Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Will Prescott recently completed a PhD thesis on interwar Conservative Party history at the University of Oxford.
Within a day of the late Queen’s passing. certain commentators began asking if Australia was now finally going to break its ties with the Crown. While not impossible, major political and constitutional obstacles stand in the way of any potential Australian republic.
Australia has debated this issue before, culminating in a 1999 referendum in which Australians voted 55 to 45 per cent against changing the status quo. In the early 1990s, then-Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, a committed republican, made the issue a priority, as part of his wider efforts to reposition Australia towards its Asian neighbours. His Liberal successor, the monarchist John Howard, then pledged at the 1996 federal election to hold a referendum on the subject.
The subsequent vote proposed replacing the Queen and Governor-General with a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament. Unfortunately for republicans, hostility to allowing politicians to choose the head of state was stronger than support for the republican principle. ‘Vote “NO” to the politicans’ republic’, Australians were urged – and they did.
Since the referendum, there has been little public appetite to reopen the debate. First, while the polls admittedly fluctuate, there is no longer a consistent pro-republican majority, and the issue simply is not a key voter concern. Moreover, younger Australians are less likely to be republican than their parents. It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but for some at least, the monarchy is a part of the country’s history, and the issue is just not worth the time and expense to revisit.
It is not apparent that Queen Elizabeth’s death will substantively change this, although her continued popularity made it difficult to revive the issue after the referendum. Even Malcolm Turnbull, former Prime Minister and leader of Australian Republican Movement during the ill-fated referendum, later said Australians were ‘Elizabethans’, but that the issue should be revisited after her passing. The problem for republicans is that you cannot predict how successful a leader will be until they step into the position, and the popularity of the new King may increase post accession, as already seems to be happening in the UK.
Even if sentiment shifts in a decidedly pro-republican direction, achieving constitutional change in Australia is very difficult. Abolishing the Australian monarchy requires a constitutional change, and a constitutional change necessitates a referendum. Australians are notoriously conservative at referendums—of the 44 referendum questions put to the electorate since Federation in 1901, only eight have been carried. Making things harder, not only does there have to be a majority of the national vote, but there has to be a majority in a majority of the states. Moreover, that referendum must put a specific proposal to voters—a vague poll (Brexit-style) would be constitutionally meaningless.
This ties into the other problem Australian republicans face: there is no consensus on what sort of republic they want. As in 1999, the key dispute is between those republicans who want a directly-elected president, and those who do not, the so-called ‘minimalists’. To the direct-electionists, a president chosen by politicians is elitist and undemocratic. To their opponents, the introduction of a directly-elected head of state could potentially endanger the Westminster system by creating a rival centre of power with popular legitimacy behind him/her. This tension was ruthlessly exploited by the ‘No’ side during the 1999 referendum and was a key reason for its failure — according to one 1999 poll, 53 per cent of those planning to vote ‘No’ actually supported a republic, just not the one on offer.
There is no sign that this split will be resolved. Even when a compromise model is attempted, as the Australian Republican Movement recently discovered, there is no guarantee of widespread public enthusiasm, or even support from their own ranks. Until republicans can unite, achieving the constitutionally-mandated double majority will be a tall order.
It is likely, though not in the short term, that the newly-elected Labor Government will make some movement on the issue — earlier this year Australia gained its first ‘Minister for the Republic’. But unless republicans can overcome their own divisions, and can persuade a politically-cautious nation to embrace radical change, King Charles III’s grip on his second-largest realm looks secure, at least for now.