An Australian Republic: Revisiting the 1998 Constitutional Convention

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Prime Minister Turnbull accused former Prime Minister Howard of breaking the nation's heart on the republican issue (screen shot via YouTube).

20 years ago, the last Constitutional Convention was debating an Australian Republic but as a result of its decision, the Republican movement was to slip, stagger and ultimately shatter, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THERE IS DEFINITELY a retro-culture moment happening in Australia.

The revisiting of Countdown episodes over the past six months on the ABC, supported by the success of the earlier Molly Meldrum mini-series, was so popular that Countdown-era music became the theme of the 2017 New Year’s Eve concert at Sydney Harbour.

It is worth remembering that the infamous Countdown interview with Prince Charles is still the most awkward British royalty moment in Australian television history.

But it is definitely the 1990s that appear to be making a come-back. The Spice Girls are reforming, Oasis music has been re-found as a result of the Manchester bombing, scrunchies can be found again next to bathroom basins around the country and don’t even start me with the re-release of Cadbury Caramilk bars.

Another come-back in Australian politics is the Australian Constitution. The dual citizenship fiasco that has recently engulfed Federal politics has highlighted the existence and influence of the Australian Constitution. The High Court decisions terminating a slather of Australian Federal politicians have sent the message the Australian Constitution can’t be ignored.

The re-emergence of discussions about the Australian Constitution around family dinner tables, on buses on the way to work and at the front-bar in pubs, brings back memories of February 1998, when the daily debates and comments of the 152 delegates to the Constitutional Conventionbeing held in Canberra, were on the front page of national newspapers.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention was held in Old Parliament House, Canberra from the 2-13 February 1998. Its stated purpose was to consider the pros and cons of removing the Monarchy from a role in Australian government and law and changing the Australian Constitution to include a republican form of government.

The Constitutional Convention was convened by former Prime Minister John Howard to discuss issues related to three broad questions about whether or not Australia should become a republic. The three questions identified for discussion by the Prime Minister were:

  1. Whether Australia should become a republic;
  2. Which republic model should be put to the electorate to consider, against the status quo; and
  3. In what time frame and under what circumstances might any change be considered.

If the consensus was "yes", then a republican model was to be decided on, so it could be put to the Australian people in a referendum on 6 November 1999.

There have been a number of Constitutional Conventions in Australian history. The prominent Republican Constitutional lawyer Professor George Winterton defined the term "convention" as literally a "coming together" and has generally been employed in Australian politics to denote a meeting convened for the purpose of drawing up or amending a constitution. This usage has a long pedigree.

The first Australian Federal "Convention" was a meeting of representatives of the seven Australasian colonies and Fiji held in Sydney in November-December 1883. It led to the establishment of the Federal Council of Australasia, which New South Wales and New Zealand never joined.

The 1891 Constitutional Convention was held in Sydney in March and April 1891 to consider a draft Constitution for the proposed federation of the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. There were 46 delegates at the Convention, chosen by the seven colonial parliaments. Among the delegates was Sir Henry Parkes, known as the "Father of Federation". The Convention approved a draft largely written by Andrew Inglis Clark, which is a close ancestor of the present Australian Constitution.

The 1897-98 Australasian Federal Convention, which essentially produced the present Constitution, was the only Australian Convention to be popularly elected and the only one whose efforts were crowned with success in the sense of seeing its proposals implemented. The 1897-98 Constitutional Convention was held in stages: the first in Adelaide in March 1897, the second in Sydney in August and the third in Melbourne in the sweltering heat of January 1898. At Melbourne, the Convention finally produced a draft Constitution which was eventually approved by the people at referendums in the colonies.

The 1973 Constitutional Convention was established by the Whitlam Government in 1973 to consider possible amendments to the Constitution which could be put to the people for approval at a referendum. The Convention, which was not elected but consisted of delegates chosen by the federal and state Parliaments, met through 1973–75 but was mired in the partisan atmosphere of the Whitlam years and achieved nothing.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention debated whether Australia should become a republic. It attracted enormous public interest and built the sort of awareness needed to hold a referendum. Republicanism emerged as an issue of major public debate during the 1990s.

Australians have long discussed the idea of replacing the Constitutional Monarchy with a republican constitution, even during the 19th Century, before Federation in 1901. In the 1960s, Republican activity was restarted by authors Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne. At the same time, the student magazine Oz lampooned the Monarchy. A decade on, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the appointed Governor-General on 11 November 1975 outraged many Australians.

The 1975 Constitutional Crisis drew attention to Australia's Constitutional arrangements and, since those turbulent days, several notable Australians have declared a commitment to an Australian Republic. There were many Town Hall meetings and calls to "maintain the rage". During these years, the Australian Labor Party edged towards declaring itself for the republic. This it eventually did in 1982.

In the 1990s, the popular definition of "republic" was simply the removal of the British Monarch as head of state. This was seen as the last step in Australia’s political development. On 7 July 1991, the Australian Republic Movement was established, with the author Tom Keneally as the inaugural chair. The Australian Republican Movement was formed as an organisation with the single goal of Australia becoming a republic no later than 1 January 2001.

In December 1991, Paul Keating was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia after deposing Bob Hawke as leader of the Federal Australian Labor Party.

As Keating came to power in the early 1990s, his support for the republic and issues of national identity was widely known — and he continued to campaign for it throughout his time in office and beyond.

In April 1993, Prime Minister Keating appointed the Republic Advisory Committee, led by Malcolm Turnbull, to examine options on how to achieve a republic with minimal constitutional change.

The Republic Advisory Committee published its report in 1993, in which it stated:

'... a republic is achievable without threatening Australia's cherished democratic institutions.'

