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Whatever happened to the Australian republic and what happens now

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by Professor John Warhurst

In November 1999 the referendum to change the Australian Constitution from a monarchy  into a republic was lost by a margin of 55% to 45%. Eleven years have now passed. There has been no constitutional referendum on any subject at all since then.

MANY PEOPLE thought at the time that if the referendum was unsuccessful we would have revisited the issue by now. A clear majority of Australians remain in favour of an Australian republic rather than the British monarchy. But, despite positive party programs and promises from Labor, the Greens and the Democrats, and two Senate enquiries (2004 and 2009), no government has  yet called a second referendum.

Monarchism is in inexorable decline as a belief system in Australia. Affection for, and interest in, the monarch continue to decline and non-constitutional changes of a republican kind are frequently made by community organisations and governments, such as moving away from “Royal’ and ‘Queen’s’ prefixes. But still constitutional change to a republic is not inevitable.

Why has nothing constitutional yet happened? Republicans can blame timid parliamentarians, lack of bipartisanship, and/or a Royalist-hugging media, and that is part of the story, but the key lies in public opinion. Politicians react to strong public opinion. Polls all show roughly a 60:40 split in favour of a republic. That is good news for republicans. But let’s look further using the best available research by UMR Research, carried out for the Australian Republican Movement in October 2009. It confirms many of the broad  patterns revealed by public surveys and adds new insights.

UMR found 59% support a republic and 33% oppose. Men still favour a republic more than women and there is not a big difference between the age groups; though younger Australians have less passion about the issue. The main reasons for supporting a republic resonate strongly with the community. These are that the monarchy is outdated, undemocratic and irrelevant and that it is time to stand on our own two feet by completing the separation from Britain. There is widespread support for a second referendum in the near future, but a high proportion of Australians know little about our current constitutional arrangements.

Barriers to a republic include complacency  about our government system, uncertainty about the future, and the cost of change. But the biggest hurdle for republicans to overcome is a perceived lack of urgency.

Only half of republicans consider the issue to be an urgent, important issue. The same lack of urgency afflicts monarchists too; only 19% of them consider the issue very important. But it is republicans who must make the running. The more information and discussion there is the higher support for a republic becomes. Public debate always helps the republican cause. The best chance for monarchists is to keep quiet and to hope the issue does not regain momentum.

Unless a trigger emerges a republic by 2020 is against the odds. There is no indication yet that a cautious Julia Gillard will move quickly, and the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, is a confirmed monarchist who predicts that Australia will not become a republic in his life time.

But republicans do have a chance over the next decade. One possibility is that the major parties together, recognising public opinion, might agree to kick start the process with a general plebiscite question on support in principle for a republic. Another is the unpredictability associated with the reign of the Queen. Australians divide 50:50 on their comfort about having Queen Elizabeth as Australian Head of State, but are against Prince Charles, her successor, by a margin of 2:1.

There has been a growing belief in some quarters that Australia should not move forward under the present Queen’s reign; but surely any self-respecting nation should act according to its own timetable. Monarchists may take comfort in such a delay but, given the Queen’s advanced age, it is a tenuous position for them to be in; it will mean a referendum sooner or later.

The Australian Republican Movement rejects this timetable, but even if it prevails, it does not mean that the process should not move forward anyway. One possibility is to hold an in principle plebiscite, a preliminary vote, within the next three years. If it were successful then the timetable could be reconsidered. Another possibility is to have a referendum on Australia becoming a republic, but for it to be implemented only on the Queen’s death or retirement. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke has recently suggested this approach.

(Emeritus Professor John Warhurst of the Australian National University is Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement; this article was originally published in the Newcastle Herald on 10 July 2010.)

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