Australian republicanism is a movement within Australia to sever ties with the British monarchy and replace it with a republic.

Table of contents
1 The Current Constitutional Structures
2 The Role of the Queen and the Crown
3 The Move Towards a Republic
4 Arguments For Change
5 The 1999 Referendum
6 Why the Referendum was Defeated
7 The Unsolved Issue
8 External links

The Current Constitutional Structures

Australia's constitutional structures are quite complicated. The commonwealth as a federated unit is a constitutional monarchy with a non-resident monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, the 'Queen of Australia'. (Queen Elizabeth is, of course, also the Queen of the United Kingdom and several other Commonwealth Realms.) But each state itself is also a constitutional monarchy, with a dual relationship to the Queen - individually (the Queen being represented by a governor) and through the Commonwealth, where she is represented by the Governor-General.

This is further complicated by each state having a separate constitution, while the Commonwealth possesses a complex mix of a written constitution alongside convention, tradition, reserve powers and Letters Patent. (The scale of the complexity is shown in the fact that though the Commonwealth has always had a prime minister, the office doesn't feature in the Constitution.)

The Australian Constitution is a creature of British law, namely the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900. It was always technically possible for the UK Parliament to unilaterally amend the Australian Constitution, although this never happened in practice. However, since the passage of the Australia Act, 1986, the British Parliament has no power at all to amend the Australian Constitution, this being solely the prerogative of the Australian people and the Australian Parliament.

The Role of the Queen and the Crown

In practice, the monarch has no real power in Australia: the Crown's powers are generally vested in the Governor-General who acts in the name of the Queen frequently but without consulting with her or she having any role in their exercise. Her principal role is formally appointing the Governor-General and state governors; this she does on the advice of the Prime Minister or the relevant state premier. Australian republicans, notably through the Australian Republican Movement have sought to abolish the Crown, governor-generalship and the monarchy, replacing all three by a selected locally resident head of state.

The Move Towards a Republic

The Australian Labor Party first made republicanism its official policy in 1991, with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke describing a republic as inevitable. His successor Paul Keating actively pursued a republican agenda, putting forward plans to prepare a revised constitution to take effect on the centenary of federation: January 1, 2001. The preparation of the proposal by a part-elected, part appointed Constitutional Convention in February 1998 was hurried and (according to critics) bungled. Many republicans claimed that incoming Prime Minister John Howard, in his own words an "unashamed royalist", sabotaged the preparation process deliberately: a claim he indignantly denied.

Arguments For Change


The key argument made by virtually all supporters of an Australian republic was (and is) that it is inappropriate for the citizen of a country at the other end of the world to be their head of state. They argued that a foreigner whose main job is as the head of state of the United Kingdom, and spends his or her life there, cannot represent Australia, not to itself, nor to the rest of the world. As Frank Cassidy, a member of the Australian Republican Movement put it in a speech on the issue:

In short, we want a resident for President.

Furthermore, Australia had changed culturally and demographically, from being "British to our bootstraps", as prime minister Sir Robert Menzies once put it, to being increasingly multicultural. For Australians of Italian or Chinese origin, the idea of the British monarch as head of state was absurd, while even for those of British origin, it was an anachronism. Aborigines saw it as a symbol of British imperialism, as did Australians of Irish origin.

Also, it was widely argued that several characteristics of the monarchy were in conflict with modern Australian values. The hereditary nature of the monarchy was said to conflict with Australian egalitarianism and dislike of inherited privilege. The laws of succession were held to be sexist and the links between the monarchy and the church inconsistent with Australia's secular character. More to the point, Australian anti-discrimination laws expressly prohibit arrangements under which males have precedence over females, or under which becoming or marrying a Catholic invalidates any legal rights.


Australian history had also been marked by a few clashes with the existing constitutional monarchy, notably during the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 in which the Queen's representative, the Governor General, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. This particular incident raised serious questions about the value of maintaining a supposedly "symbolic" office that still possessed many key, and potentially dangerous, political powers.


In a republican Australia, it was proposed that the Governor General and Monarch would be replaced by one office, the President of the Commonwealth of Australia. The President could be appointed by the Australian Parliament to a fixed term. Though he would retain the "emergency" powers of the Governor General, he would now actually have a mandate to use them.

Supporters of a parliamentary appointment model also claimed that, contrary to monarchist views, the stability of Australia's liberal democracy would not be imperiled and would in fact be enhanced by such a change, because the Prime Minister, whilst retaining the ability to sack the (effective) head of State, could not alone choose their replacement and would thus have no incentive to do so. Additionally, wider involvement in the choice would ensure that the backgrounds of the appointees would be more thoroughly scrutinized.

A republic by stealth?