On 7 June 1995, Prime Minister of Australia Paul Keating formally announced his support for an Australian Republic in a televised speech to Parliament entitled, 'An Australian Republic The Way Forward'. This was the culmination of nearly a decade of discussion on constitutional change. In the course of his speech to the House of Representatives, he announced his Government’s intention to transform the Commonwealth of Australia from a Constitutional Monarchy into a republic.

Keating proposed a minimalist plan for a republic, concentrating on the single task of installing an Australian as head of state, one with the same role as the governor-general. The president of the Commonwealth of Australia would be nominated by the prime minister after consultation with all parties and elected by a two-thirds majority at a joint sitting of Parliament. 

The 1998 Constitutional Convention helped to strengthen the debate for a republic as a major issue in the late 1990s. However, the debate became caught up in an argument about the best selection method for the Australian head of state and it was on this crucial issue Australian Republicans divided.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention delegates consisted of 152 Australians from all walks of life, half of whom were elected by the people and half appointed by the Federal Government. In 1997, the Australian Electoral Commission ran a national postal vote to elect 76 delegates to attend the Constitutional Convention in Canberra. The voting began on 3 November 1997 and closed on 9 December 1997. The postal ballot was unusual in that it used a Senate-style voting system, and did not require compulsory participation. The participation result of the voluntary nature of the postal vote was 47 per cent of eligible voters. The election was heavily contested, with many candidates standing as part of a Monarchist or Republican "ticket", but many others stood as independents.

In the popular election of delegates to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, Republican candidates won a majority (56.4 per cent) of the total votes cast and a majority in four States. Of the 76 elected delegates, 27 were Monarchists, 27 were affiliated to the Australian Republican Movement, 19 were Republicans with other affiliations, and two were of unknown affiliation. The appointed delegates group comprised 40 Parliamentary delegates from Federal, State and Territory Parliaments, as well as 36 non-Parliamentary delegates. Of these delegates, 17 were constitutional Monarchists, 30 Republicans, and 29 undeclared.

Speaking to the delegates on day one, then Prime Minister John Howard said that embarking on a republic might be dangerous.

“I oppose Australia becoming a republic because I do not believe that the alternatives so far canvassed will deliver a better system of government than the one we currently have ... I go further — some will deliver a worse outcome and gravely weaken our system of government.”

However, in the end, the Constitutional Convention concluded with "in principle support" for an Australian Republic with a referendum to be held in 1999: 89 to 52, with 11 abstentions.

The four models that emerged were:

  1. The Direct Election Model where the popular election for president would be held at the same time as those for the house of representatives.
  2. The Hayden Model proposed the popular election for president where a person had been nominated by one per cent of voters.
  3. The McGarvie Model proposed the president be chosen by the prime minister and appointed or dismissed by a constitutional council.
  4. The Bi-Partisan Appointment of the President Model developed by the Australian Republican Movement, where the president was appointed by the prime minister after ratification by a 2/3 majority of Federal Parliament.

At the end of the 1998 Constitutional Convention, 73 delegates voted in favour of adopting the bi-partisan appointment model, 57 against and 22 abstained. Not one Constitutional Monarchist delegate voted in favour. The policy of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) and other Monarchist groups was to oppose all republican models, including the minimalist McGarvie model.

Peter Costello, then Federal Treasurer, addressed the Constitutional Convention on Tuesday, 3 February 1998 arguing the deeper problem revolved around the presence of monarchy in Australia:

The temper of the times is democratic. We are uncomfortable with an office that appoints people by hereditary. In our society and in our time, we prefer appointment for merit.

I judge that the disquiet or uncomfortableness on the concept of monarchy to which I have earlier referred will continue to build and we should address this, not allow people to use it to build other agendas.

I believe there is an unease at the centre of our Constitutional arrangements, not because they do not work – they work extraordinarily well -– but because the symbols which underlie them are running out of believability and this gnaws at legitimacy.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said during his speech to the Australian Republic Movement’s (ARM) 25th Anniversary Dinner on 18 December 2016:

So if the job description is to be a non-political head of state, the best way to appoint them we felt at the time, was in a bipartisan manner. This exposed us of course to the claim that the ARM model was “a politician’s republic". We were told that you can’t trust politicians — ironically most vocally by politicians.

Just under two years later, the dreams of Australia’s republic supporters lay in tatters with the failure of the 6 November 1999 Referendum. On that evening, the then ARM National Chair, Malcolm Turnbull, said John Howard "broke this nation’s heart" over the Republic Referendum result.

Nevertheless, for most of the time since, the republic issue has been an important part of public debate through several prime ministerial statements of personal commitment to the change, several opposition leaders' election promises of action, Parliamentary inquiries, many books and articles, advocacy by numerous Australians of the year, and the tireless efforts of supporters.

Recently, Benjamin T Jones published This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future, in which he charts a path to an independent future and discusses the best way to choose an Australian head of state. This hybrid model which encompasses both the direct election model and the Parliamentary elected model is called the Jones-Pickering model. Perhaps this is the answer, as the lesson of 1999 is that an Australian Republic can only come about if Republicans unite.

The seeds of republicanism go right back to the early days of the Australian colonies but despite several attempts – the last one in 1999 with the Referendum – we've never managed to get the idea across the line. We are a nation still looking for our "republican moment".

At its peak at the end of the 1998 Constitutional Convention, 76 per cent of Australians favoured a republic but were then split during the Referendum campaign between a minimalist and direct-election model. Supporters of the latter voted "no" and delivered victory to the Monarchists.

In 1999, the band, Powderfinger, told us how "These days turned out nothing like I had planned", but continued a few lines later that "it’s coming round again, the slowly creeping hand of time". The Australian Republic will happen — we are a republican people, it’s now a matter of making us a republican nation.

You can follow history editor Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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