrew was stripped of his royal and military titles as he fights a lawsuit in New York.
ARM claims its polling shows that some 73 per cent of voters would back its proposed system, giving it a “stronger chance of success at a referendum than any other model previously proposed.” Liberal MP Jason Falinski, who chairs a parliamentary group supporting a republic, called it a “major advance” and asked his party, which currently sits in a coalition government with the National Party, to back it.
Benjamin Jones, a historian at Central Queensland University who proposed a similar hybrid model in 2018, said it gets around one of the main problems of having a purely direct election for head of state, which he said would narrow the list of candidates to people famous and rich enough to campaign nationally.
“Even though it’s counterintuitive, simply saying, ‘Let everyone put their hand up’ actually reduces the number of people who could feasibly run,” he said.
Such a race would also likely put off exactly the type of candidates Australians consistently claim to want: nonpoliticians with a record of public service – people who have traditionally served as governors-general.
In the background of this debate is the woman at the heart of the current system. Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning British monarch and, at almost 96, the world’s oldest head of state.
Preparations are under way to mark her Platinum Jubilee next month, marking 70 years on the throne, but in recent months – after the death of her husband, Prince Philip – the Queen has partially retreated from public life and was recently hospitalized for a minor ailment.
Her death, when it does come, will set off a global wave of mourning and commemoration. In the 15 countries of which she is head of state, most people have never known another monarch, and the ascension of Charles could have major repercussions for the system itself, as he has never engendered the same kind of affection and nostalgia his mother has.
“As the Queen’s reign draws to a close, people are starting to think about what’s coming next. Is there a better way forward than King Charles?” said Sandy Biar, ARM’s national director. “A lot of people are quite fond of Queen Elizabeth … with Charles it’s a lot more uncertain.”
The succession will create an opportunity for republicans in many countries, but especially in Australia, given how the question has been so publicly shelved for the duration of the Queen’s life.
“A lot of people have used the respect and affection for the Queen as an excuse or procrastination not to do anything while she is still alive,” Dr. Twomey said. “One consequence of that is it does create an expectation that once she is no longer there, we need to act.”
One difficulty is that there would be a lot to work out before any referendum could take place, and too long of a delay after the Queen’s death could result in a squandered opportunity, as people become used to the idea of Charles as king. But while Australia has many hurdles to overcome before becoming a republic, there is a sense of inevitability, Dr. Jones said, even if this can also lead to a feeling that “there’s no urgency about it or need to push and agitate for it.”
“Even back in the 1850s there were calls for Australia to become a republic,” he said. “Often the response wasn’t ‘no’ but ‘not right now.’”
Australia at least does not have some of the more thorny constitutional issues of other former British colonies. Republican movements in Canada and New Zealand have to consider how such a move would affect treaties between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. And in Canada, any redrafting of the Constitution could spark a renewed push for Quebec independence.
“At the moment, Canada and New Zealand seem to be content to watch and wait to see what Australia does,” Dr. Jones said. But were Australia to break away, as Barbados did last year, change could come rapidly.
Lewis Holden, the campaign chair of New Zealand Republic, agreed. “My view is that what will most likely happen is Australia and New Zealand will make the change and most of the rest of the Commonwealth will follow,” he said. “We’re the first or second domino – if Australia makes the change, we’ll follow soon afterwards. It would be quite bizarre to have Charles as our head of state while Australia has their own.”
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