What could have been: a monarchist’s primer on the republican debate

With the Labor loss the hovering threat of a republic has subsided. But I thought it important to share some background and personal thoughts on this issue – the debate in the 1990s, the arguments and, ultimately, where I think it is a bad idea.  My points below are based on a discussion I had on my podcast with Whig Capital’s Jordan Shopov.  What do you think? Did this issue have anything to do the election outcome? Please drop in a comment below.

This would be the second referendum Australia’s had on the issue. Sean, can you give a brief historical run down of what happened in the last referendum, back in the 90s. What were the circumstances of the vote, the arguments of each side, some of the more notable campaigners, and any reasons why the outcome turned out as it did?

In the 1990s, as Australia approached a centenary of federation, it was only natural that questions of national identity emerged.  The proposal for an Australian republic was spurred on by Labor prime minister Paul Keating who, in the early 1990s, said that a republic could signify our ‘coming of age’ as a nation, broadcast to the region our untethering from Britain, signal our commitment to social justice and Aboriginal reconciliation, as well as sharpen our image in Asia.  Indeed, there was nothing that a republic couldn’t achieve.

At the 1999 referendum the republicans lost – 54% (around 6.5 million Aussies) said no, while 45% (around 5.2 million) said yes.  But prior to the referendum a constitutional convention was held and three models for a republic were discussed: direct election; parliamentary election by a special majority; and appointment by a special council following prime ministerial nomination.

A ‘model’ basically means ‘how’ we would elect a president.  And the convention determined that a majority vote in parliament was the model to put to the Australian people. The thrust of this process is that parliament would approve the nomination for a governor-general, and not Buckingham Palace.

Who were the key figures? Malcolm Turnbull led the Australian Republican Movement (in fact, the model proposed was known as the ‘Turnbull model’).  In the early 1990s, Tony Abbott was head of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, and there is some stunning YouTube footage of the two debating each other on this issue as young men.

Some say that the republicans lost because they couldn’t agree on the model.  But my thoughts are that the case for a republic remained very unconvincing to not just monarchists but most Australians.  Monarchists and others strongly argued strongly that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, while underscoring how our system has served us well.

Given the history, why is there a new push today to become a republic? Hasn’t the issue already been resolved by the last referendum? Who is driving this movement for change and why? 

In my view the idea for a republic will never really go away. In terms of formal politics, for example, it is officially embedded in the Labor Party manifesto.

But, more broadly, questions of national identity will always be with us – from changing the flag to reconciliation. We only have to (try and) tune into Triple J’s Hottest 100 each year to see the kind of annual revolving threat that national symbols are exposed to. And the republican project offers a great vehicle for people that have an enthusiasm to change our symbols.

Today’s republican arguments are recycled from the 1990s – Asia is confused by our constitutional monarchy, they say, our system is an affront to Indigenous Australia and we shouldn’t be subjected to the whims of a single family in Britain.  I gladly contest all of these, but they are appealing to many people.  And they tend to get mashed with a palpable frustration with politics, a scepticism of our public institutions, and swelling demographic changes.

So, why should Australians even care about whether we have a constitutional monarchy or a republic? Will it have any tangible impact on people’s lives – or is it more of a cultural issue?  

Lloyd Waddy, the late Queen’s Counsel and crown advocate, said that “You don’t learn about how a marriage works by studying a certificate.”[1] It’s a useful way to look at the republic versus monarchy debate, which doesn’t just represent on-paper institutions but evokes so much more – our history, our civic life, the national myths we tell ourselves and our ‘narrative’ or national story. These elements are unlike the level of marginal tax rate you pay, but no less very important.

Additionally, I think asking ‘will this really impact us day to day?’ misses the mark.  Electing a president – in whatever form – would create much more of a functional headache than what some may realise. A president appointed by politicians, or through some form of public expression, would inevitably come to think of themselves as operating with a mandate.

The 1975 dismissal – where the governor-general Sir John Kerr dismissed prime minister Gough Whitlam – is an instructive example of what can happen when a governor-general intervenes in political affairs.  I believe what Kerr did was right, but it was an incredibly wrenching and divisive episode in our history. A president would create an eager public figure keen to be involved in political affairs, versus a simple neutral umpire above politics. I want less and not more constitutional crises. But a president only increases the possibility of more.

Can you lay out some of the main reasons why you think Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy? 

My arguments for remaining a constitutional monarchy are, I hope, straightforward.  I am proud of Australia and what we’ve achieved. We have been a stable, tolerant, open and incredibly successful nation.  And we owe a lot of this to our institutional inheritance from Britain.  In fact, here’s what the late Labor prime minister Bob Hawke said in 1988:

In pinpointing what makes us distinctly Australian, we acknowledge the enormous debt we owe to Britain. Britain has given use the basis of many of the institutions of our free society: our system of parliamentary democracy, the principles of rule by law and the protection of the rights of the individual under the law, our system of liberal education.[2]

I find it hard to disagree. Taking us down the republican path would do three things. First, it would over-politicise a position that is above politics. Second, it would culturally disregard things that have made us a success. And third, it would create a distraction from more pressing economic, social and political issues.