There were already moves to remove references to the monarchy from various institutions. For example, in 1993, references to the Queen were removed from the Oath of Citizenship sworn by naturalised Australians, who would now swear allegiance to the country and its people 'whose democratic beliefs I share and whose laws I shall obey'. The state of Queensland deleted all references to the monarchy from its legislation, with new laws being enacted by its Parliament, not the Queen, and 'binding on the State of Queensland', not the Crown. Barristers in New South Wales were no longer appointed 'Queen's Counsel' (QC), but 'Senior Counsel' (SC), as in republics like Ireland and South Africa. Institutions in Australia could no longer apply to have 'Royal' in their title, and the awarding of British honours to Australian citizens was finally discontinued. Many monarchists condemned these as being moves to a 'republic by stealth'.

The 1999 Referendum

For years, opinion polls had clearly suggested that the majority of the electorate favoured severing ties with the monarchy, but the November 1999 republican referendum was soundly defeated even so. There were two main reasons for this. First, Australians have traditionally been very suspicious of proposed constitutional changes of any kind: only 8 out of 43 referenda since 1909 have been approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states (as they must be to succeed).

In Sir Robert Menzies' words, "to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules."

The Divisions Among the Electorate

Second, public opinion was not (and still is not) divided in a simple yes/no manner. The major opinion groups were:

  • Traditional royalists who held their beliefs largely on sentimental attachment to the monarchy, in part based on associations with the United Kingdom and a personal identification with Elizabeth II and her family. Many were older or from rural rather than urban areas.
  • Pragmatic royalists who maintained that, whatever the perceived absurdities of the current system, it had served the country well and it would be foolish to change a practical, working system to one whose workings would be unpredictable.
  • Minimal change republicans who aimed to replace the monarch with an appointed Australian head of state, but otherwise maintain the current system as unchanged as possible.
  • Moderate change republicans who aimed to replace the monarch with an elected head of state.
  • Radical republicans, who saw the minimal change option as purely cosmetic. This was easily the smallest major group, but prominent in the debate.
  • '\The Uncommitted' - as in all electorates, a large proportion of the electorate remained unattached to either side. (Uncommitted 'swinging voters' are often the decisive force in shaping referenda results and election outcomes in democracies worldwide.)

Alternative Methods for Selecting a President

Different groups within the republican cause expressed views as to which one was preferable. Some were committed to one exclusively.

Why the Referendum was Defeated

On the face of things, with republicans of one form or another in the clear majority, it might have been expected that the republican referendum would pass comfortably. However, few mainstream republicans were wholly agreed about the proposed mechanisms for replacing the monarch with either an appointed head of state (which was widely criticised as being undemocratic), or with an elected head of state (which was widely criticised as moving Australia away from the Westminster System toward an American-style presidential system).

The former model (with an appointed head) was the one endorsed by the constitutional convention and put forward at the referendum. It was broadly supported by both minimal-change and moderate republicans, including almost all Labor and a majority of conservative politicians, and opposed by royalists of both kinds (except to the extent that most voted for it to be the model recommended by the constitutional convention, exactly because they saw it to be the least likely model to succeed), and the radical republicans (who reasoned that a simple cosmetic removal of the monarchy would make more far-reaching and substantial changes impossible).

The 'Yes' side

The "yes" campaign was divided in detail but nevertheless managed to present a fairly united and coherent message, and was notable for unlikely alliances between traditional opponents - former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave joint statements, for example.

The 'No' side

The "no" campaign was much more divided in its messages, and several times produced the extraordinary spectacle of hard-core conservatives sharing a podium with far left radicals. Some campaigned to 'keep the Crown'. Others argued 'yes to a republic, but not this version'. For all their differences, they were united in their central message; vote no.

Who Voted How

The result of the poll was clear: roughly 55% of the nation voted "no" and in only one territory, the ACT, was there a "yes" majority. This was broadly as expected: the real surprise was the distribution of the votes. As expected, traditionally conservative states and rural areas were strongholds for the monarchy; but wealthy city electorates mostly voted "yes", and blue-ribbon Labor seats in working-class suburbs voted "no".

The outcome was met with angst by the republicans. Some, notably Australian Republican Movement president Malcolm Turnbull, spoke bitterly in the aftermath, blaming Prime Minister Howard in particular for their defeat. Most monarchists were content to accept the victory and keep a low profile. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy leader Kerry Jones, for example, called for citizens to accept it and go forward "as a united nation".

It was left to radical republican leader Phil Cleary to explain the unexpectedly strong "no" vote in the inner suburbs that ultimately tipped the balance: it was not, in Cleary's view, "a vote for a foreign head of state or some crumbling hereditary family. It was a vote for participation in the political system."

The Unsolved Issue

It is widely expected that a further referendum will take place eventually, although public agitation for such a move has faded away in the years since the referendum was defeated. The media have conducted and interpreted a number of opinion polls to suggest that a majority of Australians favour some form of republic. In any case, it appears certain that the debate will not really begin in earnest again until John Howard leaves office.

See also: Republic Advisory Committee, Constitutional law, Australian Constitutional History

External links