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On 6 November 1999, the Australian Republic Referendum failed, but now it seems Australia's youth are beginning to "mend the nation’s heart", says history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THIS TIME last year, I described how November was Australia’s "republican season". November is the republican end of the year in Australia - a time of the year full of republican symbolism. The republican season includes the anniversary of the 1999 republican referendum, as well as the anniversary of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s dismissal by then Governor-General John Kerr in 1975. The latter event remains the most dramatic event in Australia’s political history and began the modern republican movement.

It’s a great time to be a republican in Australia. Recent events have changed the political landscape for the better — and taken the journey towards an Australian head of state a lot closer.

The Australian Republican Movement’s membership has surged over the past 12 months. This had been helped when knighthoods were reintroduced in 2014 and again after the knighting of Prince Philip as then PM Abbott's "captain’s pick" on Australia Day 2015.

On 26 August 2015, the Australian Republican Movement’s chairman, Peter FitzSimons, entertained a full house at the National Press Club in Canberra. Membership doubled in the weeks after Malcolm Turnbull became PM, and have surged over the past 12 months. On Australia Day 2016, Australia's premiers and chief ministers made public declarations supporting an Australian head of state. The political landscape in Australia is definitely changing. The Prime Minister, Federal Opposition Leader, six premiers and the Chief Justice are all declared republicans. It appears the points of the Southern Cross are coming into alignment.

Every year since 1995, a series of Schools Constitutional Conventions occur across Queensland. The Conventions involve secondary students from all three educational sectors — state, Catholic and independent. They provide senior secondary students with an opportunity to engage with and debate Australia’s Constitution and contemporary constitutional issues, as well as the mechanism to select delegates to the National Schools Constitutional Convention held in Canberra each March.

"Should Australia become a republic?” was the question at the 2008 National Schools Constitutional Convention, with 54% in favour and 45% against (there was one informal response).

The students listened as experts in constitutional law outlined three possible republic models for Australia:

  • Model 1: A republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President selected and appointed by the Prime Minister.
  • Model 2: A republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.
  • Model 3: A republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President elected directly by the electors of Australia.

Each student was required to deliver a brief address outlining their point of view. Following discussion and debate, the students took part in a mock referendum using a preference voting system to determine the preferred model:

  • Model 2 was favoured by 73.1% of students;
  • Model 1 by 18.5%; and
  • Model 3 by 8.4%.

This was only the second time in 13 years that delegates to the Convention voted in favour of amending the Australian Constitution. Decisions taken at the Convention were presented to Deputy President of the Senate John Hogg, Senator for Queensland, for tabling in the Senate.

The 16th National School Constitutional Convention, held at Old Parliament House, Canberra, 22 to 24 March 2011 considered the question, “Should Australia become a republic?”

The Convention comprised 127 students from government, independent and Catholic schools from across Australia, covering metropolitan and country areas. Approximately 55% of students were from government schools, 25% were from independent schools and 20% were from Catholic schools.  After being presented with arguments for and against by leading experts, the students were given an opportunity to ask questions, to clarify points and to seek further information as well as challenge the views put forward by the experts.

When asked to vote on the question “Are you in favour of the Australian Constitution being amended to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a Republic?”, the results were 41 delegates (32%) were opposed to, and 86 (68%) were in favour of, Australia becoming a republic.

The 2016 Metropolitan Queensland Schools Constitutional Convention was held on Wednesday, 5 October 2016 in the Undumbi Room, Queensland Parliament House. There were 13 two-minute speeches delivered by students who were competing for the National Delegate positions. Each student had to deliver a two-minute opinionative speech supporting either the "case for" or "the case against". These had to be prepared in advance. There were 10 were speeches delivered in favour of the republic (77%) and 3 against (23%). The student group then voted on their top three. The top three speeches voted were in favour of a republic.

Students then voted on the constitutional question as if it was a referendum question.

They were broken into states with the following results:

State

Total Formal Votes

Formal Yes

Formal No

Majority

RESULT

NSW

15

7

8

NO

 

 

YES

VIC

12

11

1

YES

QLD

8

5

3

YES

WA

2

2

0

YES

SA

8

5

3

YES

TAS

5

3

2

YES

ACT

3

1

2

 

 

NT

3

1

2

 

 

 

 

 

TOTAL

53

33

20

 

 

%

100%

62%

38%

 

 

 

If this had been a referendum of all Australian citizens the majority of commentators beforehand (77%) would have been in favour of a republic, a majority of the people (62%), and a majority of the states (5).

Admittedly, this is a small sample group, however what is very interesting is these results are from young Australians (16-17 year olds). These results indicate this demographic is not opposed to an Australian republic. There was a mixture of state and private school, male and female students. Perhaps these results may indicate with education young people are open to the idea of a republic, although 77% of speakers had made up their mind in favour of it before the Convention. There were no speeches that were blatantly radical and all addressed the issue in a measured way using the logic of the argument.

The votes in favour of an Australian republic at the 2008 National Schools’ Constitutional Convention, the 2009 Queensland Schools’ Constitutional Conventions, and the 2011 National Schools’ Constitutional Convention, begin to show a pattern in the thinking of Australia’s youth to a support of a republican Australia. When given quality information on both sides of the argument, a majority of young Australians see the logic to the removal of the monarchy.

Every day we have a foreigner as a head of state, we are telling our children they are never good enough to hold our top job. That a child living 15,000 kilometres away is more qualified than yours.

It’s time to stop limiting future generations; we must tell them an Australian is good enough to be the head of Australia. We need one of our own in the top job. We are a people who believe in fairness and in a fair go for all. So why is the top job in Australia limited to someone overseas who was born into it and never earned it. Our shared national values mean that any Australian should have the right to our top office rather than complete exclusion from it.

Throughout most of the 1990s, Malcolm Turnbull led and funded the Australian Republican Movement. Even though Turnbull has played no active role in the Australian Republican Movement since the 1999 republican referendum defeat, for many Australians he is still the face of the call for an Australian as head of state. It is his name that many ordinary Australians first mention when the republican argument is brought up.

As the then national chairperson of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull pinned the 1999 referendum’s defeat squarely on the Prime Minister, John Howard, when he said:

History will remember him for one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s heart.”

It seems the youth of Australia may be the ones who “mend our broken heart” and put the pieces back together again.

History editor Dr Glenn Davies is the Australian Republican Movement's Queensland branch convenor. You can follow Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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