Many other nations have successfully transitioned to a republican form of government. The most notable example being the USA. Can you explain why such case studies may or may not be an appropriate reference point for Australia’s own institutional development. 

There are around 150 republics in the world and they are all different. The U.S. system is not a model we would adopt here – it is very different to the one proposed, and it’s important to remember that America fought a war of independence from Britain, which was a clear rejection of the British regime but not representative politics, rule of law or sound institutions.

Australia adapted British institutions but applied them with ‘cultural fit’. It explains why, among lots of other examples, we didn’t appoint a House of Lords – it was an affront to universal suffrage and Australia’s brand of one person, one vote.

France’s revolution is always held up as an eager disposal of monarchy, and a quick leap to a republic, but it didn’t go exactly to plan. “Had this Revolution been conducted consistently with its principles,” wrote Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson in 1793, “there was once a good prospect of extending liberty throughout the greatest part of Europe; but now I relinquish that hope.”[3] And Paine was one of that revolution’s biggest advocates.

As the Australian Rebecca Weisser correctly observed:

Republics are less stable than monarchies precisely because they are not bound by tradition. France, one of the more successful, has had five republics since the revolution… Germany’s Weimar Republic succumbed all too quickly to fascism. The republics of Latin America and Africa have succumbed to tyrannical Presidents.[4]

I’m not suggesting that an Australian republic would lead to default tyranny, however, history suggests events can very quickly part ways with the best intentions.

What do you think is the strongest argument you’ve heard in favour of becoming a republic? Ergo, what are some of the best reasons you’ve heard against your case, from the republican side? 

Historically, we have done very well – over many centuries – to move away from total monarchist rule to rule by consent.  Balancing the symbolism of monarchy with our democracy is a balance we now have right.  But it was a hard-pitched battle that goes right back to the first Magna Carta and throughout centuries of painstaking progress.

I like the enthusiasm some republicans have about Australia – what they are trying to achieve in the sense of a better profile of the country, and to renew and retool.  But why can’t they do it in the tradition that we have? The late Richard McGarvie was a persuasive republican but he was extremely intelligent about what change was needed and, at the same time, had a strong grasp and genuine appreciation of Australian history and legal details. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone like that in the movement today.

I also sense the simplicity of the republican case is appealing. ‘We’ll simply get parliament to approve a president,’ they say, ‘and not the Queen’. It’s not so simple, but it’s an easy case to put in front of people.

Like any electoral contest, these debates usually end up in completely unrelated areas. In this day and age, isn’t a referendum more likely to end up being about Meghan Markle’s latest tweet, rather than the substance of our political institutions. Are there any other means by which – as a nation – we might adapt our constitutional structure? 

I am actually optimistic about the public discussion that this could bring. The contest could avoid the reactive politics we are all too used to seeing today but also provoke a sense of civic discussion and a much-needed reintroduction to the public art of persuasion.

What could we do to update the constitutional furniture? I sense there could be some constitutional ‘spring cleaning’ that is worth looking at it (e.g. recognising federal Cabinet in the Constitution) or even actioning some of the discussions around the federation white paper we saw a few years ago – power sharing, taxation powers, or even the creation of new states.

Some, such as Indigenous commentator Noel Pearson, have said that “It would be grossly unfair if the Indigenous recognition referendum is not first cab off the rank for a referendum.”[5] I’m not as certain but it’s another factor to consider.

The recent UK experience with Brexit has shown that voting on a big constitutional change, is much different to actually implementing one. If Australians were to vote in favour of a republic, how would this actually be executed? Isn’t the devil really in the detail, rather than the vote itself?  

Brexit has clearly been a log-jam. But our constitutional system enables us to avoid these things. First, by not signing up to a supra-national regional body at the expense of sovereignty. And second, in simply avoiding log-jam politics. For example, there have been 21 government shutdowns in the U.S. but, when we had one here – under Whitlam in 1975 – the governor-general sacked the prime minister and a double dissolution was called.  The people eventually had the ultimate say – the ultimate detail that matters. I have read a few American observers that have some envy for the detailed simplicity of our current system.

Finally, is there a compromise position you can see, which might yield a worthy change in our political institutions? One that satisfies both monarchists and republicans?

I see a great compromise position in the ‘spring cleaning’ arguments above. But I also hope this debate will provoke some much-lacking civic awareness, and an appreciation of what we have here in Australia that has served us tremendously well.

Ultimately, we don’t have to be obsessed with the royals to appreciate what we have, or mistake royal celebrity for public enthusiasm in the Australian Constitution. But at the end of the day I think everyone can be satisfied on how fortunate we are to be Australians.


[1] Tony Abbott, How To Win The Constitutional War And Give Both Sides What They Want, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1997, 74.

[2] Bob Hawke, Speech by the Prime Minister, Citizenship Ceremony, 19 July 1998, https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-7360.

[3] Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2006, 62.

[4] Rebecca Weisser, ‘Becoming a Republic Is No Guarantee of Greatness,’ The Australian, 15 January 2018.

[5] Felicity Caldwell, ‘Noel Pearson calls for republic delay until Indigenous vote can be held,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 2017, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/noel-pearson-calls-for-republic-delay-until-indigenous-vote-can-be-held-20170810-gxtepl.html.

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