Along with 45 per cent of fellow Australians, I voted “Yes” on November 6, 1999 in the referendum as to whether Australia should become a republic. I would do so again – provided the question was similar.
It has been claimed by some republicans that the (then) constitutional monarchist prime minister John Howard rigged the question in the 1999 referendum in order to ensure a “No” vote. But this is not the case.
Twenty years ago Australian electors were asked whether they approved of the following proposed law: “To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as 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.”
This is precisely what would have occurred had the referendum been carried. And it was the question that the Australian Republican Movement, under the leadership of (then) businessman Malcolm Turnbull, wanted at the time. Unfortunately, from my point of view, a majority of Australians did not agree.
Not only did the “Yes” case fail to gain an overall majority, it also failed to get a majority in any state. The “Yes” vote in NSW (46.4 per cent) and Victoria (49.8 per cent) was reasonable. But the vote in Queensland (37.4 per cent), South Australia (43.6 per cent), Western Australia (41.5 per cent) and Tasmania (40.4 per cent) was low to very low.
Since a successful referendum requires an overall majority plus a majority in a majority of States, this means that two or more of the above states would have to move from a “No” to a “Yes” vote in a future referendum.
Australia has changed significantly in the last two decades. Immigration increased rapidly under the Howard government and the trend has continued under Coalition and Labor governments alike. In the 1999 referendum it was evident that many recent immigrants and their families wanted Australia to remain a constitutional monarchy.
And then there is the changing international environment. The Islamist terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 (9/11) were followed by attacks in Indonesia, Britain and Canada. The main targets in the Bali bombings were Australians.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – in which US, British and Australians were allies – have reminded the citizens of these nations what they have in common. It is evident in the success of the Invictus Games. This is likely to reduce support for the proposal that Australia should junk the Queen of Australia who happens to be the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
And then there is the ongoing respect for Queen Elizabeth II and the popularity of her grandson William and his wife Catherine. The high regard held for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is likely to mitigate any lack of support for Prince Charles if he outlives his mother and becomes the monarch.
Sure Prince Andrew is disgraced following his alleged involvement in sex with underage girls. It remains to be seen how popular Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will remain. In any event, both men are a long way from the throne.
In Britain, the popularity of the Royal Family does not matter much – since the nation appears locked into the monarchy. But royal behaviour is of importance in Commonwealth nations like Australia which are not necessarily destined to remain constitutional monarchies.
Last Tuesday the Australian Republic Movement held a dinner in Old Parliament House in Canberra to remember the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 referendum. The function took place in King’s Hall – overseen by the towering statue of King George V, the Queen’s grandfather. Speakers were Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Greens leader Richard Di Natale and ARM chair Peter FitzSimons.
And there’s the problem. The quartet comprised a multi-millionaire and former Coalition prime minister (Turnbull), two politicians (Albanese and Di Natale) along with a wealthy activist who sneers at political conservatives and religious believers and wears a red bandanna on his head (FitzSimons). There was not a member of the Liberal Party or the Nationals on the panel. Nor was there a woman.
This is not the base from which to re-fire the movement for an Australian republic. Referendums invariably are defeated – the last success was over four decades ago and only those aged 60 or above would have been involved in a winning “Yes” campaign.
An Australian republic will only be achieved if a significant number of Australian political conservatives support the cause. On Tuesday there was barely a conservative in the room. The Liberal Party’s Peter Costello and the Nationals’ leader Tim Fischer backed a republic in 1999 and still the cause went down. Without some prominent Coalition leaders out in the front of a campaign, the republican cause cannot succeed.
In the wake of the referendum defeat in 1999, Turnbull famously, or infamously, declared: “Whatever John Howard achieves, history will remember him for only one thing – he was the prime minister that broke the nation’s heart.”
As it turned out, Howard will be remembered for many things – including the introduction of stricter gun control laws. Moreover, he did not break the nation’s heart. The fact is that 54.9 per cent of Australians supported Howard’s position – a figure which, if translated to an election, would be classified as a landslide.
Turnbull’s current position is that no constitutional change should be attempted during the Queen’s reign. When this ends, Australians should be asked in a plebiscite whether they support the direct election of a president or what he termed “the parliamentary model”. The favoured position would then be put to the people in a referendum.
This is a change from Turnbull’s position in 1999 but it makes sense. However, FitzSimons has his reservations. In 1999 the republican cause was divided between the two models and some republicans voted “No” to the parliamentary model. It’s possible that, if there is a next time, some republicans would vote “No” to any direct election proposal. In the current political climate, I would be one of those.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au